My Little Factory – April 2017

This post is the first in a series I am writing about a project I am working on, hence the “April 2017” designation.

As most of my regular readers know, I have spent much of the past several years teaching PLC and HMI classes across North America for Automation Training. I recently moved my office from a small shared space facility in Nashville to a larger place only 5 minutes from home, and in January held my first class there for AT.

The class went really well. There was plenty of room for the eight students and it was kind of a “Grand Opening” for my new place.

Since then I have still been traveling and teaching, but I have also started building a hands-on section for advanced training classes. The idea is that rather than teaching instruction sets and specific platforms, I am creating a set of courses that allow students to interface with real equipment.

“My Little Factory” – April 23, 2017

This is what I’ve got so far. My wife builds control panels, so I am very fortunate to be able to do most of this in-house. I’m afraid my panel-building days are behind me, but I’m still pretty good at making parts and doing the field wiring.

The drawing at the top of this post shows what the system will eventually look like. There are two sides, a machine control side and a process control side. The machine control side starts with an indexing conveyor from QC Conveyors. Boxes will be place at the left end of the conveyor, indexed to the right where three escapements will drop different colored balls into the boxes. As the boxes arrive at the right end of the conveyor, a pick and place will move the box to a dial table. The dial will index the part under a machine vision station, which will inspect the boxes for the proper number and color of balls. Another pick and place will remove the box to the rear conveyor (also by QC) which will then move the box to different ends based on pass fail status.

This allows students to learn recipes, part tracking, pick and place sequences, and a host of other techniques needed in the machine control world. There will be dual channel safety circuits (good for troubleshooting), operator interfaces, and whatever else I come up with as I’m building it.

The process control side will have two ingredient tanks with load cells for volume/level, A mix tank (also with load cells), electric valves and pumps, and a flow meter. There are lots of opportunities here to train on calibration, PID control, configuration of flow switches and other techniques used in the process world. I am still considering doing some temperature loops also.

Notice that there is an Allen-Bradley CompactLogix and a Siemens S7-315.Originally I though I’d use the AB on the machine control side and the S7 on the process side. Mieko had already wired the CompactLogix when I thought what if a student wants to control the Machine side with the S7? This is when I came up with the idea of using cables to connect the PLCs to the different setups.

Its a good thing I did, because now I’ve added a Beckhoff 9020 to the mix. This will also be wired with cables and located behind the outfeed belt conveyor. I have a lot to learn about the Beckhoff, but I hope to create classes for it soon also. This allows me to get into the computer control and CodeSys world, which I believe will be popular in the future. Other platforms may appear later too.

Yup, that is a wood backplane. Obviously some of this stuff is expensive and I need to save money where I can. I will be painting it and mounting the conveyor drives next week and hopefully it will still look professional.

There are a lot of other things to show you in my shop; there is a fabrication area for making widgets, an “invention” area with Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Tibbo and lots of board level electronics stuff, a pneumatics area, a machine vision lab and of course the training area I showed in the beginning of this post. Altogether I have about 3500 square feet and I hope to make good use of it.

Other classes I hope to add that will complement the PLC, HMI and SCADA stuff I am already doing include AutoCAD, Machine Design, Electronics, Pneumatics/Fluid Power and Machine Vision. My business website hasn’t really caught up with all of this yet, but I am already accepting students for classes. The courses are very customizable and I expect most of my students to come from around Nashville at first.

Because this project will be taking quite a while, I will be updating progress in a series of posts titled “My Little Factory” with the month listed. There will be some useful stuff in these posts; one of the things a I am working on right now is interfacing the load cells through a summing board and into a signal conditioner. I am also designing the pick and places and will be building the escapements over the next couple of weeks.

If you are interest in knowing more or have any suggestions, leave a comment or shoot me an e-mail!


Electrical Engineer and business owner from the Nashville, Tennessee area. I also play music, Chess and Go.

5 Comments on “My Little Factory – April 2017

  1. Good Evening Frank,

    This is awesome. I haven’t hear anyone else talk about using Arduino or Raspberry Pi in this field yet, seemed crazy. I’d love to see a video once it gets up and running!

    Here is a challenge/request simply paraphrased that a potential client brought up:
    Can you make a high level alarm in one of your mini tanks text your cell phone describing the alarm?

    Would you do it with logging to an intermediary database of sorts and going from there, or directly from the PLC with some sort of hardware??

    P.S. the business site looks great.

    Best Regards,
    Ryan McCarthy

    • Hi Ryan,

      There are a lot of SCADA and HMI packages that have the capability of sending texts based on alarms. Since they already have an alarm database set up, its as easy as just checking a box on the alarm list and linking it to another database that contains the list of people you want to notify and their phone numbers. The problem there is, if you don’t already have a SCADA package installed, it becomes a whole new project, and SCADA software isn’t cheap.

      I think it would be pretty easy to write your own utility that does it also, but there you have to deal with drivers for the PLC or control system. You would also need to create a couple of small SQL databases. Microsoft Visual Studio has all of the stuff you would need to do that, but then again you would be reinventing the wheel. Unless you planned on creating a new product and were adept at coding, it would probably be easier to buy a utility. I think Automation Direct had something called Lookout Direct that wasn’t too expensive. It would be pretty brand specific as far as drivers though. Thanks for the comment!

      • Hey Frank,

        Not sure if you’re getting my messages through the contact page. I did write a Unitronics post for you if you’re still interested. Since then I’ve also gone to two of their trainings, I think I would be able to cover the company and their platforms pretty decently.


  2. Hello Frank,

    I have checked some of the content of your blog and it is quite interesting. As reading this: “There will be some useful stuff in these posts; one of the things a I am working on right now is interfacing the load cells through a summing board and into a signal conditioner.”
    I couldn’t help it but think of how much fun I had as using the SIWAREX module.

    Best regards,


  3. Hey Frank

    I want to made my own little PLC company.
    I have a lot of open questions and i think you can help me a lot with them. It is possibel that we will write personaly over email?
    Sorry for my bad english im from Switzerland but i hope you can understand me.

    Greez Hannes