The programmable logic controller's (PLC's) ability to support a range of communication methods makes it an ideal control and data acquisition device for a wide variety of industrial automation and facility control applications. However, there is some confusion because so many possibilities exist. To help eliminate this confusion, let's list what communications are available and when they would be best applied.

PLC networking glossary

To understand the PLC's communications versatility, let's first define the terms used in describing the various systems.

ASCII. This stands for "American Standard Code for Information Interchange." As shown in Fig. 1, when the letter "A" is transmitted, for instance, it's automatically coded as "65" by the sending equipment. The receiving equipment translates the "65" back to the letter "A." Thus, different devices can communicate with each other as long as both use ASCII code.

ASCII module. This intelligent PLC module is used for connecting PLCs to other devices also capable of communicating using ASCII code as a vehicle.

Bus topology. This is a linear local area network (LAN) arrangement, as shown in Fig. 2A, in which individual nodes are tapped into a main communications cable at a single point and broadcast messages. These messages travel in both directions on the bus from the point of connection until they are dissipated by terminators at each end of the bus.

CPU. This stands for "central processing unit," which actually is that part of a computer, PLC, or other intelligent device where arithmetic and logical operations are performed and instructions are decoded and executed.

Daisy chain. This is a description of the connection of individual devices in a PLC network, where, as shown in Fig. 3, each device is connected to the next and communications signals pass from one unit to the next in a sequential fashion.

Distributed control. This is an automation concept in which portions of an automated system are controlled by separate controllers, which are located in close proximity to their area of direct control (control is decentralized and spread out over the system).

Host computer. This is a computer that's used to transfer data to, or receive data from, a PLC in a PLC/computer network.

Intelligent device. This term describes any device equipped with its own CPU.

I/O. This stands for "inputs and outputs," which are modules that handle data to the PLC (inputs) or signals from the PLC (outputs) to an external device.

Kbps. This stands for "thousand bits per second," which is a rate of measure for electronic data transfer.

Mbps. This stands for "million bits per second."

Node. This term is applied to any one of the positions or stations in a network. Each node incorporates a device that can communicate with all other devices on the network.

Protocol. The definition of how data is arranged and coded for transmission on a network.

Ring topology. This is a LAN arrangement, as shown in Fig. 2C, in which each node is connected to two other nodes, resulting in a continuous, closed, circular path or loop for messages to circulate, usually in one direction. Some ring topologies have a special "loop back" feature that allows them to continue functioning even if the main cable is severed.

RS232. This is an IEEE standard for serial communications that describes specific wiring connections, voltage levels, and other operating parameters for electronic data communications. There also are several other RS standards defined.

Serial. This is an electronic data transfer scheme in which information is transmitted one bit at a time.

Serial port. This the communications access point on a device that is set up for serial communications.

Star topology. This is a LAN arrangement in which, as shown in Fig. 2B, nodes are connected to one another through a central hub, which can be active or passive. An active hub performs network duties such as message routing and maintenance. A passive central hub simply passes the message along to all the nodes connected to it.

Topology. This relates to a specific arrangement of nodes in a LAN in relation to one another.

Transparent. This term describes automatic events or processes built into a system that require no special programming or prompting from an operator.

Now that we're familiar with these terms, let's see how they are used in describing the available PLC network options.

PLC network options

PLC networks provide you with a variety of networking options to meet specific control and communications requirements. Typical options include remote I/O, peer-to-peer, and host computer communications, as well as LANs. These networks can provide reliable and cost-effective communications between as few as two or as many as several hundred PLCs, computers, and other intelligent devices.

Many PLC vendors offer proprietary networking systems that are unique and will not communicate with another make of PLC. This is because of the different communications protocols, command sequences, error-checking schemes, and communications media used by each manufacturer.

However, it is possible to make different PLCs "talk" to one another; what's required is an ASCII interface for the connection(s), along with considerable work with software.

Remote I/0 systems

A remote I/O configuration, as shown in Fig. 4A, has the actual inputs and outputs at some distance from the controller and CPU. This type of system, which can be described as a "master-and-slave" configuration, allows many distant digital and analog points to be controlled by a single PLC. Typically, remote I/Os are connected to the CPU via twisted pair or fiberoptic cables.

Remote I/O configurations can be extremely cost-effective control solutions where only a few I/O points are needed in widely separated areas. In this situation, it's not always necessary, or practical for that matter, to have a controller at each site. Nor is it practical to individually hard wire each I/O point over long distances back to the CPU. For example, remote I/O systems can be used in acquiring data from remote plant or facility locations. Information such as cycle times, counts, duration or events, etc. then can be sent back to the PLC for maintenance and management reporting.

In a remote I/O configuration, the master controller polls the slaved I/O for its current I/O status. The remote I/O system responds, and the master PLC then signals the remote I/O to change the state of outputs as dictated by the control program in the PLC's memory. This entire cycle occurs hundreds of times per second.

Peer-to-peer networks

Peer-to-peer networks, as shown in Fig. 4B, enhance reliability by decentralizing the control functions without sacrificing coordinated control. In this type of network, numerous PLCs are connected to one another in a daisy-chain fashion, and a common memory table is duplicated in the memory of each. In this way, when any PLC writes data to this memory area, the information is automatically transferred to all other PLCs in the network. They then can use this information in their own operating programs.

With peer-to-peer networks, each PLC in the network is responsible for its own control site and only needs to be programmed for its own area of responsibility. This aspect of the network significantly reduces programming and debugging complexity; because all communications occur transparently to the user, communications programming is reduced to simple read-and-write statements.

In a peer-to-peer system, there's no master PLC. However, it's possible to designate one of the PLCs as a master for use as a type of group controller. This PLC then can be used to accept input information from an operator input terminal, for example, sending all the necessary parameters to other PLCs and coordinating the sequencing of various events.

Host computer links

PLCs also can be connected with computers or other intelligent devices. In fact, most PLCs, from the small to the very large, can be directly connected to a computer or part of a multi drop host computer network via RS232C or RS422 ports. This combination of computer and controller maximizes the capabilities of the PLC, for control and data acquisition, as well as the computer, for data processing, documentation, and operator interface.

In a PLC/computer network, as shown in Fig. 4C, all communications are initiated by the host computer, which is connected to all the PLCs in a daisy-chain fashion. This computer individually addresses each of its networked PLCs and asks for specific information. The addressed PLC then sends this information to the computer for storage and further analysis. This cycle occurs hundreds of times per second.

Host computers also can aid in programming PLCs; powerful programming and documentation software is available for program development. Programs then can be written on the computer in relay ladder logic and downloaded into the PLC. In this way, you can create, modify, debug, and monitor PLC programs via a computer terminal.

In addition to host computers, PLCs often must interface with other devices, such as operator interface terminals for large security and building management systems. Although many intelligent devices can communicate directly with PLCs via conventional RS232C ports and serial ASCII code, some don't have the software ability to interface with individual PLC models. Instead, they typically send and receive data in fixed formats. It's the PLC programmer's responsibility to provide the necessary software interface.

The easiest way to provide such an interface to fixed-format intelligent devices is to use an ASCII/BASIC module on the PLC. This module is essentially a small computer that plugs into the bus of the PLC. Equipped with RS232 ports and programmed in BASIC, the module easily can handle ASCII communications with peripheral devices, data acquisition functions, programming sequences, "number crunching," report and display generation, and other requirements.

Access, protocol, and modulation functions of LANs

By using standard interfaces and protocols, LANs allow a mix of devices (PLCs, PCs, mainframe computers, operator interface terminals, etc.) from many different vendors to communicate with others on the network.

Access. A LAN's access method prevents the occurrence of more than one message on the network at a time. There are two common access methods.

Collision detection is where the nodes "listen" to the network and transmit only if there are no other messages on the network. If two nodes transmit simultaneously, the collision is detected and both nodes retransmit until their messages get through properly.

Token passing allows each node to transmit only if it's in possession of a special electronic message called a token. The token is passed from node to node, allowing each an opportunity to transmit without interference. Tokens usually have a time limit to prevent a single node from tying up the token for a long period of time.

Protocol. Network protocols define the way messages are arranged and coded for transmission on the LAN. The following are two common types.

Proprietary protocols are unique message arrangements and coding developed by a specific vendor for use with that vendor's product only.

Open protocols are based on industry standards such as TCP/IP or ISO/OSI models and are openly published.

Modulation. Network modulation refers to the way messages are encoded for transmission over a cable. The two most common types are broadband and baseband.

Network transmission interfaces

The vast majority of PLC communications is done via RS232C and twisted pair cables. Most PLCs have an RS232 port and are capable of handling communications with host computers, printers, terminals, and other devices. Maximum transmission speed is 19.2 Kbps.

The distance and data transmission rates are standards for the various interfaces. Their actual performance is a function of the driving devices and varies significantly between manufacturers. As such, you should consult the manufacturer's specifications for actual distance and data transmission rate capabilities.

The only real limitation on RS232C is the 50-ft recommended distance between devices. While RS232C installations often can achieve cabling distances greater than this, the "unbalanced" design of the interface results in a greater susceptibility to surrounding electrical noise and reduced data integrity. This is particularly true where electromagnetic interference (EMI) and radio-frequency interference (RFI) are known to exist.

When longer transmission distances are needed, RS422 is a better choice. Unlike the RS232C interface, RS422 is "balanced." Each of its primary signals consist of two wires that are always at opposite logic levels, with respect to signal ground. As a result, the interface can achieve longer transmission distance (4000 ft) and higher data transmission rates (up to 90 Kbps). In shorter runs (less than 50 ft), data transfer can reach 10 Mbps.

Fiberoptic communications are gaining greater acceptance and are being used in more and more installations. Fiberoptic cable is virtually impervious to harsh environmental conditions and electrical noise. Also, these links can span extremely long distances and transmit data at very high speeds. For example, in some LAN systems, these links can transmit at relatively high speeds and span long distances before requiring a repeater. When repeaters are used, virtually unlimited distances can be achieved.