What is a PLC?

A Programmable Logic Controller, PLC or Programmable Controller is a digital computer used for automation of electromechanical processes, such as control of machinery on factory assembly lines, amusement rides, or light fixtures. The abbreviation “PLC” and the term “Programmable Logic Controller” are registered trademarks of the Allen-Bradley Company (Rockwell Automation). PLCs are used in many industries and machines. Unlike general-purpose computers, the PLC is designed for multiple inputs and output arrangements, extended temperature ranges, immunity to electrical noise, and resistance to vibration and impact. Programs to control machine operation are typically stored in battery-backed-up or non-volatile memory. A PLC is an example of a hard real time system since output results must be produced in response to input conditions within a limited time, otherwise unintended operation will result.


Before the PLC, control, sequencing, and safety interlock logic for manufacturing automobiles was mainly composed of relays, cam timers, drum sequencers, and dedicated closed-loop controllers. Since these could number in the hundreds or even thousands, the process for updating such facilities for the yearly model change-over was very time consuming and expensive, as electricians needed to individually rewire relays to change the logic.

Digital computers, being general-purpose programmable devices, were soon applied to control of industrial processes. Early computers required specialist programmers, and stringent operating environmental control for temperature, cleanliness, and power quality. Using a general-purpose computer for process control required protecting the computer from the plant floor conditions. An industrial control computer would have several attributes: it would tolerate the shop-floor environment, it would support discrete (bit-form) input and output in an easily extensible manner, it would not require years of training to use, and it would permit its operation to be monitored. The response time of any computer system must be fast enough to be useful for control; the required speed varying according to the nature of the process.

In 1968 GM Hydramatic (the automatic transmission division of General Motors) issued a request for proposal for an electronic replacement for hard-wired relay systems. The winning proposal came from Bedford Associates of Bedford, Massachusetts. The first PLC, designated the 084 because it was Bedford Associates’ eighty-fourth project, was the result. Bedford Associates started a new company dedicated to developing, manufacturing, selling, and servicing this new product: Modicon, which stood for MOdular DIgital CONtroller. One of the people who worked on that project was Dick Morley, who is considered to be the “father” of the PLC. The Modicon brand was sold in 1977 to Gould Electronics, and later acquired by German Company AEG and then by French Schneider Electric, the current owner.

One of the very first 084 models built is now on display at Modicon’s headquarters in North Andover, Massachusetts. It was presented to Modicon by GM, when the unit was retired after nearly twenty years of uninterrupted service. Modicon used the 84 moniker at the end of its product range until the 984 made its appearance.

The automotive industry is still one of the largest users of PLCs.


Early PLCs were designed to replace relay logic systems. These PLCs were programmed in “ladder logic”, which strongly resembles a schematic diagram of relay logic. This program notation was chosen to reduce training demands for the existing technicians. Other early PLCs used a form of instruction list programming, based on a stack-based logic solver.

Modern PLCs can be programmed in a variety of ways, from the relay-derived ladder logic to programming languages such as specially adapted dialects of BASIC and C. Another method is State Logic, a very high-level programming language designed to program PLCs based on state transition diagrams.

Many early PLCs did not have accompanying programming terminals that were capable of graphical representation of the logic, and so the logic was instead represented as a series of logic expressions in some version of Boolean format, similar to Boolean algebra. As programming terminals evolved, it became more common for ladder logic to be used, for the aforementioned reasons and because it was a familiar format used for electromechanical control panels. Newer formats such as State Logic and Function Block (which is similar to the way logic is depicted when using digital integrated logic circuits) exist, but they are still not as popular as ladder logic. A primary reason for this is that PLCs solve the logic in a predictable and repeating sequence, and ladder logic allows the programmer (the person writing the logic) to see any issues with the timing of the logic sequence more easily than would be possible in other formats.


Early PLCs, up to the mid-1980s, were programmed using proprietary programming panels or special-purpose programming terminals, which often had dedicated function keys representing the various logical elements of PLC programs. Programs were stored on cassette tape cartridges. Facilities for printing and documentation were minimal due to lack of memory capacity. The very oldest PLCs used non-volatile magnetic core memory.

More recently, PLCs are programmed using application software on personal computers. The computer is connected to the PLC through Ethernet, RS-232, RS-485 or RS-422 cabling. The programming software allows entry and editing of the ladder-style logic. Generally the software provides functions for debugging and troubleshooting the PLC software, for example, by highlighting portions of the logic to show current status during operation or via simulation. The software will upload and download the PLC program, for backup and restoration purposes. In some models of programmable controller, the program is transferred from a personal computer to the PLC through a programming board which writes the program into a removable chip such as an EEPROM or EPROM.