What Everybody Ought to Know About PLC Programming Languages

PLC programs are normally written in a special application on a personal computer, then downloaded to the PLC. This downloaded program is similar to compiled code to keep the program efficient. The program is stored in the PLC either in battery-backed-up RAM or some other non-volatile flash memory.

Albert Einstein said “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking” PLC programming languages have evolved to both adapt and change the way we program these units. We will look at all five programming languages as defined by the IEC 61131-3 Standard.

  • Structured Text (ST)
  • Function Block Diagram (FBD)
  • Sequential Function Chart (SFC)
  • Instruction List (IL)
  • Ladder Diagram (LD)

Not all of these programmable controller languages are available in every PLC. Ladder logic programming is by far the largest percentage of use in PLC’s today. Fundamental concepts of PLC programming are common to all manufacturers. Differences in I/O addressing, memory organization, and instruction sets mean that PLC programs are never interchangeable between different makers. Even within the same product line of a single manufacturer, different models may not be directly compatible. This is true when looking at manufactures that private label other controllers.

Estimates are as high as 95% of installations use ladder logic programming in the programmable logic controller.

The PLC programming language that is used can be decided when you look at the following:

  • Maintenance and troubleshooting
  • Knowledge of language
  • Acceptance of the country, location, or individual plant
  • Application of the PLC
  • Ease of changing the PLC program

The actual programming of the PLC is the second last step in the development of programs. The five steps to PLC program development is a good method to follow before picking what programming language to use. As mentioned before the languages supported by each PLC may differ. Please refer to the types of programming that are available for your model and version of PLC.

Let’s quickly review some of the different programming languages for the PLC.

Structured Text (ST) is a high-level programming language that closely resembles Pascale programming. Statements are used to define what to execute.
ST MP50pro_st

Function Block Diagram (FBD) is a graphical representation of AND, NAND, OR, NOR gates, etc. that are drawn. It will describe the function between input and output variables.
FBD MP50pro_fbd

Sequential Function Chart (SFC) is like a flowchart of your program. It defines the steps through which your program moves.
SFC MP50pro_sfc

Instruction List (IL) can also be referred to as the mnemonic code and statement list. It contains simple instructions for looking at your variables.
IL MP50pro_il

Ladder Diagram (LD) is the most popular programming language for the PLC. It was written to mimic the mechanical relays in the panel that the programmable logic controller replaced. It has two vertical rails and a series of horizontal rungs between them. Controllers will usually scan from left to right top to bottom. The output of one rung is available for the next rung.
LD MP50pro_ladder

Note: All pictures from PLCopen IEC 61131 Basics

PLC programming methods are evolving. PLC Open is an organization that is defining new methods to take advantage of the latest computer innovations. They have defined the IL method of programming to XML (Extended Markup Language) which is used for web development. This, in my opinion, keeps moving the ideal method, to a standard way to program PLCs.

If you have any questions or need further information please contact me.
Thank you,

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2 thoughts on “What Everybody Ought to Know About PLC Programming Languages”

  1. I’m glad you mentioned that not all five of the programming languages are available in every PLC, as I was not previously aware of this. Luckily, Ladder logic programming is actually the method that I’m most familiar with. I’m something of a hobby programmer at home, and I’ve been considering stepping up my programming game by taking on some of the more advanced work like PLC’s, and so I may have to take a look at the XML programming you mentioned as well, just to keep up with how things are changing.

    1. HI Rhianna,
      Thanks for the comments. If you want here is a post that will get you started with PLC programming without spending any money.
      There are also free online PLC simulators that will help you to develop general logic. Here is one for ladder logic.
      Hope this helps you out.
      Let me know if I can be of assistance.
      Thanks again,

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