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 Automation, Control & Plant Intelligence - Articles, Analysis, Reviews, Interviews & Views
  Febuary, 2008
PLC Training and Education
by Miguel Pereira
 

Recent studies claim that the global demand for automation propels the PLC market and, as we know, tied with any technology comes its training and education. Currently the industry is concerned with minimizing the learning times and cutting down the costs associated with the training and education, however in this competitive environment that the industry is living, now, more then ever, there is the need to come up with fresh and inventive solutions.

The training and education in PLC programming is usually done with the use of synoptic kits, didactic kits or real-time software solutions. Synoptic kits are basically a set of switches and light bubbles connected to the PLC inputs and outputs respectively. With these, it's possible to simulate a hypothetical system, where the switches mimic the sensors and the light bubbles the actuators. This is a simple, effective and low cost solution but, on the downside, the logic problems are limited to a few I/O points due to the arduousness for the trainees in imagining the hypothetical systems. Didactic kits are scaled down industrial systems that offers the trainees a practical approach with real machines, sensors and actuators. Storage and retrieval, transportation, pick and place and palletizing systems are just a few examples of the typical applications provided by these didactic kits. The presented logic problems are much interesting, however such kits are often very expensive, require a considerable available space in the training and education facilities (a common problem) and they demand constant attention when it comes to maintenance and preservation.

Based on the inconveniences of these two training solutions, the idea to use real-time visual simulation software for training in PLC programming emerged.

Real-time Visual Simulation Software
The concept is to have a software based visual simulation of industrial systems, that are controlled in real-time by a PLC connected to a computer, (there are several solutions that uses a software emulated PLC – soft PLC). The majority of these software displays simple 2D representations of industrial systems. Training with this kind of software turns out to be appealing for trainers as they have a reasonable priced and maintenance-free tool, and for trainees as they can learn in a motivating and worry-free environment where no harm is done to humans or damage to the machines. The 2D visualizations are interesting to represent schematically industrial systems, although they are insufficient to simulate them realistically.
The 3D software solutions adds the third visual dimension to the systems, and that allows the users to openly navigate throughout the industrial scenarios and better comprehend its functioning.

When we think 3D, we think video games with realistic and lifelike environments. My generation grew up playing and using this form of entertainment, so it's only natural to use it as a way to make things more appealing in realms other than the entertainment business, some people call it edutainment. What if we join together the world of automation training and the technology behind video games?

Play Automation
Up until now the 3D software solutions for training and education in PLC programming usually have a steep learning curve, are complex to setup, and the technologies used in the development of the virtual environments are somehow outdated and that makes them look unconvincing. If you look at a recent video game you'll notice certain aspects: the stunning and realistic graphics, the immersive sound effects and the correct physical behavior of the bodies in scene. Real Games embraced the idea of creating a virtual training platform for PLC programming that presents diverse virtual industrial environments which features all of the cutting edge graphics, sounds and physics of the latest video games, while keeping the things simple and intuitive for the users.

Interactive Training System for PLC
The idea is simple, a software that offers five real world based industrial systems that runs on a regular PC. The interface with the PLC is done with a digital USB DAQ board that allows the software to exchange data with any PLC, without any type of configuration. We call it ITS PLC 1.0 Professional Edition – Interactive Training System for PLC.

The realism is achieved using real-time 3D graphics, sound and physics and instrumentation models, hence we can divide the foundation of our technology in three blocks. The graphics engine that takes care of the graphical and sound presentation; the physics engine that computes the required calculations in order for the bodies to move and interact with each other; and the instrumentation engine that simulates models of sensors and actuators, managing their functioning and transmitting the digital signals from the virtual systems into the PLC and vice versa.



ITS PLC was developed keeping a couple of key aspects in mind: offering the most realistic industrial training systems with behaviors similar to the real world applications and present common PLC programming challenges with increasing levels of difficulty in a rewarding experience for both trainers and trainees. The five systems that are available with ITS PLC are: Sorting, Batching, Palletizer, Pick & Place and Automatic Warehouse.

The realism is achieved using real-time 3D graphics, sound and physics and instrumentation models, hence we can divide the foundation of our technology in three blocks. The graphics engine that takes care of the graphical and sound presentation; the physics engine that computes the required calculations in order for the bodies to move and interact with each other; and the instrumentation engine that simulates models of sensors and actuators, managing their functioning and transmitting the digital signals from the virtual systems into the PLC and vice versa.



In a 3D virtual world the user can easily navigate through the systems, observing the action from different points of view and better understanding the systems' control requirements. The 3D sound accurately reproduces the industrial sonic panorama that each system embodies.

Real-time Physics
One of the most exciting features of Real Games' ITS PLC is the real-time physics. As opposed to older software solutions in which the movements of the bodies (boxes, pallets, elevators, conveyors, pneumatic actuators, etc.) were all previously animated and thus the freedom and interactivity nonexistent, with ITS PLC all the actions and movements are calculated in real-time giving the user the ability to really see what happens with the system, according to his PLC program. This introduces a great amount of realism, credibility and total interactivity. For instance in the Pick and Place system if you fail to correctly position the box where the parts are placed in, you'll see what went wrong. This kind of worry-free real-time validation of the PLC algorithm, where the user actually visually validates the course of events that he programmed, is proving to be extremely valuable.

Training Freedom
The virtual systems in ITS PLC are not presented in a way that forces the users to reach a certain solution. The trainer can come up with his own problems and exercises within the five virtual systems. In other words ITS PLC offers virtual systems for the user to control, and not immutable problems, so it's up to the user to decide how the systems should be controlled.

When the trainees think they have mastered all the five systems, the trainer can push the envelope and ask for solutions that encompass all the possible fault situations (failures in sensors or actuators, missing boxes or pallets, etc.) For example: the user can “steal” a box from a conveyor table to see what happens, for that he can just click over an object, drag and drop it anywhere else, showing that the trainee should implement timeouts in the PLC program so it can detect that a box is missing. The possibilities are endless.

Further Into the Future
As the computer graphics and physics technology continues to evolve, more believable systems will be possible to create in the future, so Real Games, following its will to innovate, is already starting to think in future improvements for ITS PLC.

One of the main problems when developing ITS PLC was to create interesting logic problems while being limited to a number of I/O points. The implementation of an OPC Data Access client could be an interesting solution for that problem, as it would permit an unlimited number of I/O points. Another idea is the integration of a soft PLC, that would allow the users to program the PLC within the software. Real Games hopes that the achieved innovation with ITS PLC acts as a boost for a future with an increasingly higher quality training and education in the area of industrial automation.





Miguel Pereira is co-founder of the Real Games Lda. His focus centered in the world of automation training and education..... See More Details.

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