Inputs to, and outputs from, a PLC are necessary to monitor and control a process. Both inputs and outputs can be categorized into two basic types: logical or continuous. Consider the example of a light bulb. If it can only be turned on or off, it is logical control. If the light can be dimmed to different levels, it is continuous. Continuous values seem more intuitive, but logical values are preferred because they allow more certainty, and simplify control. As a result most controls applications (and PLCs) use logical inputs and outputs for most applications. Hence, we will discuss logical I/O and leave continuous I/O for later.

Outputs to actuators allow a PLC to cause something to happen in a process. A short list of popular actuators is given below in order of relative popularity.

Solenoid Valves - logical outputs that can switch a hydraulic or pneumatic flow.

Lights - logical outputs that can often be powered directly from PLC output boards.

Motor Starters - motors often draw a large amount of current when started, so they require motor starters, which are basically large relays.

Servo Motors - a continuous output from the PLC can command a variable speed or position.

Outputs from PLCs are often relays, but they can also be solid state electronics such as transistors for DC outputs or Triacs for AC outputs. Continuous outputs require special output cards with digital to analog converters.

Inputs come from sensors that translate physical phenomena into electrical signals. Typical examples of sensors are listed below in relative order of popularity.

Proximity Switches - use inductance, capacitance or light to detect an object logically.

Switches - mechanical mechanisms will open or close electrical contacts for a logical signal.

Potentiometer - measures angular positions continuously, using resistance.

LVDT (linear variable differential transformer) - measures linear displacement continuously using magnetic coupling.

Inputs for a PLC come in a few basic varieties, the simplest are AC and DC inputs. Sourcing and sinking inputs are also popular. This output method dictates that a device does not supply any power. Instead, the device only switches current on or off, like a simple switch.

Sinking - When active the output allows current to flow to a common ground. This is best selected when different voltages are supplied.

Sourcing - When active, current flows from a supply, through the output device and to ground. This method is best used when all devices use a single supply voltage.

This is also referred to as NPN (sinking) and PNP (sourcing). PNP is more popular. This will be covered in detail in the chapter on sensors.

2.1.1 Inputs

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In smaller PLCs the inputs are normally built in and are specified when purchasing the PLC. For larger PLCs the inputs are purchased as modules, or cards, with 8 or 16 inputs of the same type on each card. For discussion purposes we will discuss all inputs as if they have been purchased as cards. The list below shows typical ranges for input voltages, and is roughly in order of popularity.

12-24 Vdc

100-120 Vac

10-60 Vdc

12-24 Vac/dc

5 Vdc (TTL)

200-240 Vac

48 Vdc

24 Vac

PLC input cards rarely supply power, this means that an external power supply is needed to supply power for the inputs and sensors. The example in Figure 2.2 An AC Input Card and Ladder Logic shows how to connect an AC input card.


Figure 2.2 An AC Input Card and Ladder Logic

In the example there are two inputs, one is a normally open push button, and the second is a temperature switch, or thermal relay. (NOTE: These symbols are standard and will be discussed later in this chapter.) Both of the switches are powered by the positive/hot output of the 24Vac power supply - this is like the positive terminal on a DC supply. Power is supplied to the left side of both of the switches. When the switches are open there is no voltage passed to the input card. If either of the switches are closed power will be supplied to the input card. In this case inputs 1 and 3 are used - notice that the inputs start at 0. The input card compares these voltages to the common. If the input voltage is within a given tolerance range the inputs will switch on. Ladder logic is shown in the figure for the inputs. Here it uses Allen Bradley notation for ControlLogix. At the top is the tag (variable name) for the rack. The input card (’I’) is in slot 3, so the address for the card is bob:3.I.Data.x, where ’x’ is the input bit number. These addresses can also be given alias tags to make the ladder logic less confusing.

Many beginners become confused about where connections are needed in the circuit above. The key word to remember is circuit, which means that there is a full loop that the voltage must be able to follow. In Figure 2.2 An AC Input Card and Ladder Logic we can start following the circuit (loop) at the power supply. The path goes through the switches, through the input card, and back to the power supply where it flows back through to the start. In a full PLC implementation there will be many circuits that must each be complete.

A second important concept is the common. Here the neutral on the power supply is the common, or reference voltage. In effect we have chosen this to be our 0V reference, and all other voltages are measured relative to it. If we had a second power supply, we would also need to connect the neutral so that both neutrals would be connected to the same common. Often common and ground will be confused. The common is a reference, or datum voltage that is used for 0V, but the ground is used to prevent shocks and damage to equipment. The ground is connected under a building to a metal pipe or grid in the ground. This is connected to the electrical system of a building, to the power outlets, where the metal cases of electrical equipment are connected. When power flows through the ground it is bad. Unfortunately many engineers, and manufacturers mix up ground and common. It is very common to find a power supply with the ground and common mislabeled.


One final concept that tends to trap beginners is that each input card is isolated. This means that if you have connected a common to only one card, then the other cards are not connected. When this happens the other cards will not work properly. You must connect a common for each of the output cards.

There are many trade-offs when deciding which type of input cards to use.

• DC voltages are usually lower, and therefore safer (i.e., 12-24V).

• DC inputs are very fast, AC inputs require a longer on-time. For example, a 60Hz wave may require up to 1/60sec for reasonable recognition.

• DC voltages can be connected to larger variety of electrical systems.

• AC signals are more immune to noise than DC, so they are suited to long distances, and noisy (magnetic) environments.

• AC power is easier and less expensive to supply to equipment.

• AC signals are very common in many existing automation devices.


Figure 2.3 Aside: PLC Input Circuits

2.1.2 Output Modules

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As with input modules, output modules rarely supply any power, but instead act as switches. External power supplies are connected to the output card and the card will switch the power on or off for each output. Typical output voltages are listed below, and roughly ordered by popularity.

120 Vac

24 Vdc

12-48 Vac

12-48 Vdc

5Vdc (TTL)

230 Vac

These cards typically have 8 to 16 outputs of the same type and can be purchased with different current ratings. A common choice when purchasing output cards is relays, transistors or triacs. Relays are the most flexible output devices. They are capable of switching both AC and DC outputs. But, they are slower (about 10ms switching is typical), they are bulkier, they cost more, and they will wear out after millions of cycles. Relay outputs are often called dry contacts. Transistors are limited to DC outputs, and Triacs are limited to AC outputs. Transistor and triac outputs are called switched outputs.

Dry contacts - a separate relay is dedicated to each output. This allows mixed voltages (AC or DC and voltage levels up to the maximum), as well as isolated outputs to protect other outputs and the PLC. Response times are often greater than 10ms. This method is the least sensitive to voltage variations and spikes.

Switched outputs - a voltage is supplied to the PLC card, and the card switches it to different outputs using solid state circuitry (transistors, triacs, etc.) Triacs are well suited to AC devices requiring less than 1A. Transistor outputs use NPN or PNP transistors up to 1A typically. Their response time is well under 1ms.


Figure 2.4 Aside: PLC Output Circuits

Caution is required when building a system with both AC and DC outputs. If AC is accidentally connected to a DC transistor output it will only be on for the positive half of the cycle, and appear to be working with a diminished voltage. If DC is connected to an AC triac output it will turn on and appear to work, but you will not be able to turn it off without turning off the entire PLC.


A major issue with outputs is mixed power sources. It is good practice to isolate all power supplies and keep their commons separate, but this is not always feasible. Some output modules, such as relays, allow each output to have its own common. Other output cards require that multiple, or all, outputs on each card share the same common. Each output card will be isolated from the rest, so each common will have to be connected. It is common for beginners to only connect the common to one card, and forget the other cards - then only one card seems to work!

The output card shown in Figure 2.5 An Example of a 24Vdc Output Card (Sinking) is an example of a 24Vdc output card that has a shared common. This type of output card would typically use transistors for the outputs.


Figure 2.5 An Example of a 24Vdc Output Card (Sinking)

In this example the outputs are connected to a low current light bulb (lamp) and a relay coil. Consider the circuit through the lamp, starting at the 24Vdc supply. When the output 07 is on, current can flow in 07 to the COM, thus completing the circuit, and allowing the light to turn on. If the output is off the current cannot flow, and the light will not turn on. The output 03 for the relay is connected in a similar way. When the output 03 is on, current will flow through the relay coil to close the contacts and supply 120Vac to the motor. Ladder logic for the outputs is shown in the bottom right of the figure. The notation is for an Allen Bradley ControlLogix. The output card (’O’) is in a rack labelled ’sue’ in slot 2. As indicated for the input card, it is good practice to define and use an alias tag for an output (e.g. Motor) instead of using the full description (e.g. sue:2.O.Data.3). This card could have many different voltages applied from different sources, but all the power supplies would need a single shared common.

The circuits in Figure 2.6 An Example of a 24Vdc Output Card With a Voltage Input (Sourcing) had the sequence of power supply, then device, then PLC card, then power supply. This requires that the output card have a common. Some output schemes reverse the device and PLC card, thereby replacing the common with a voltage input. The example in Figure 2.5 An Example of a 24Vdc Output Card (Sinking) is repeated in Figure 2.6 An Example of a 24Vdc Output Card With a Voltage Input (Sourcing) for a voltage supply card.


Figure 2.6 An Example of a 24Vdc Output Card With a Voltage Input (Sourcing)

In this example the positive terminal of the 24Vdc supply is connected to the output card directly. When an output is on power will be supplied to that output. For example, if output 07 is on then the supply voltage will be output to the lamp. Current will flow through the lamp and back to the common on the power supply. The operation is very similar for the relay switching the motor. Notice that the ladder logic (shown in the bottom right of the figure) is identical to that in Figure 2.5 An Example of a 24Vdc Output Card (Sinking). With this type of output card only one power supply can be used.

We can also use relay outputs to switch the outputs. The example shown in Figure 2.5 An Example of a 24Vdc Output Card (Sinking) and Figure 2.6 An Example of a 24Vdc Output Card With a Voltage Input (Sourcing) is repeated yet again in Figure 2.7 An Example of a Relay Output Card for relay output.


Figure 2.7 An Example of a Relay Output Card

In this example the 24Vdc supply is connected directly to both relays (note that this requires 2 connections now, whereas the previous example only required one.) When an output is activated the output switches on and power is delivered to the output devices. This layout is more similar to Figure 2.6 An Example of a 24Vdc Output Card With a Voltage Input (Sourcing) with the outputs supplying voltage, but the relays could also be used to connect outputs to grounds, as in Figure 2.5 An Example of a 24Vdc Output Card (Sinking). When using relay outputs it is possible to have each output isolated from the next. A relay output card could have AC and DC outputs beside each other.

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