Do I Need to be an Electrician AND a Programmer?
Let's face the facts.
We've seen the signs of changing technology.
It shouldn't be any surprise that systems with big voltages and systems with little voltages would start mixing eventually.
Years ago, industries ran exclusively on large voltages driving large currents, yielding high power for driving machines.
Computers on the other hand used thousandths or millionths of amps with just a couple volts - barely enough power to light up tiny little LEDs.
The big industrial systems were maintained by electricians with a knack for tracing wiring issues and replacing components that were abused from too much vibration, heat, and humidity.
The computer systems were maintained by the IT staff and programmers working in clean office environments - which was important because any of that heat, dust, and shock would permanently ruin the inside of a PC - it had to be neat!
Then one day, some said something that would change all of industry forever.
"What if we hooked a computer up to that motor?"
And suddenly, the digital age of manufacturing started.
Today, PLCs and robots dominate the previously hazardous trades. They also help to increase profits and revenue with fewer errors and faster output.
And the people? What about them?
We still need electricians, no doubt about that.
And the large voltage devices still exist, for sure.
As the computer systems continued to be installed in more and more systems, the job of the electrician became more advanced.
Very early in the evolution of industrial computers, a divergence, or split began to happen.
Traditional computer programming evolved from Basic roots to spurs of Java, C++, Python, and various web-scripting languages.
Industrial computers, in stark contrast, were placed in the hands of engineers and electricians with zero desire to become computer scientists.
The result is Ladder Logic, a code based on literal lines of instructions that appear as switches, contacts, and load devices.
The industrial computer then has three main tasks:
Read all of the buttons and switches (and sensors) in the facility.
Chew through the logical instruction, "if this is on and that is off, then turn on that other thing". They call this type of programming "If-This-Then-That" IFTT.
As a result of the logic, activate output load devices as needed at just the right moments.
This is the job of the PLC.
It has a few disadvantages over some other more complex languages.
For example, the program you enter is all that you get!
While that may seem obvious, there are numerous modern programming strategies that look at all of the massive sets of data together and recommend ways to improve efficiency or adapt the code based on changing circumstances:
- Computer games with adaptive game-play.
- Speech-to-text recognition software that can interpret different accents
- Music playlist preferences in online audio players
- 'Artificial Intelligence' and 'Machine Learning'
Not every code is restricted to a simple set of 'if this button is clicked, then activate this object'.
Now, this is still designed into the code as equations - that's still true.
The difference is that the algorithms are far more complex than 'if' statements, but technology is growing, and we may still be able to learn a thing or two if we pay attention to the trends of data.
But PLCs are designed to be simpler, for good reason.
Since the 'code' of Ladder Logic looks just like an electrical schematic, it's very easy for technicians to read and interpret - much easier than text-based computer codes!
With a little bit of training in the software, even the task of programming seems less challenging.
Do you need to be an electrician AND a programmer?
But it's not that bad!
If you can learn to understand (or dare I say even enjoy) programming, you may be just in the right place for the wave of the next digital transformation.
They call it "Industry 4.0", or "The Fourth Industrial Revolution", and "Smart Manufacturing".
The ability to connect devices and share information is the goal to making smarter decisions... Obviously with critical attention to the security of data.
Learn to master both the industrial usage and control of electrical devices, as well as the computers and digital communication, and you can achieve whatever you want.
I don't think any of us are there yet. It's a challenging road and constantly changing.
But change is part of the fun, right?
Go grab a book or sign up for an online class.
Go build something awesome.