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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. 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.
The main difference from other computers is that PLCs are armored for severe conditions (such as dust, moisture, heat, cold) and have the facility for extensive input/output (I/O) arrangements. These connect the PLC to sensors and actuators. PLCs read limit switches, analog process variables (such as temperature and pressure), and the positions of complex positioning systems. Some use machine vision. On the actuator side, PLCs operate electric motors, pneumatic or hydraulic cylinders, magnetic relays, solenoids, or analog outputs. The input/output arrangements may be built into a simple PLC, or the PLC may have external I/O modules attached to a computer network that plugs into the PLC.
A PLC program is generally executed repeatedly as long as the controlled system is running. The status of physical input points is copied to an area of memory accessible to the processor, sometimes called the "I/O Image Table". The program is then run from its first instruction rung down to the last rung. It takes some time for the processor of the PLC to evaluate all the rungs and update the I/O image table with the status of outputs. This scan time may be a few milliseconds for a small program or on a fast processor, but older PLCs running very large programs could take much longer (say, up to 100 ms) to execute the program. If the scan time was too long, the response of the PLC to process conditions would be too slow to be useful. As PLCs became more advanced, methods were developed to change the sequence of ladder execution, and subroutines were implemented. This simplified programming and could also be used to save scan time for high-speed processes; for example, parts of the program used only for setting up the machine could be segregated from those parts required to operate at higher speed. Special-purpose I/O modules, such as timer modules or counter modules, could be used where the scan time of the processor was too long to reliably pick up, for example, counting pulses from a shaft encoder. The relatively slow PLC could still interpret the counted values to control a machine, but the accumulation of pulses was done by a dedicated module that was unaffected by the speed of the program execution.