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Careers & Specialisations - Industrial Automation - PLC/SCADA, VLSI/Embedded Systems


Automation, roboticization or industrial automation or numerical control is the use of control systems such as computers to control industrial machinery and processes, replacing human operators. In the scope of industrialization, it is a step beyond mechanization. Whereas mechanization provided human operators with machinery to assist them with the physical requirements of work, automation greatly reduces the need for human sensory and mental requirements as well. Processes and systems can also be automated.

Automation plays an increasingly important role in the global economy and in daily experience. Engineers strive to combine automated devices with mathematical and organizational tools to create complex systems for a rapidly expanding range of applications and human activities.

There are still many jobs which are in no immediate danger of automation. No device has been invented which can match the human eye for accuracy and precision in many tasks; nor the human ear. Even the admittedly handicapped human is able to identify and distinguish among far more scents than any automated device. Human pattern recognition, language recognition, and language production ability is well beyond anything currently envisioned by automation engineers.

Specialised hardened computers, referred to as programmable logic controllers (PLCs), are frequently used to synchronize the flow of inputs from (physical) sensors and events with the flow of outputs to actuators and events. This leads to precisely controlled actions that permit a tight control of almost any industrial process. (It was these devices that were feared to be vulnerable to the "Y2K bug", with such potentially dire consequences, since they are now so ubiquitous throughout the industrial world.)

Human-machine interfaces (HMI) or computer human interfaces (CHI), formerly known as man-machine interfaces, are usually employed to communicate with PLCs and other computers, such as entering and monitoring temperatures or pressures for further automated control or emergency response. Service personnel who monitor and control these interfaces are often referred to as stationary engineers.

Programmable logic controller

A programmable logic controller (PLC), or programmable controller is a digital computer used for automation of industrial processes, such as control of machinery on factory assembly lines. 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 or non-volatile memory. A PLC is an example of a real time system since output results must be produced in response to input conditions within a bounded time, otherwise unintended operation will result.

The main difference from other computers is that PLCs are armored for severe condition (dust, moisture, heat, cold, etc) 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 even use machine vision. On the actuator side, PLCs operate electric motors, pneumatic or hydraulic cylinders, magnetic relays or 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. PLCs were invented as replacements for automated systems that would use hundreds or thousands of relays, cam timers, and drum sequencers. Often, a single PLC can be programmed to replace thousands of relays. Programmable controllers were initially adopted by the automotive manufacturing industry, where software revision replaced the re-wiring of hard-wired control panels when production models changed. Many of the earliest PLCs expressed all decision making logic in simple ladder logic which appeared similar to electrical schematic diagrams. The electricians were quite able to trace out circuit problems with schematic diagrams using ladder 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. The functionality of the PLC has evolved over the years to include sequential relay control, motion control, process control, distributed control systems and networking. The data handling, storage, processing power and communication capabilities of some modern PLCs are approximately equivalent to desktop computers. PLC-like programming combined with remote I/O hardware, allow a general-purpose desktop computer to overlap some PLCs in certain applications. Under the IEC 61131-3 standard, PLCs can be programmed using standards-based programming languages. A graphical programming notation called Sequential Function Charts is available on certain programmable controllers.


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 very minimal due to lack of memory capacity. More recently, PLC programs are typically written in a special application on a personal computer, then downloaded by a direct-connection cable or over a network to the PLC. The very oldest PLCs used non-volatile magnetic core memory but now the program is stored in the PLC either in battery-backed-up RAM or some other non-volatile flash memory.

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. Modern PLCs can be programmed in a variety of ways, from ladder logic to more traditional programming languages such as BASIC and C. Another method is State Logic, a Very High Level Programming Language designed to program PLCs based on State Transition Diagrams.

Recently, the International standard IEC 61131-3 has become popular. IEC 61131-3 currently defines five programming languages for programmable control systems: FBD (Function block diagram), LD (Ladder diagram), ST (Structured text, similar to the Pascal programming language), IL (Instruction list, similar to assembly language) and SFC (Sequential function chart). These techniques emphasize logical organization of operations.

While the fundamental concepts of PLC programming are common to all manufacturers, differences in I/O addressing, memory organization and instruction sets mean that PLC programs are never perfectly interchangeable between different makers. Even within the same product line of a single manufacturer, different models may not be directly compatible.


SCADA is the abbreviation for Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition. In Europe and Russia, SCADA refers to a large-scale, distributed measurement and control system, while in the rest of the world SCADA may describe systems of any size or geographical distribution. SCADA systems are typically used to perform data collection and control at the supervisory level. Some systems are called SCADA despite only performing data acquisition and not control.

The supervisory control system is a system that is placed on top of a real-time control system to control a process that is external to the SCADA system (i.e. a computer, by itself, is not a SCADA system even though it controls its own power consumption and cooling). This implies that the system is not critical to control the process in real time, as there is a separate or integrated real-time automated control system that can respond quickly enough to compensate for process changes within the time constants of the process. The process can be industrial, infrastructure or facility based as described below:

A) Industrial processes include those of manufacturing, production, power generation, fabrication, and refining, and may run in continuous, batch, repetitive, or discrete modes.
B) Infrastructure processes may be public or private, and include water treatment and distribution, wastewater collection and treatment, oil and gas pipelines, electrical power transmission and distribution, and large communication systems.
C) Facility processes occur both in public facilities and private ones, including buildings, airports, ships, and space stations. They monitor and control HVAC, access, and energy consumption.

SCADA systems, a branch of instrumentation engineering, include input-output signal hardware, controllers, human-machine interfacing ("HMI"), networks, communications, databases, and software.The term SCADA usually refers to centralized systems which monitor and control entire sites, or complexes of systems spread out over large areas (on the scale of kilometers or miles). Most site control is performed automatically by remote terminal units ("RTUs") or by programmable logic controllers ("PLCs"). Host control functions are usually restricted to basic site overriding or supervisory level intervention. For example, a PLC may control the flow of cooling water through part of an industrial process, but the SCADA system may allow operators to change the set points for the flow, and enable alarm conditions, such as loss of flow and high temperature, to be displayed and recorded. The feedback control loop passes through the RTU or PLC, while the SCADA system monitors the overall performance of the loop.

Data acquisition begins at the RTU or PLC level and includes meter readings and equipment status reports that are communicated to SCADA as required. Data is then compiled and formatted in such a way that a control room operator using the HMI can make supervisory decisions to adjust or override normal RTU (PLC) controls. Data may also be fed to a Historian, often built on a commodity Database Management System, to allow trending and other analytical auditing.

SCADA systems typically implement a distributed database, commonly referred to as a tag database, which contains data elements called tags or points. A point represents a single input or output value monitored or controlled by the system. Points can be either "hard" or "soft". A hard point represents an actual input or output within the system, while a soft point results from logic and math operations applied to other points. (Most implementations conceptually remove the distinction by making every property a "soft" point expression, which may, in the simplest case, equal a single hard point.) Points are normally stored as value-timestamp pairs: a value, and the timestamp when it was recorded or calculated. A series of value-timestamp pairs gives the history of that point. It's also common to store additional metadata with tags, such as the path to a field device or PLC register, design time comments, and alarm information.

Complete SCADA systems or Distributed Control Systems ("DCS") may be acquired from a single supplier, but they are more often assembled from hardware and software components available from ABB, Allen-Bradley, DirectLOGIC, GE Fanuc, Omron, Schneider Electric, Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, and Siemens PLCs, along with related HMI packages from Adroit, Citect, Control Microsystems, GE Fanuc,Honeywell, ICONICS, Inductive Automation, Kongsberg Maritime, Rockwell Automation, Schneider Electric, Siemens, Elgama Sistemos, SUPCON, Telvent, COPS C-DAC open process Solution [C-DAC] and Wonderware.

Human Machine Interface:

A Human-Machine Interface or HMI is the apparatus which presents process data to a human operator, and through which the human operator controls the process. The HMI industry was essentially born out of a need for a standardized way to monitor and to control multiple remote controllers, PLCs and other control devices. While a PLC does provide automated, pre-programmed control over a process, they are usually distributed across a plant, making it difficult to gather data from them manually. Historically PLCs had no standardized way to present information to an operator. The SCADA system gathers information from the PLCs and other controllers via some form of network, and combines and formats the information. An HMI may also be linked to a database, to provide trending, diagnostic data, and management information such as scheduled maintenance procedures, logistic information, detailed schematics for a particular sensor or machine, and expert-system troubleshooting guides. Since about 1998, virtually all major PLC manufacturers have offered integrated HMI/SCADA systems, many of them using open and non-proprietary communications protocols. Numerous specialized third-party HMI/SCADA packages, offering built-in compatibility with most major PLCs, have also entered the market, allowing mechanical engineers, electrical engineers and technicians to configure HMIs themselves, without the need for a custom-made program written by a software developer. SCADA is popular, due to its compatibility and reliability. It is used in small applications, like controlling the temperature of a room, to large applications, such as the control of nuclear power plants.


Very-large-scale integration (VLSI) is the process of creating integrated circuits by combining thousands of transistor-based circuits into a single chip. VLSI began in the 1970s when complex semiconductor and communication technologies were being developed. The microprocessor is a VLSI device. The term is no longer as common as it once was, as chips have increased in complexity into the hundreds of millions of transistors.

The first semiconductor chips held one transistor each. Subsequent advances added more and more transistors, and as a consequence more individual functions or systems were integrated over time. The first integrated circuits held only a few devices, perhaps as many as ten diodes, transistors, resistors and capacitors, making it possible to fabricate one or more logic gates on a single device. Now known retrospectively as "small-scale integration" (SSI), improvements in technique led to devices with hundreds of logic gates, known as large-scale integration (LSI), i.e. systems with at least a thousand logic gates. Current technology has moved far past this mark and today's microprocessors have many millions of gates and hundreds of millions of individual transistors.

As of early 2008, billion-transistor processors are commercially available, an example of which is Intel's Montecito Itanium chip. This is expected to become more commonplace as semiconductor fabrication moves from the current generation of 65 nm processes to the next 45 nm generations. At one time, there was an effort to name and calibrate various levels of large-scale integration above VLSI. Terms like Ultra-large-scale Integration (ULSI) were used. But the huge number of gates and transistors available on common devices has rendered such fine distinctions moot. Terms suggesting greater than VLSI levels of integration are no longer in widespread use. Even VLSI is now somewhat quaint, given the common assumption that all microprocessors are VLSI or better.

Embedded Systems:

An embedded system is a special-purpose system in which the computer is completely encapsulated by the device it controls. Unlike a general-purpose computer, such as a personal computer, an embedded system performs pre-defined tasks, usually with very specific requirements. Since the system is dedicated to a specific task, design engineers can optimize it, reducing the size and cost of the product. Embedded systems are often mass-produced, so the cost savings may be multiplied by millions of items. An embedded system is a computer system designed to perform one or a few dedicated functions. An embedded system is housed on a single microprocessor board with the programs stored in ROM. Some embedded systems include an operating system, but many are so specialized that the entire logic can be implemented as a single program.

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