In this article PLCGurus.NET member and contributor, Tony LeRoy, shares his experience with the, “priced just right”, PLCs and HMIs from AutomationDirect. Tony has been a long time user and supporter of these low cost controllers and has decided to share his expertise when it comes to incorporating them into his projects. If you’ve heard of AutomationDirect and are curious to learn more about their possibilities, keep reading and maybe Tony will convince you to use them in your next automation project!
When most people in the automation industry think of PLCs, HMIs and machine control, they usually think of Siemens or Allen Bradley – and usually this is determined by what part of the world you live in. Other companies that come to mind might be Omron, Mitsubishi, Beckhoff, or even ABB. However, there is one underdog in the running that gets a lot of flack thrown it’s way…Automation Direct.
In this article, I will go over the pros and cons about some of their products including the CLICK series of controllers, Do-More H2 series controllers, and the C-More EA9 HMIs. I will go more into detail about a few other products, but not into the depth that I will the few that I have listed. Also, this article is based on personal experience so its quite possible I have looked over features.
The CLICK series of controllers is one of the very first PLC’s that I was introduced to, beginning in college. The CLICK has many advantages to it, but the feature that gets the most attention for the CLICK is the price of the unit. Starting at just under $70, you can get a very basic unit with two serial ports, eight inputs, and six outputs that can be sinking or sourcing depending on the model you order. There is an option for relay outputs, however, it will cost you an extra $10. The CLICK also offers more features such as Ethernet ports and Analog I/O for different price points. While speaking about prices, the software is also free.
For the physical construction, admittedly, the CLICK feels a little on the “cheap” side. The CPUs have a basic plastic housing with a vented design that doesn’t feel overly robust. If the panel is designed, and the proper rated enclosure is used, then the PLC construction will be fine. I know of projects that are a few years old and still have a CLICK that has not failed once. The I/O are connected by a removable terminal block for each one of their CPUs and expansion cards, which makes replacing them a breeze.
The CLICK is very expandable. On the side of the unit, there is a connector that can accept expansion I/O cards for up to eight additional modules to be installed. Installing modules is quite easy and can be done so by removing the cover over the expansion port and plugging in the module. Setup for additional modules is also easy and straightforward as well. In the software, go to setup and under system configuration, your hardware can be defined, and your addresses will be mapped accordingly.
In the CLICK software, the inputs are defined with X, and the outputs are defined with Y. Physical address are separated in spaces of 100, with the first slot (on the CPU module itself) will be X0-X7 for inputs and Y0-Y6 for outputs, while on the next module your inputs would be X100-X107.
One downside to the software is that it is very limited. For programming, the basic instructions are right there for you to use such as XIC and XIO, and some advanced ones such as FOR loops and a very good MATH block that is similar to the compute block in Allen Bradley software. There is also a DRUM function that takes the place of a sequencer and is a really cool instruction. The CLICK also supports subroutines as well, so organizing code is very easy to do.
When using serial communication, the SEND and RECEIVE instructions are very easy to set up and work very well. I have had a little bit of trouble when using the two instructions at the same time. Setting up a heartbeat with a timer and a counter in the logic below has worked very well for me and has solved the issue:
One thing that I love about the timers of the CLICK and the Do-More is the possibility of selecting a time scale. While Allen Bradley timers are set to milliseconds (ControlLogix platform), the AutomationDirect timers have the option of being in milliseconds, seconds, minutes, hours, or even days.
CLICK Controller Conclusions
The CLICK is a fantastic platform if you want to get into PLC programming. With the cost-effectiveness and the simplistic design along with modularity, it is great for beginners or for use in simple control projects that don’t require anything too advanced.
- The software is free, and CPU is affordable.
- The software is very user-friendly and has little to no learning curve.
- Modular design with terminal block plugs for easy disassembly.
- Stackable design with no backplane.
- Construction feels a little on the “cheap” side.
- The software is very basic and limiting.
The Do-More Controller
The Do-More platform of controllers is offered in many forms with AutomationDirect. The options are the BRX Series, the H2 Series, and the T1H. For this article, I’ll focus on the H2 series controller since I do not have experience with the other models.
The H2 series CPU fits in a backplane with other I/O modules. The H2 is an upgraded CPU that can take the place of a DirectLOGIC CPU. In comparison, the Do-More is exponentially more powerful than the DirectLOGIC series CPUs. While I won’t get into the functions of the DirectLOGIC system, I will say that after my career developed and I spent time with RSLogix5000 and TIA Portal, I felt right at home when working with the Do-More platform.
For the hardware of the H2, there isn’t much to it, which isn’t a downside. It’s merely another card for the backplane. The battery backup is on the back of the module making it impossible to replace without pulling out the CPU whereas the DirectLOGIC CPUs had the backup battery on the front of the module. The Do-More CPU comes in two different styles — one with an Ethernet port, and one without. The prices of the CPUs are just over $300 for the modules without Ethernet, and a little over $400 with Ethernet, but the software is free. Both processors support 64k tags and come with an RJ-12 port for serial communication and a USB B port primarily for programming.
The software for the Do-More is very well done. The interface is clean and very intuitive. Navigation is effortless and so is setting up the PLC. The “Project Browser” is very similar to navigation panels in TIA Portal and RSLogix. Going into the system configuration, you are given a few tabs worth of settings. When setting up a project, I recommend starting at the top (CPU Configuration) and going down. The settings are pretty streamlined where you don’t have to jump through hoops to set up your system properly.
When setting up the I/O, the naming conventions for the addresses are somewhat similar to the CLICK, but there are differences. You still have X and Y for physical, discrete I/O and C for internal bits, but word data types go into a V register. For a list of all the data types, go to the memory configuration. Oh, and did I mention the physical I/O can be configured manually? The starting default address is zero and goes up by one for each additional point. When adding another card, the physical address values will continue where the last module left off. If desired, the user can input a custom range for physical addresses.
One of my favorite features about the data types is that the Do-More supports User Data Types or UDTs. Just don’t get that acronym confused with the actual UDT data type which stands for user date/time. Unfortunately, the data types can’t be nested like in RSLogix5000, but they are still useful for organization and modularity of code. If a UDT is created, when instancing, a new heap item must be created. The programmer can also set up a block of memory with custom arrays of a single type.
When it comes to execution of the code, the Do-More offers much flexibility as well. The controller is broken up into three main types of sections. Tasks, subroutines, and programs. A task is a section of the program that typically runs only once at specified intervals or when triggered. Programs are where your control code will go. While the term “Programs” makes sense, they function more like subroutines from Allen Bradley software. The actual subroutines of the Do-More function like AOIs or add on instructions where different inputs can be fed into the subroutine block, and also outputs can branch out of the block as well. When comparing to Siemens, these are your function blocks.
The controller also allows the execution order of the “Programs.” Modifying the execution order of your programs can prove valuable when wanting your alarms to trigger first before the rest of your code does. Tasks can also be altered around the scan cycle of the PLC. Options allow for time slicing which only executes part of your task before exiting and coming back to it the next scan cycle, which can be handy if you’re doing a task that takes some time and has heavy math. If the CPU stays too long in a task, the processor will fault. The time slicing option can prevent that from happening.
There’s a lot more that the Do-More software has to offer that would take a novel to discuss. There are PID loops, unique logic instructions like the delta bit, and even a simulator that you can run a program on with a clean interface for interacting with your program. But I encourage you to download the software for yourself and try it out because once again, it is FREE!
Do-More Controller Conclusions
The Do-More platform is very clean and comfortable to use. If coming from another platform, there is not too much that will need to be learned other than the way the memory functions on the processor. If you are coming from Allen Bradley, you will be pleased to see that it’s very similar and in the help files, Allen Bradley is mentioned as a comparison when speaking of certain features.
- Easy to use coming from another platform.
- Many configuration options.
- Virtual simulator to test code on.
- Amazing help files.
- A few unique instructions that are useful.
- Free software.
*BONUS: The Email instruction is AMAZING!
- For a mid-to-high range CPU, there is no other language like FBD or ST.
- The backup battery can’t be replaced easily.
- UDTs can’t have members of other UDTs.
The C-More HMIs from Automation Direct have quite a name for themselves, being well-liked among the controls community. Speaking with many people in the automation field, I have heard mostly positive feedback with negative comments toward the C-More being few and far in between. My personal experience has been very positive for the platform as well.
The C-More EA9 touch panels come in a few sizes with the range being 6 inches to 15 inches. Each panel comes with USB ports, serial ports, and a memory card slot. Additional features include an audio line and also Ethernet ports. Most models come with an Ethernet port, but I see that one of the 6-inch models does not.
The price point starts at around $470 for the 7-inch panel and goes up to over $2,000 for the 15-inch. And that is correct; I said that the lowest priced model is a 7-inch screen rather than their smallest sized screen, the 6-inch.
The software for the EA9 software comes in right under $100. Overall, the panels have a very robust feel to them, even with a plastic bezel. I have personally used these screens for quite some time, and the company I work for has many of these panels deployed which have lasted for years.
The C-More software keeps the rule of keeping it simple while also allowing a tremendous amount of flexibility for more advanced things such as remote access, recipes, and an extensive symbol library. When starting from scratch, after selecting your screen, select your communication protocol. As you can see, there is a massive amount of communication drivers for the C-More, allowing it to be used with a variety of controllers from different manufacturers.
On top of the ease of use for connecting HMI to PLC, if the C-More is connected to the Do-More, then the tag database can be exported with the C-More format and the tags will be created for use and stored in the HMI. CSV files of tags can also be imported into the C-More from other brands of controllers as well. The tag import feature compared with the autocomplete when referencing tags makes for a very smooth development environment, and it saves a lot of time as well.
The objects for use in the C-More are mostly the same for standard HMI development environments. Pushbuttons, indicator lights, shapes, etc. What sets the C-More apart from other HMI software is the organization, user experience, and system features. For starters, the C-More has a dedicated screen for networking the HMI for remote access over the internet. Once a connection has been set up and the HMI can be accessed from the internet via port forwarding or behind a VPN, connecting to the HMI is simple.
AutomationDirect has created a mobile app that they have created to connect directly to the panel. The app functions like an alternative to VNC. While connected, dependent on what username/password was used, will determine the access rights to the HMI. Different credentials can be set up to allow a user full access and control, or view only.
The C-More also allows for SMTP to be used to email alarms in the event manager. I personally use this feature, along with remote connections, quite a bit when developing new projects that get deployed for unsupervised operations.
C-More HMI Conclusions
The C-More is a very well-known HMI and one of the favorites among quite a few people. The cost is affordable, the programming environment is straightforward and simple while keeping the main features of most programming environments, and the screens have a long lifespan.
- Simple to develop a great looking interface.
- One of the most reliable screens that I’ve ever used.
- Dedicated remote access app.
- While you can simulate your project, you cannot connect it to a PLC simulator.
- All data must be written manually to the interface when testing.
AutomationDirect control products are great to use for many projects. Before selecting the products, please do some research and understand the limitations of the controllers and the nuances of their development environments. I have had a blast writing projects in the CLICK for small, localized equipment, and I have also had fun writing projects in the Do-More for more advanced and larger projects. While I could have accomplished the same (or even more) with Siemens or Allen Bradley, AutomationDirect provides products that are easy to use, and just as capable than its more expensive counterparts, for the applications I used them for.
This article was just to give a general overview to PLCGurus.NET members and readers of some of the features of the products listed. There are a plethora of other features that these products have that are useful, and I encourage you guys to take a look at what else they have to offer!
An automation specialist with 7 years in the field. Masterful Automation Direct programmer. Skilled Allen Bradley tamer. And just a dash of Siemens. Researching more complex process control methods such as neural networks in PLCs, and combining SCADA systems with big data!