Automation and remote control of equipment requires financial investment as well as persistent long-term commitment. Understanding what industrial controls are and how they are used benefits managers and owners as they navigate the array of control technology available to them.

What Are Industrial Controls?

Industrial controls are programmable devices used for automation and process control. They interface between sensors and mechanical and electrical equipment. The controllers receive data on select conditions and respond to provide a desired output. For example, a sensor monitoring temperature sends data to the controller, but the temperature is higher than the programmed setpoint. The programmed output may be to turn on a fan or adjust a flow rate through a cooling tower.

Types of Industrial Controls

There are several types of controllers. Some allow for remote operation, while others target localized equipment or processes. Here are some key controllers:

  • Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) – The PLC, though the original type of controller, has improved over the years. It is used to connect sensors to actuators in the field. PLCs have limited programming commands but are rugged and can be used in a variety of ways, making them a common controller used across industries.
  • Programmable Automation Controller (PAC) – This controller’s abilities allow communication between different devices with better memory and processing than PLCs.
  • Industrial PCs (IPC) – IPCs are similar to PLCs, but they tend to outperform PLCs and PACs on the basis of memory and processing. This type of control is also able to withstand environmental conditions, like heat and moisture.
  • Edge Programmable Industrial Controller (EPIC) – The EPICs is a newer type of controller that takes advantage of edge computing. It is designed to provide real-time responses with data collected and analyzed by the unit in the field. Data can transfer between an EPIC and other controllers or applications.

Integrating Industrial Controls Into a Building System

Industrial controller systems are used to automate individual building systems such as HVAC, as part of building automation systems (BAS), as well as in data centers, manufacturing and industrial processing. Two common industrial control systems are Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) and Distributed Control System (DCS). SCADA supports long-distance monitoring and limited control of a process. However, DCS connects sensors, controllers, operating terminals, and actuators via a communication network and offers control and data collection for a given process.

The particular characteristics of each type of controller and control system are useful in different circumstances. 

A few factors to consider are:

  • The level of programming available is linked to function and processing power. The simplest action is on/off. Programming becomes increasingly complex for more dynamic responses. Establishing expectations and an outline of the logical steps needed to meet them can help in determining the programming needs for specific controllers.
  • Compatibility between controllers and other devices used in a control system is important. Open-source communication protocols allow for greater flexibility in choosing controllers or other equipment from different manufacturers.
  • The location of industrial controllers can have a significant impact on operability. Vibration, humidity, temperature, and distance may determine which controller is used or how it fits within the control system.
  • Network security is an important part of industrial control systems. Cybersecurity concerns have increased recently as several companies and organizations have been targeted by ransomware attacks or malware that sabotaged equipment. Depending on the industry and types of equipment in the control system, inefficient security can expose personnel and customers to serious injury or death.

Automation and Process Improvement With Industrial Controls

Industrial controllers make automation and remote control possible. The best systems are designed to maximize the benefits of different controller characteristics and network security best practices. Knowledgeable professionals are adept at evaluating a customer’s automation or processing needs and matching them to the best devices for the job.

Patti draws on her background as a chemical engineer to share information with readers on technology, manufacturing, and construction.


PCMag – PCMag Encyclopedia

Opto 22 – Meet the Future: Edge Programmable Industrial Controllers

Trend Micro – Industrial Control System

Control Engineering – How to choose an industrial automation controller