Contact and Coil | Nearly In Control

This Christmas I asked Santa for a Brultech ECM-1240 whole home energy monitoring system, specifically the DUO-100 package. After reviewing various products, I really liked that this one was priced quite reasonably for the hardware, and that they published the communication protocol.

You (or a licensed electrian) install the ECM-1240 at your main electrical panel. Each ECM-1240 has 7 channels. In my case, the first channel on the first unit measures the incoming main line current. For the other 13 channels you are free to choose various circuits from your panel that you want to monitor. You can gang various circuits together into a single channel if you like (all lighting loads, for example). The device uses current transformers on each circuit for the monitoring. These are installed inside the panel. The hot wire coming out of each breaker has to go through a current transformer, so this isn’t a simple plug-in installation; there is wiring to be done.

The company distributes software for the device for free, or you can choose from various 3rd party software. Alternatively you can configure the device to send data to websites.

I’m not a fan of sending my home energy data to someone else’s server. Apart from being a huge privacy concern (it’s pretty easy to see when you’re home, and when you went to bed), I don’t want to pay a monthly fee, and I don’t want to worry about how to get my data from their server if they go out of business or decide to discontinue their product. For those reasons, I installed their software. It’s basically a flash website that I hosted on our Windows Home Server, which is conveniently the computer hooked up to the ECM-1240’s as well.

At first their software worked quite well, but over time it started to show problems. After just less than 2 months of logging, the flash program was so sluggish to load a page that it took over 2 minutes to refresh a screen. Admittedly I was running it on an older PC. Additionally, in that amount of time it had already logged about 680 MB of data. That seemed excessive. It also logged to a SQL Lite database (a single-user file-based database), and unfortunately kept the database file locked all the time. The website would end up locking the database and packets started getting buffered in the logging software until you closed down the website and released the lock.

I decided I’d just write my own software:

Power Cruncher Viewer

I’m a C# developer, so that was my language of choice. If you’re a .NET developer too, I’ll include a link to my source code at the end of this post. Note that this software isn’t commercial quality. It’s semi-configurable (channel names, and so on) but it assumes you have a 14 channel system where the first channel is the main panel input. If your system is different, you’ll have to make some modifications.

These devices I purchased use a serial port for communication, but they give you an RS232 splitter cable so you only have to use up one serial port on your PC. Their software relies on putting the device into an automatic send mode… the device itself chooses when to send packets. If the load changes significantly on one of the circuits, it triggers an immediate packet send. Unfortunately with 2 devices on the same RS232 port, you can sometimes get a collision. Their software deals with this by detecting it and ignoring the data, but I had a sneaking suspicion that once in a rare while, it ended up getting a corrupt packet, and there was at least one point where their software logged an extremely high energy reading, and it didn’t make any sense. Therefore I wrote my software to use a polling mode. It requests data from the first device, waits about 5 seconds, requests it from the other device, waits 5 seconds, and repeats. On average we get one reading about every 10 seconds from each device. Testing seemed to indicate this was about as fast as I could go because there was a reset period after you talked to one device where you had to wait for it to time out before you could address the other one. In retrospect, if you just hooked them up to 2 separate serial ports you could probably poll the data faster.

Next I had to choose how to log the data. I really wanted the data format to be compact, but I still wanted decently small time periods for each “time slice”. I also didn’t want to be locking the file constantly, so I just wanted to be able to write the data for each time slice, and be done with it. I settled on a binary format with fixed length records. Here’s how it works: each day’s data is stored in a separate file, so the data for April 1st is stored in a file called 2015-04-01.dat. The device generates values in watt-seconds. I calculated that at a maximum current of 200A (100A panel x 2 legs) x 120V, then in a 10 second time slice I should log a maximum of 240,000 watt-seconds. A 20-bit number (2.5 bytes) can store a maximum value of 1,048,575. I didn’t want to go smaller than half-byte increments. So, 14 channels at 2.5 bytes per channel gave me 35 bytes for each 10 second time slice, and since the devices generate voltage I figured I’d log the voltage as a 36’s byte just to make it an even number. Using those numbers, running 24 hours a day for 365 days a year, this will use up under 110 MB/year. Not bad. A flat binary file like this is also fast for data access. The data is small, and seeking a time slice can be done in O(1) time. After you find the first time slice you just keep reading bytes sequentially until you get to the end of the file or your last time slice. Hopefully no more 2 minute load times.

I broke up my application into multiple programs. The first is a utility program called Uploader.exe. This is a command line program that reads the data from a device and just spits it out to the screen. Useful for testing if it works.

The second is called Logger.exe and it does just that. It uses Uploader.exe to read values from the two ECM-1240 units at 5 second offsets and writes the data to XML files into a PacketLog folder. Each file has the timestamp of when it was read, and the device number to indicate which device it came from.

The third program is called PacketProcessor.exe. This program monitors the PacketLog folder and waits until it has at least one packet from each device after the end of the current time slice it’s trying to build. If it does, it calculates the values for the current time slice and appends it to the end of the current day’s data file. It then deletes any unnecessary packets from the PacketLog folder (it keeps at most one packet from each device before the end of the most recently written time slice).

To host Logger.exe and PacketProcessor.exe, I used nssm a.k.a. “the Non-Sucking Service Manager”. It’s a small command line program you can use to run another command line program as a service. Very handy.

The fourth program is called Viewer.exe. It’s the graphical interface for viewing the power data. Here’s a screenshot of data from one day (just the main panel power, click on it to make it bigger):

Main Panel Power over one day

That’s a rather typical day. The big spike around 5 pm is the oven, and you can see the typical TV-watching time is after 8 pm once the kids are in bed. On the right you can see it breaks out the power usage in kWh for each channel, and in our area we have time-of-use billing, and this actually breaks the power usage out into off-peak, mid-peak, and on-peak amounts.

The viewer program uses a line graph for all time periods under 24 hours, but switches to an hourly bar graph for periods longer than that. Here is a 48-hour time period, and I’ve changed from just the Main Panel to all the branch circuit channels instead:

Branch circuit power over 48 hours

If you ask for a time period of more than a week it switches into daily bars:

Branch circuit power by day

Pulling up two weeks of data like that was actually very fast, just a few seconds.

One final feature I added was email alerts. One of the channels monitors just my backup sump pump circuit. If it ever turns on, that’s because my main sump pump has failed, and I want to know. Through a configuration file, I configured an alarm to email me if that circuit ever records more than 5W of power in a 10 second time slice. I did a little test and it works (it does require that you have a Gmail account though).

Here’s the source code, if you’re interested:

As always, feel free to email me if you have questions or comments.

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You may have noticed I recently added a new section to this site: Patterns of Ladder Logic Programming. My goal, as usual, is to try to help new ladder logic programmers come up to speed faster and without all the trial and error I had to go through.

The new Patterns section is an attempt to distill ladder logic programs into their component parts. I assume the reader already knows the basic elements of ladder logic programming, such as contacts, coils, timers, counters, and one-shots. The patterns describe ways of combining these elements into larger patterns that you’re likely to see when you look through real programs. In my experience, you can program 80% of the machines out there by combining these patterns in applicable ways.

The Patterns section isn’t complete yet, but I will be adding to it slowly over time. If you think of a pattern that’s blatantly missing, please send me a note so I can include it.

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Mar/15

15

Upgrading your TwinCAT 3 Version

Beckhoff releases new versions of TwinCAT 3 fairly often, and especially since this is a new platform you probably want to stay on top of their new updates for improved stability and new features. Here are some hard-won lessons I wanted to share with you about how to upgrade your production system to the latest TwinCAT 3 release:

Have a Test System

You should definitely have an offline test system for many good reasons. This test system should have the same operating system version as your production system and should ideally be the same hardware, though I realize that’s not always feasible. It could just be an old desktop PC you have sitting around, but that’s better than nothing. TwinCAT 3 is free for non-production use so you have no excuse for not having an offline test system.

Test your upgrade on the Test System First!

Never try upgrading your production system without running through a dry-run on your test system first. Get a copy of the latest TwinCAT solution from your production machine and get it running on your test system. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have I/O attached because the runtime will work just fine anyway. After your perform the upgrade procedure on your offline test machine, make sure you do a thorough test, including a reboot.

Follow These Steps

  1. Stop the machine and make it safe
  2. Put the runtime into Config mode
  3. Uninstall the old version of TwinCAT 3
  4. Also uninstall the old version of the Beckhoff Real-time Ethernet PnP Drivers
  5. Reboot
  6. Install the new version of TwinCAT 3
  7. Reboot
  8. Open the TwinCAT 3 solution
  9. Re-install any custom libraries, if you have any (optional)
  10. Go to the tool for configuring Real-time Ethernet devices, and install the new driver on your EtherCAT cards
  11. Re-link your EtherCAT master to your EtherCAT adapter under I/O, just in case
  12. Build each PLC project (individually, don’t use Rebuild All because it sometimes ignores errors)
  13. Check that you didn’t lose any I/O mapping
  14. Activate boot project on each PLC project
  15. Check under System that it’s configured to start in Run mode (if that’s what you want)
  16. Activate configuration and restart in run mode
  17. Test by doing a reboot

Upgrading the Real-time Ethernet drivers is critical. We were experiencing cases where the EtherCAT bus would just cut out on us, but only on one machine. All of our machines were upgraded to the same version, so we initially thought it must be a hardware issue. It turned out that we weren’t upgrading the Real-time Ethernet driver when we upgraded TwinCAT 3 versions, so this machine had an old version of the driver loaded, and all the other machines had a newer version. After upgrading the driver, the problem went away, so upgrading the driver is a critical step.

If you find that you did lose your I/O mapping, make sure you’ve built all your PLC projects (which generates a TMC file) and then close TwinCAT 3 XAE down and revert your .tsproj (TwinCAT solution project) file back to the original state. Then start again at the step where you open the TwinCAT 3 solution. Now you should find that your I/O mapping is back. That’s because the inputs and outputs of each PLC project are compiled into the TMC file and TwinCAT 3’s system manager links I/O against that. If the file doesn’t exist (or they changed the format during the upgrade) then it’ll just delete the links. However, the links still exist in the original .tsproj file, so creating the TMC file and then reverting the .tsproj file will put everything back to a happy state. This is also a useful trick when you’re moving the project to a new PC and you didn’t bring the .tmc files along for the ride (because they’re quite large).

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Nov/14

26

The TwinCAT 3 Review Revisited

I reviewed TwinCAT 3 in February of 2013 and it was a mixed bag. I lauded the amazing performance but warned about the reliability problems. I think it’s time to revisit the topic.

Things have improved greatly. When I wrote that review we had 2 production systems running TwinCAT 3 (the 32-bit version). We’re now up to 5 production systems with another on the way, all running version 3.1.4016.5 (which is a 64-bit version). The product has been more stable with each release. First we tried switching to a Beckhoff industrial PC, but we still experienced two blue screen crashes. We’ve then turned off anti-virus and disabled automatic windows updates. So far I haven’t seen another blue screen on that system, for about two months.

Manually installing windows updates isn’t a big deal, but it’s unfortunate to be running a PC-based control system with no anti-virus. Our industrial PCs are blocked from going online, and each one is behind a firewall that separates it from our corporate network, but it’s still a risk I don’t want to take. Industrial Control vendors continually tell us their products aren’t supported if you run anti-virus, and I don’t see how anyone can make statements like that in this day and age.

The performance of the runtime (ladder logic) and EtherCAT I/O is still absolutely amazing.

While the IDE is much better than the TwinCAT 2 system, the editor is still quite slow (even on a Core-i7 with a solid state drive).

The Scope is now integrated right into the IDE, and I can’t give that tool enough accolades. I recently had to use Rockwell’s integrated scope for ControlLogix 5000 and it’s pitiful in comparison to the TwinCAT 3 scope.

The TwinSAFE safety PLC editor is light years beyond the TwinCAT 2 editor, but it’s still clunky. It particularly sucks when you install a new revision of TwinCAT 3 and it has to upgrade the safety project to whatever new file format it has. We recently did this, then had to add a new 4-input safety card to the design, and it wouldn’t build the safety project because of a collision on the connection ID. It took us a couple hours of fiddling and we eventually had to manually set the connection ID to a valid value to get it to work. On another occasion, after a version upgrade, I had to go in and add missing lines in the safety program save file because it didn’t seem to upgrade the file format properly (I did this by comparing the save file to another one created in the new version).

The process of upgrading to a new TwinCAT 3 version often involves subtle problems. The rather infamous 3.1.4013 version actually broke the persistent variable feature, so if you restarted your controller, all the persistent variables would be lost. They quickly released a fix, but not before we experienced a bit of pain when I tried it on one of our systems. I’m really stunned that a bug this big and this obvious could actually be released. It’s almost as if Beckhoff doesn’t have a dedicated software testing department performing regression tests before new versions are released, but certainly nobody would develop commercial software like this without a software testing department, would they? That’s a frightening thought.

I ended my previous review by saying I couldn’t recommend TwinCAT 3 at this time. I’m prepared to change my tune a bit. I think TwinCAT 3 is now solid enough for a production environment, but I caution that it’s still a little rough around the edges.

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Motion control is pretty complicated.

There’s been something really bothering me about the “integrated” motion control you find in PLCs these days (notably Allen-Bradley ControlLogix and Beckhoff TwinCAT). Don’t get me wrong, they’re certainly integrated far better than stand-alone motion controllers. Still, it just doesn’t “feel” right when you’re programming motion control from ladder logic.

When I’m programming a cylinder motion in ladder logic, I would typically use a five-rung logic block for each motion (extend/retract). One of the 5 bits is a “command” bit. This is a bit that means “do such-and-such motion now”. Importantly, if I turn that bit off, it means “stop now!” This works well for a cylinder with a valve controlling it because when I turn off power to that valve, the cylinder will stop trying to move. It would be nice if integrated motion was this simple.

It’s interesting to note that manual moves (a.k.a. “jogging”) are usually this simple. You drop a function block on a rung, give it a speed and direction, and when you execute it based on a push-button, the axis jogs in that direction, and when the push-button turns off, it stops jogging. Unfortunately none of the other features are that simple.

All other moves start motion with one function block and require you to stop it with another. The reason it works like this is because motion controllers also support blended moves. That is, I can first start a move to position (5,3) and after it’s moving there I can queue a second move to position (10,1) and it will guide the axes through a curved geometry that takes it arbitrarily close to my first point (based on parameters I give it) and then continue on to the second point without stopping. In fact you can program arbitrarily complex paths and the motion controller will perform them flawlessly. Unfortunately this means that 90% of the motion control logic out there is much more complex than it needs to be.

Aside: in object-oriented programming, such as in Java or .NET, it’s pretty normal to have to interface with a relational database such as MySQL or Microsoft SQL Server. However, when you try to mesh the two worlds of object-oriented programming and relational databases, you typically run into insidious little problems. Programmers call this the Object-relational impedance mismatch. I’m sure that if you added it up, literally billions of dollars have been spent trying to overcome these issues.

My point is that there is a similar Ladder logic-motion control impedance mismatch. The vast majority of PLC-based motion control is simple point-to-point motion. In that case, the ideal interface from ladder would be a single instance of a “go-to” function block with the following parameters:

  • Target Position (X, Y…)
  • Max Velocity
  • Acceleration
  • Deceleration
  • Acceleration Jerk
  • Deceleration Jerk

When the rung-in-condition goes true on this block, the motion control system moves to the target position with the given parameters, and when the rung-in-condition goes false, it stops. Furthermore, we should be able to change any of those parameters in real-time, and the motion controller should do its best to adjust the trajectory and dynamics to keep up. That would be all you need for most applications.

The remaining applications are cases where you need more complex geometries. Typically this is with multi-axis systems where you want to move through a series of intermediate points without stopping, or you want to follow a curved path through 2D or 3D-space. In my opinion, the ideal solution would be a combination of a path editor (where you use an editing tool to define a path, and it’s stored in an array of structures in the PLC) and a “follow path” function block with the following parameters:

  • Path
  • Path Tolerance

When the rung-in-condition is true, it moves forward along that path, and when it turns off, it stops. You could even add a BOOL parameter called Reverse which makes it go backwards along the path. The second parameter, “Path Tolerance” would limit how far off the path it can be before you get a motion error. I think this parameter is a good idea because it (a) allows you to initiate the instruction as long as your position is anywhere along that path, and (b) makes sure you’re not going to initiate some wild move as it tries to get to the first point.

A neat additional function block would be a way to calculate the nearest point on a path from a given position, so you could recover by jogging onto a path and continue on the path after a fault.

Obviously there needs to be a way for the PLC to generate or edit paths dynamically, but that’s hardly a big deal.

Anyway, these are my ideas. For now we’re stuck with this clunky way of writing motion control logic. Hopefully someone’s listening to us poor saps in the trenches! :)

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Jul/14

1

Ladder Logic running on an Arduino UNO

Happy Canada Day!

Some of you may wonder if I’d fallen off the face of the Earth, but the truth is life just gets busy from time to time. Just for interest’s sake, here’s my latest fun project: an Arduino UNO running ladder logic!

Ladder Logic on a UNO

You may remember I wrote a ladder logic editor about 5 or so years ago called SoapBox Snap. It only had the ability to run the ladder logic in a “soft” runtime (on the PC itself). This is an upgrade for SoapBox Snap so that it can download the ladder logic to an Arduino and even do online debugging and force I/O:

Arduino UNO Ladder

I haven’t released the new version yet, but it’s very close (like a few days away probably).

Edit: I’ve now released it and here is a complete tutorial on programming an Arduino in Ladder Logic using SoapBox Snap.

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Jan/14

26

On Media Boxes in the Living Room

I’ve mentioned before that we first had a TiVo, and after getting an HDTV (TiVo doesn’t support an HD model compatible with Canadian cable TV) we got a Boxee Box and dropped our cable TV subscription. Basically we decided to stream all our TV from the internet. Now that Boxee got bought out and stopped updating the firmware for its rather outdated hardware we decided to move on. I think a lot of people are considering the leap away from cable or satellite and into streaming their TV and movies from the internet, so let me share our experiences.

First of all, I’m not convinced that a smart TV or embedded device like the Boxee Box or Roku is the answer. The Boxee Box was great for streaming content from other PCs in the house, but not for streaming stuff from online. These embedded set-top type devices, whether they’re built into the TV or not, suffer from two major drawbacks: one is that they’re usually underpowered for the price you pay, and two is that the software is typically some kind of highly customized embedded Linux with some custom user interface software built on top of it. On the Boxee Box, the web browser always seemed to be a bit slow, flaky, and the flash was typically out of date compared to what the online TV streaming sites were using. Our relatives recently purchased a brand new smart TV, and the web browser didn’t seem to support the latest flash that they needed to visit some site. Given the premium you pay for smart TV features, that seems a bit hard to swallow. Flashing the firmware was the next step, but I’m not sure how that went.

Given that background, we decided to take the plunge and just buy a PC and hook it up to the TV, then get a wireless keyboard and mouse combination. You can get a pretty good PC (Core i5) on sale for less than $500, and I’m pretty sure that even a $300 bargain model would probably do everything you wanted, and that’s less than the premium you might pay for a smart TV.

We couldn’t be happier with the new PC solution. The Windows software just stays up-to-date. It’s fast (much faster than any other set-top-box hardware you’ll see today), the interface is familiar, and all your hard-won Windows knowledge will come in handy if you have any problems. Netflix and other Hulu-like services work great. I also like that the kids can have their own login that’s limited by the parental controls feature of Windows (which I’d never used before, but is actually quite advanced).

I know one issue is where to locate the PC. We actually already had a place in the entertainment cabinet where a full desktop tower could fit, so it wasn’t a big deal, but if that’s an issue for you, there are other smaller (more expensive) options like the Zotac ZBox out there, which is just a full blown PC in a small form factor. I have also seen a wireless HDMI device (it works line-of-site) so you could hook it up to a laptop that you have on a table beside the couch (the TV would show up as a second monitor). Another issue is having the wireless keyboard and mouse out on the coffee table. That’s not a big deal if you have somewhere handy to stow it when not in use. Having a full keyboard certainly makes certain things a lot easier (searching for content, entering passwords, etc.).

One final caveat – the one bit of content that’s very hard to find online is sports. If you’re really into sports (we’re not) then you’ll need to keep some kind of paid TV subscription. That’s just the way it is.

Plus you get the benefit of a full-blown PC handy in your living room. Overall I think it’s the best solution we have right now, and it’s what I’d recommend if you’re looking to take the plunge.

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Let’s assume you already know everything there is to know about motion control… you can jog a servo axis, home it, make it move to a position using trapezoidal or s-curve motion. Now what?

Sooner or later you’re going to find yourself with 2 or more axes and you’re going to want to do something fancy with them. Maybe you have an X/Y table and you want it to move on a perfect 45 degree angle, or you need it to follow a curved, but precise, path in the X/Y plane. Now you need coordinated motion.

Coordinated motion controllers are actually quite common. Every 3, 4, or 5 axis mill uses coordinated motion, every robot controller, and even those little RepRap 3D printers. What you may not know is that most integrated motion solutions you might encounter in the PLC world also offer coordinated motion (a.k.a. interpolated motion) control. If you’re from the Allen-Bradley world, the ControlLogix/CompactLogix line of PLCs allows you to use the Motion Coordinated Linear Move (MCLM) and Motion Coordinated Circular Move (MCCM) instructions along with a few others. If you’re from the Beckhoff world, you can purchase a license for their NC I product which offers a full G-code interpreter, which is the language milling machines and 3D printers speak.

Under the hood, a coordinated motion control solution offers several features necessary for a workable multi-axis solution. The first is a path planner, the second is synchronization.

The job of the path planner is fairly complex. If you say that you need to move your X/Y table from point 5,2 to point 8,3 then it needs to take the maximum motion parameters of both axes into account to make sure that neither axis exceeds it’s torque, velocity or acceleration/deceleration limits, and typically it will limit the “velocity vector” as well, meaning the actual speed of the point you’re moving in the X/Y plane. Furthermore, it must create a motion profile for each axis that, when combined, cause the tooling to move in a straight line between those points. After all, you may be trying to move a cutting tool along a precise path and you need to cut a straight line. To make matters far more complicated, after the motion is already in progress, if the controller receives another command (for instance to move to point 10,5 after the initial move to 8/3) then it will “blend” the first move into the second, depending on rules you give it.

For instance, let’s say you start at 0,0, then issue a move to 10,0 but then immediately issue a second move to 10,10. You have to option of specifying how that motion will move through the 10,0 point. If you issue a “fine” move then the X axis has to decelerate to a stop completely before the Y axis starts its motion. However, you can also tell it that you only care that you get within 1 unit of the point, in which case the Y axis will start moving as soon as you get to point 9,0 and will do a curved move through point 10,1 on its way to 10,10 without ever moving though point 10,0. This is actually useful if you’re more concerned with speed than accuracy. Another option you have is to issue a linear move to 9,0 followed by a circular move to 10,1 (with center at 9,1) followed by a linear move to 10,10. That will cause the tooling to follow a similar path, but in this case you’re in precise control of the curved path that it takes. In neither case will either axis stop until it gets to the final point.

The other important feature of coordinated motion is synchronization of the axes. Typically the controller delegates lower level control of the axes to traditional axis controllers, and the coordinated motion controller just feeds the motion profiles to each axis. However, it’s imperative that each axis starts its motion at precisely the same time, or the path won’t be correct in the multi-dimensional space. That requires some kind of clock synchronization, and that’s the reason why you see options for things like Coordinated System Time Masters on ControlLogix and CompactLogix processors.

That was very brief, but I hope it was informative. If you do have to tackle coordinated motion on your next project, definitely allocate some time for reading your manufacturer’s literature on the subject because it’s a fairly steep learning curve, but clearly necessary if your project demands it.

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Aug/13

6

Where to Draw the Line(s)?

One of the most confusing things that new programmers face is how to break down their program into smaller pieces. Sometimes we call this architecture, but I’m not sure that gives the right feel to the process. Maybe it’s more like collecting insects…

Imagine you’re looking at your ladder logic program under a microscope, and you pick out two rungs of logic at random. Now ask yourself, in the collection of rungs that is your program, do these two rungs belong close together, or further apart? How do you make that decision? Obviously we don’t just put rungs that look the same next to each other, like we would if we were entomologists, but there’s clearly some measure of what belongs together, and what doesn’t.

Somehow this is related to the concept of Cohesion from computer science. Cohesion is this nebulous measure of how well the things inside of a single software “module” fit together. That, of course, makes you wonder how they defined a software module…

There are many different ways of structuring your ladder logic. One obvious restriction is order of execution. Sometimes you must execute one rung before another rung for your program to operate correctly, and that puts a one-way restriction on the location of these two rungs, but they could still be located a long way away.

Another obvious method of grouping rungs is by the physical concept of the machine. For instance, all the rungs for starting and stopping a motor, detecting a fault with that motor (failure to start), and summarizing the condition of that motor are typically together in one module (or file/program/function block/whatever).

Still we sometimes break that rule. We might, for instance, have the motor-failed-to-start-fault in the motor program, but likely want to map this fault to an alarm on the HMI, and that alarm will be driven in some rung under the HMI alarms program, potentially a long way away from the motor program. Why did we draw the line there? Why not put the alarm definition right beside the fault definition that drives it? In most cases it’s because the alarms, by necessity, are addressed by a number (or a bit position in a bit array) and we have to make sure we don’t double-allocate an alarm number. That’s why we put all the alarms in one file in numerical order, so we can see which numbers we’ve already used, and also so that when alarm # 153 comes up on the HMI, we can quickly find that alarm bit in the PLC by scrolling down to rung 153 (if we planned it right) in that alarms program.

I just want to point out that this is only a restriction of the HMI (and communication) technology. We group alarms into bit arrays for faster communication, but with PC-based control systems we’re nearing the day when we can just configure alarms without a numbering scheme. If you could configure your HMI software to alarm when any given tag in the PLC turned on, you wouldn’t even need an alarms file, let alone the necessity of separating the alarms from the fault logic.

Within a program, how should we order our rungs? Assuming you satisfied the execution order requirement I talked about above, I usually fall back on three rules of thumb: (1) tell a story, (2) keep things that change together grouped together, and (3) separate the “why” from the “how”.

What I mean by “tell a story” is that the rungs should be organized into a coherent thought process. The reader should be able to understand what you were thinking. First we calculate the whozit #1, then the whozit #2, then the whozit #3, and then we average the 3. That’s better than mixing the summing/averaging with the calculating of individual whozits.

Point #2 (keep things that change together grouped together) is a pragmatic rule. In general it would be nice if your code was structured in a way that you only had to make changes in one place, but as we know, that’s not always the case. If you do have a situation where changing one piece of logic means you likely have to change another piece of logic, consider putting those two rungs together, as close as you can manage.

Finally, “separate the why from the how”. Sometimes the “how” is as simple as turning on an output, and in that case this rule doesn’t apply, but sometimes you run across complicated logic just to, say, send a message to another controller, or search for something in an array based on a loop (yikes). In that case, try to remove the complexity of the “how” away from the upper level flow of the “why”. Don’t interrupt the story with gory details, just put that into an appendix. Either stuff that “how” code in the bottom of the same program, or, better yet, move it into its own program or function block.

None of these are hard and fast rules, but they are generally accepted ways of managing the complexity of your program. You have to draw those lines somewhere, so give a little thought to it at first, and save your reader a boatload of confusion.

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May/13

23

The TwinCAT 3.1 Review

Earlier this year I reviewed TwinCAT 3 and I admit that it was a less than stellar review. Up to now TwinCAT 3 has seemed like a beta all the way.

Well, I’m pleased to say that after using and deploying TwinCAT 3.1 for several weeks, it’s a significant improvement over its predecessor, and brings it into the realm of “release-quality” software. There are several improvements I’ll try to highlight.

64-bit! Finally! Yes, it’s so nice to get rid of the old 32-bit copy of Windows 7 and get back to the world of 64-bit computing.

The TwinSAFE safety editor is so much better. While the old one would take several minutes to verify my safety program before downloading it, and several minutes to even get online with the safety controller, this new version does it in seconds. It was so fast in comparison that I thought it didn’t work the first time. Thank goodness because that was a major shortcoming of the old version.

I’m pleased to report that Beckhoff has made changes to the source code file format to make them more friendly to source control applications (like Subversion or Mercurial). Doing a “diff” between 2 file versions now gives you a really good idea of what changed, rather than some obscure XML code. This is one of the first things I complained about and I didn’t expect it to get changed, so I’m really happy to see that. (Also remember that TwinCAT 2 files were completely unfriendly to Source Control; they were just a big binary blob!) Note that when you upgrade your TwinCAT 3.0 solution to TwinCAT 3.1, it has to do a conversion, and it’s one-way. Keep a backup of your old version just in case. In our case, the upgrade went well, except for references, but that was ok…

The old library manager in each PLC project has been replaced by a References folder, which you will be familiar with if you do any sort of .NET programming. You can now add and remove library references right in the solution tree, which is nice. That’s one thing that didn’t get upgraded automatically. I had to remove my old references to the TwinCAT 3.0 standard libraries and re-add them as TwinCAT 3.1 libraries. Not a big deal once I figured out what was causing the build error.

The scope viewer has been removed from the system tray icon menu and pulled into the Visual Studio interface. I think this is just part of their attempt to pull everything into one environment, which I applaud.

Unfortunately I still had one blue-screen-of-death when I tried to do an online change, but I couldn’t reproduce that problem. I’m using a commercial desktop computer, not an industrial PC for my testing, and Beckhoff says they won’t support the software if it isn’t installed on Beckhoff hardware. Let that be a warning to you: even though you pay significantly more for the software license in order to run it on non-Beckhoff hardware, they will not warranty software bugs in that case. That doesn’t mean you can’t get local support, but it does mean that if you have a legitimate bug report, they won’t help you unless it can be reproduced on Beckhoff hardware.

While upgrading, I also upgraded the operating system on the PC from Windows 7 32-bit to Windows 7 64-bit. That created a small problem because it caused the Beckhoff generated system ID to change, and the license is attached to the system ID. That means I have to go through generating a license file and applying the response file again. Hopefully there are no problems with duplicate licensing, as it is the same physical computer. I’m still waiting for a response though.

I did run into a couple gotchas during the upgrade. First, TwinCAT 3.1, for whatever reason, requires Intel’s Virtualization Technology Extentions (VTx) to be enabled in the BIOS, and mine weren’t. It turns out that I needed to flash the BIOS to even get that option. Secondly, we use Kaspersky Endpoint Security version 8 for our enterprise anti-virus solution. It turns out that both version 8 and version 6 prevent TwinCAT 3.1 from booting the PLC runtime into Run Mode on startup. Without Kaspersky installed it worked fine. I eventually tried Microsoft Security Essentials (the free Anti-virus solution from Microsoft) and that seems to work well. Some anti-virus is better than none, I figure.

The upgraded system has been in production for nearly 2 weeks, and seems to be working well (no problems that I can attribute directly to TwinCAT, at any rate).

In summary, if you’re looking to jump into TwinCAT 3, I know I said to wait in my last review, but I now think that TwinCAT 3.1 is a good solid base if you’re looking to get your feet wet.

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