The field of automatic control has been undergoing a transformation over the past thirty years. The number of control engineering positions in manufacturing has been dramatically increasing to the point that the majority of new control engineering positions is now in manufacturing and involves programmable logic controllers (PLCs). The typical college or university has been slow to recognize this trend. This paper describes three courses that were developed to satisfy this demand. All three courses present the subject of programming PLCs with an emphasis on the engineering and the design of the programs. These courses contain an integral laboratory component that solidifies the concepts presented in the lectures. Best practices for PLC design and the application of standards are also key content elements. The philosophy and pedagogical features of the three courses are first described, followed by the structure of the lecture and the laboratory exercises.
The first course, Basic PLC, covers the basics of PLC ladder logic programming and its application to manufacturing control, including PID control. The major component of the second course, Advanced PLC, is a class-wide project configured to run like a multi-team industrial project. This course also covers other PLC languages (function block diagram, structured text, and sequential function chart), factory communications, and control system security. The third course, PLC Motion Control, concentrates on the control of servo motors and drives in applications such as coordinated multi-axis motion (robot arm or Deltabot), flying shear, and web tension control. This course also covers automation safety and safety PLCs.
All three courses have the following pedagogical features:
• An emphasis on good design practices, not just the programming language.
• Good design practice using standards (for example, safety standards and the National Electrical Code).
• Lecture is heavily application-oriented, working through example problems instead of presenting theory.
• Laboratory exercises are an integral part of the course and the lecture topics are closely coordinated with the laboratory schedule.
• Laboratory exercises are small versions of real processes and involve real commercial PLC equipment, not simulations.
By incorporating standards into the courses, the students become accustomed to the reality that in the work environment, their designs must follow the appropriate standards. In the author‘s opinion, every university that teaches control system courses should have at least one course devoted to PLC programming, the basic one described in this paper.
Assessment results from these courses include industry feedback, comments from former students (after graduation), student course evaluations, and the percentage of students in the first course that take the advanced courses. All three courses are moderately popular. The Basic PLC course is taught in both the Fall and Spring semesters with a current enrollment of 40-50 each semester. The Advanced PLC and PLC Motion Control courses are normally taught once per academic year, in alternate semesters, and each has a typical enrollment of around 30.
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