PLC Programming Trumps Custom Code in Assembly Line Applications

Thu, 09/01/2016 - 16:14

In this fast paced technological age, it seems only natural that some programmers feel compelled to write custom code rather than using the pre-packaged software made available by the manufacturer of a piece of automated industrial equipment. Of course, this stance is considered to be highly contentious within the industry – something that can be said whenever two very different schools of thought exist. The debate, which pits conventional, no-nonsense PLC programming against custom coding has been raging for years; and while there may be no real end in sight, logic dictates that using PLC programming to control a manufacturer’s many moving components is the way to go.

Before delving headlong into the reasons why PLC programming is superior for this particular application, it’s important to understand the other side of the argument - so what is it about custom coding that makes some programmers prefer this method?

Some argue that programmers using high-level computer programming for an autonomous industrial machine do so to leave their mark – to showcase their skills and abilities. Others think that it's a means of ensuring some level of job security - after all, who better to troubleshoot problems with a malfunctioning unit than the one who developed the code for it? In either case, using custom code tends to make things more complex than they need to be, and only very rarely end up providing value to manufacturer.

When it comes to automated industrial equipment and the software that drives it, simplicity is the best policy. Having said that, there’s no disputing the raw power and near limitless potential that PCs possess - it’s just that PLC programming is much more reliable in this particular application.

Why PLC Programming is Best in Manufacturing Applications

Casting aside one’s personal preferences, there are many compelling reasons why PLC programming trumps custom code. The first reason has to do with keeping things simple, the importance of which has already been emphasized in the preceding article. PLC and industrial PC vendors not only produce the hardware, they also produce the software that is specifically designed for use with that hardware. Naturally, when it comes to keeping it simple, it stands to reason that the machinery uses the proprietary software. Those choosing to deviate from the out of the box software are perhaps unnecessarily increasing the level of difficulty associated with the industrial machine’s installation and integration. Additionally, taking the custom code approach could also cause delays in getting the machine operating if the programmer overestimates his or her abilities.

Make no mistake; there are times when custom coding is a must – particularly where the original equipment manufacturers (OEM) are concerned. That being said, custom coding does little to help the typical end user or even the integrator of the system, both of whom demand easy troubleshooting when issues occur. Even if the custom code works well in conjunction with the equipment, the odds that the manufacturer (end user) will have someone onsite capable of troubleshooting the issue is slim, meaning they’ll ultimately need to hire outside help to find a resolution - something which can increase the cost and the length of time the machine sits idle.

Writing custom code, especially when it can be avoided, increases the number of edge cases the programmer needs to account for, drastically increasing the amount of work involved. Not surprising, there seems to be an emerging trend in the programming that goes into industrial machines, a trend that seems to mirror a one that’s pervasive across the tech industry as a whole: to reduce complexity and improve user-friendliness. Simply put, manufacturers are buying units that require less code to be effective, not more.

At George Brown College, the Program Logic Controller Technician program as well as the other online technology courses that are offered allow students to get hands-on experience working through hundreds of simulations using hardware and software that mimics what can be currently found in the industry. Upon completion of the course, graduates will have fundamental skills to continue on the challenging path of manufacturing process management.

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