Microcontrollers and PLCs can perform many of the same functions, such as mathematical operations, logic and data processing, and controlling devices. However, microcontrollers are significantly less expensive to obtain. So why aren’t manufacturers racing to replace their PLC systems with microcontrollers?

The best way to understand why PLCs are still the clear choice for industrial applications is to examine the key characteristics that make these two types of computers different beyond just their lopsided price tags.

What is a Microcontroller

A microcontroller is a compact integrated circuit device that is typically embedded within another device, such as a home appliance, television, or a car, to control a singular function. It’s also common for multiple microcontrollers to be used to handle varying tasks. For example, a car will have one microcontroller for operating the speedometer, another for the auto-braking system, and yet another for the powered windows.

How a Microcontroller Works

Microcontrollers contain a processor (CPU), data memory, program memory, input/output (I/O) control, and supporting circuitry. Data from a device’s various inputs are received from the microcontroller’s I/O and temporarily stored in the memory. The processor then analyzes the data to determine the appropriate response based on pre-programmed instructions stored in the microcontroller’s program memory. The processor then uses the I/O to communicate the response and perform an output function.

Advantages of Microcontrollers

Microcontrollers excel in applications requiring limited computing functions; however, they can perform a wide range of operations, including mathematical calculations, processing logic and data, controlling devices, and handling serial and wireless communications. In addition, microcontrollers are typically compact in size and inexpensive, with some models being obtainable for less than a hundred dollars.

What is a PLC

Programmable logic controllers (PLCs) are ruggedized computers used for industrial automation. Similar to microcontrollers, PLCs monitor inputs and outputs to make logic-based decisions for automating processes, as well as controlling machine functions and even entire production lines.

How a PLC Works

PLCs consist of a processor, I/O modules, a power supply, and an external programming device. The processor serves as the brains of the PLC and executes pre-programmed control functions based on data received from connected input devices, such as a sensor, switch, or thermometer. For example, if a thermometer sends the PLC low-temperature data, the PLC’s processor will analyze the data, determine the appropriate response, and execute a command to turn on a heating element.

The PLC’s I/O modules are physically connected to field devices and are what provides input data to the processor, as well as communicate commands to output devices. I/O modules are either analog or digital and can be mixed and matched to fit the application.
The external programming device is typically a desktop or laptop computer and is used for writing the PLC program, as well as downloading it to the controller. There are numerous PLC programming methods, including ladder logic, function block diagrams, structured text, instruction lists, and sequential flow charts.

Advantages of PLCs

PLCs are specifically designed and rigorously tested to ensure they can withstand operating in an industrial environment where they may be exposed to shock and vibration, noise, corrosive materials, and extreme temperature fluctuations. Similarly, PLCs are built for longevity, with many manufacturers operating the same PLC in their facilities for more than a decade. PLCs are also typically supported for years, making it easier to have your systems serviced and find replacement parts when necessary. In the event a PLC model is discontinued, clear migration paths to more current hardware are typically available, eliminating the need to completely rewrite your programs. IEC61131 standards for all PLC programs are another advantage that provides consistency across systems and simplifies troubleshooting.

Alternatively, new versions of microcontrollers are often introduced every few years, which can make it challenging to find replacement parts for the discontinued models. With the introduction of new versions of microcontrollers, changes to the programming environment can also be made, which may require you to overhaul your programs to match a more current system.

Overall, in an industrial manufacturing setting where efficiency, safety, and proven reliability are the top priorities for controllers, a PLC is still your best bet over a microcontroller.

About Process Solutions

Located near Seattle, Washington, Process Solutions has over 30 years of experience providing high quality and reliable control systems. With over 100 engineers and technicians on staff and an output of over 3,000 industrial control panels per year, Process Solutions is the Northwest largest control systems integrator. In addition to custom control panel design, build and commissioning, Process Solutions’ control systems services include PLC programming, PLC integration, robot system integration, energy management and refrigeration systems, SCADA software, HMI development, and DAQuery machine monitoring software.

Vaclav Mydlil
Sr. Director of Advanced Automation
Vaclav leads the dynamic Energy Management and Refrigeration Division at Process Solutions. With an impressive 20 years of experience in power demand management and refrigeration control systems, Vaclav is the driving force behind one of the company’s most innovative systems.

His expertise extends to PLC and cloud-based systems, ensuring seamless integration and optimal performance. Vaclav’s commitment to excellence is underscored by his Master of Science degree, specializing in control systems and electrical engineering, which he earned from the University of Life Sciences in Prague, Czech Republic.

Beyond the office, Vaclav’s passions include kayaking, snow skiing, and woodworking. Most of all, he enjoys moments spent with his wife and three kids.
Steve Pelton
Vice President of Sales
With over 20 years at Process Solutions, Steve Pelton has held various roles, including Sales Engineer, Sales Director, and his current position as Vice President of Sales.

In addition, Steve oversees Process Solutions’ Energy Management and Refrigeration Division — ensuring the company remains at the forefront of energy-efficient solutions that cater to diverse food production applications. Steve also spearheads the strategic development of the company’s machine monitoring solutions, aligning them with client needs and market trends.

Steve’s background includes mechanical engineering, but his career trajectory has mainly focused on control systems marketing and management. His ability to bridge technical expertise with business acumen has been instrumental in Process Solutions’ growth.

Outside the office, Steve passions include conquering rugged trails on his mountain bike, perfecting his golf swing, and exploring new destinations with his family.
Matt Barnes
Chief Financial Officer
Matt, with 28 years of financial strategy and accounting experience, plays a pivotal role at Process Solutions. As the Chief Financial Officer (CFO), he spearheads the company’s growth strategy, ensuring financial stability and health.

Beyond traditional financial management, Matt also oversees strategic initiatives aimed at optimizing Process Solutions’ on-hand inventory costs and availability. By fine-tuning inventory management, Matt ensures the company can meet client needs efficiently and maintain a healthy bottom line.

Matt graduated with a degree in accounting from Western Washington University and previously served as a financial executive at a large retail corporation. Outside of work, Matt enjoys traveling, soccer and spending time with his family.
Kevin Orr
Executive Vice President
Kevin boasts an impressive tenure of over 25 years at Process Solutions. His position in the company has been multifaceted, spanning roles as a project engineer, engineering manager, and Process Solutions’ first Executive Vice President.

Under Kevin’s leadership, the food processing division has flourished, earning its reputation as of the most respected in the industry. Today, Kevin closely collaborates with executives from leading food processors and food processing equipment manufacturers across the country.

Kevin is a devoted husband and father with a passion for international travel.
Todd Busby
Chief Executive Officer
Todd has dedicated over 30 years to Process Solutions, where he has worn multiple hats—from panel builder to project engineer and sales representative.

As the CEO of Process Solutions, Todd has spearheaded significant transformations. Under his leadership, the company has diversified into new industries, acquired a world-class facility, and more than doubled its size.

Todd, a native of the Puget Sound region, is a devoted husband, father, and avid outdoorsman. When he’s not at work, you’ll find him supporting his three kids in all their pursuits or hunting and fishing in Eastern Washington.
David Crumpley
David has dedicated over 15 years to Process Solutions, where he has served as a Senior Engineer, Vice President, and now Chief Operating Officer. His multifaceted experience spans technical expertise, strategic leadership, and operational efficiency.

As the head of Process Solutions’ Water/Wastewater division, David orchestrated the modernization of the company’s internal systems and boosted operational efficiency across the organization.

In his current role as President, David continues to drive innovative initiatives aimed at expanding the company’s reach and further streamlining internal processes.

Outside of work, David enjoys spending quality time with his family and pursuing his passions as an avid outdoorsman.

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