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How To Become A PLC Programmer

We’re often asked by students or newcomers how to become a PLC Programmer. In this article we will go over some of the key steps we took along the way to break into this exciting field. Of course there is no one-size-fits-all solution here, and we’re sure there is an infinite number of paths one can take.¬†That said, we can only reflect on our own experiences.

If you’ve been wanting to break into this exciting field and have often wondered how to break into the field of PLC programming, then we encourage you to keep reading…

Where to Begin Your Journey as a PLC Programmer?

Beginning your journey as a PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) programmer involves several steps. Here’s a roadmap to help you get started:

1. Educational Foundation

Consider obtaining a relevant educational background, such as an associate’s degree from a college or university in electrical engineering, automation, mechatronics, or a related field. This can provide you with a solid foundation in the principles of control systems and electronics.

2. Understand Basic Automation Concepts

Familiarize yourself with fundamental concepts in automation, including sensors, actuators, control systems, and industrial processes. Understanding these basics will lay the groundwork for PLC programming.

3. Learn about PLCs

Gain a basic understanding of what PLCs are, their components, and their role in industrial automation. Explore different PLC brands and models.

4. Take Online Courses and Training

Enroll in online courses or training programs specifically focused on PLC programming. Platforms like Udemy, Coursera, or dedicated automation training providers offer courses covering various aspects of PLC programming.

5. Choose a PLC Brand

Select a popular PLC brand to start with. Siemens, Allen-Bradley (Rockwell Automation), Mitsubishi, and Omron are some examples. Each brand has its own programming environment, so it’s useful to focus on one initially.

6. Practice with Simulation Software

Use PLC simulation software such as PLCLogix to practice programming in a virtual environment. This allows you to experiment with different scenarios and programming techniques without the need for physical hardware.

7. Hands-On Projects

Build simple hands-on projects to apply your knowledge using Ladder Logic. Start with basic projects like controlling a motor, a conveyor belt, or a traffic light system. This practical experience is crucial for developing your skills.

8. Explore Documentation and Manuals

Get comfortable with reading and understanding PLC documentation and manuals. Manufacturers provide detailed information about their PLC systems, including programming instructions, troubleshooting guides, and hardware specifications.

9. Networking and Community Involvement

Join online forums, discussion groups, or communities where PLC programmers and automation professionals share knowledge and experiences. Networking can provide valuable insights and support throughout your learning journey.

10. Seek Internships or Entry-Level Positions

Look for internship opportunities or entry-level positions in companies that use PLCs as a launch point to secure your first PLC programming job. Practical experience in an industrial setting will enhance your skills and understanding.

11. Stay Updated and Continuous Learning:

Keep yourself updated on the latest developments in PLC technology and industrial automation. Attend workshops, webinars, and industry events to stay informed about new trends and advancements.

12. Consider Certifications

Once you feel confident in your skills, consider obtaining certifications from PLC manufacturers or relevant industry organizations. Certifications can boost your credibility and enhance your job prospects.

Remember that becoming proficient in PLC programming is a gradual process that involves both theoretical learning and practical application. Be patient, persistent, and open to continuous learning as technology and industry practices evolve.

What are the Key Skills Needed to Become a PLC Programmer?

Image of a checklist a controls engineer working with automation systems might need.

Becoming a proficient PLC programmer requires a combination of technical and soft skills. Here’s a breakdown of the key skills that aspiring PLC programmers should focus on developing:

Programming Languages: Familiarize yourself with programming languages commonly used in PLCs for more complex tasks.

Understanding Control Systems: Gain a deep understanding of control systems and how they function. Learn about open-loop and closed-loop systems, feedback control, and the principles of PID (Proportional, Integral, Derivative) control.

Electrical Knowledge: A solid understanding of electrical principles and analytical thinking is crucial. Learn about voltage, current, resistance, and how electrical components such as sensors and actuators interact with PLCs.

Troubleshooting Skills: Develop effective troubleshooting skills to identify and resolve issues in PLC programs. Understand how to use diagnostic tools, interpret error codes, and systematically debug programs.

Communication Protocols: Familiarize yourself with communication protocols commonly used in industrial automation, such as Modbus, Profibus, and Ethernet/IP. Learn how to configure and troubleshoot communication interfaces.

HMI (Human-Machine Interface) Design: Understand the basics of designing user interfaces for HMIs. Learn how to create intuitive displays that allow operators to monitor and interact with the PLC-controlled systems.

Adaptability with PLC Brands: Be adaptable to different PLC brands and their programming environments. While the core principles are similar, each brand may have its own syntax and features.

Project Management Skills: Develop project management skills to plan and execute PLC programming projects efficiently. This includes time management, task prioritization, and coordination with other team members.

Attention to Detail: Precision is critical in PLC programming. Pay attention to details in your logic and programming to ensure the correct functioning of the automated systems.

Soft Skills: These are skills such as effective communication, problem-solving, and embracing a mindset of continuous learning.

Safety Awareness: Understand safety protocols and regulations related to industrial automation. Ensure that your PLC programs adhere to safety standards to protect both equipment and personnel.

By focusing on these key skills, aspiring PLC programmers can build a strong foundation for success in the field of industrial automation. Continuous practice, hands-on projects, and learning from real-world applications will further hone these skills over time.

Are PLC programmers in demand?

Image of plc programmer work in binary code

Yes, a PLC programmer, or automation engineer, are in demand. Especially in industries such as manufacturing, automation, and process control. PLCs are widely used in these industries to control machinery and processes.

The demand for PLC programmers is influenced by the growth and expansion of industries that rely on automation, as well as the ongoing advancements in technology. As industries continue to adopt and upgrade automation systems, the need for skilled PLC programmers may persist.

However, the demand for specific skills can vary depending on geographic location, industry trends, and economic conditions. It’s advisable to check more recent sources like job boards, industry reports, and labor market studies for the most up-to-date information on the demand for PLC programmers in your region or field of interest.

How long does it take to become a PLC programmer?

Image of hour glass representing time it takes to acquire the professional experience to become an automation engineer.

The time it takes to become a PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) programmer can vary based on several factors, including your prior education, experience, and the complexity of the programming tasks you’ll be handling.

If you have a background in electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, computer science, automation processes, or a related field, you may already have a foundational understanding of the concepts involved, which can shorten the learning curve.

If you are starting from scratch, you may want to pursue education in a relevant field, such as electrical engineering, mechatronics, or automation technology. This could be a diploma, associate degree, bachelor’s degree, or vocational training, depending on your goals and the level of expertise required.

What is the Job of a PLC Programmer?

A PLC Programmer is someone who designs, creates, maintains, and troubleshoots industrial automation systems that are either directly or indirectly driven by Programmable Logic Controllers. They are required to have sound technical knowledge in electrical systems and be proficient at design and troubleshooting a PLC program.

A PLC programming job will require the individual to have a working knowledge of HMI programming (Human Machine Interface programming) and the ability to interpret electrical schematic diagrams as they relate the PLC engineering industry.

Not only should this individual be able to design and troubleshoot a PLC program, they should also be able to do it across several PLC platforms. Some common platforms include:

  • Allen-Bradley (Rockwell)
  • Siemens
  • Omron
  • Mitsubishi
  • GE-Fanuc

To become a legitimate PLC Programmer you should have a firm command of at least one of these control systems, with exposure to two or more control systems being a definite asset. Fortunately, once you have a good command over one of these control systems, making the leap to one of the other ones listed is not an insurmountable task.

How to Start PLC Programming without a PLC?

Image of an arduino board as a way to acquire the technical skills necessary to be entry level plc programmer.

As mentioned, there are simulation software packages available such as PLCLogix, however, it too can be a little cost prohibitive and there really is no replacement to working with real hardware. So this is the part where we move slightly away from traditional PLCs and into the world of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) single-board computer (SBC).

The reason we recommend them, cost benefits aside, is that they will expose you to higher level programming languages such as C, C++, C#, VB and Java and embedded hardware systems. If you really want to differentiate yourself as a premiere programmer, then learning higher level languages is an absolute necessity. Here’s why:

  • Microcontrollers are essential components of embedded systems, and learning their programming helps you understand the fundamentals of embedded systems. Since PLCs are a type of embedded system used for industrial automation. Understanding microcontrollers provides a basis for understanding the hardware and software aspects of embedded systems.
  • The programming skills you acquire while learning microcontrollers, especially in languages like C or assembly, can often be applied to PLC programming. Both microcontrollers and PLCs involve working with low-level programming languages, and the concepts of logic and control flow are transferable.
  • Microcontrollers are often used in real-time systems where precise timing is crucial. PLCs are also used in real-time applications in industrial settings. Learning about real-time constraints and considerations from microcontroller programming can be beneficial when working with PLCs.
  • Debugging is an integral part of both microcontroller and PLC programming. The problem-solving skills and debugging techniques you acquire while learning microcontroller programming can be applied when working with PLCs.
  • Microcontrollers may involve communication protocols like UART, SPI, or I2C. PLCs often require communication with other devices in an industrial network. Understanding communication protocols from microcontroller programming can be advantageous when dealing with PLC networking.

In summary, learning microcontroller programming provides a solid foundation in embedded systems and programming skills that can be applied to PLC programming, especially in the context of industrial automation and control systems. The knowledge and skills gained in microcontroller programming can ease the transition into the field of PLC programming.

If you’d like to get your hand on one of these SBCs, we recommend the Beagleboard Black and this textbook written by Derek Molloy readily available on Amazon.