First Experience - Automation Direct DL205 and DirectSoft32
For those of you that aren't familiar with my writing style, this article is what I call my first experiences. This does not mean this product is brand new on the market, but rather the first time I've personally had an integration application using this product. I will also share my learning curve ratings at the end of my first experience articles.
I see a lot of postings and opinions here in MrPLC.com forums about Automation Direct PLCs. I've never been able to give my opinion because I have never used one of these type PLCs. Well that day finally came when I worked with a customer that had a DL205 spec for PLC hardware.
Like most of you, I have a strong background in Allen Bradley and GE PLCs, but never looked at the Automation Direct PLCs. I do have PLC experience along with common sense, so I started by ordering the DirectSoft 32 software from Automation Direct's website. My application was a test machine that I needed an analog card to read a series of voltages from a dry contact closure with series and parallel resistors. My application was going to get pretty involved as far as the software and using a lot of functions in the PLC.
My first attempt at specing hardware for my machine lead me to using a DL240 CPU, some various 16 point input and output cards, one analog card, and an EZ Touch 6" color screen. I have to say, during this part of my project, (the design phase), I never once called or consulted anyone from Automation Direct. I felt every piece of information I found either in the catalog or online PDFs from Automation Direct's website was sufficient enough to satisfy my questions I had about the hardware I was about to purchase. I even knew that the DL240 CPU did not come with a back-up battery, and had placed an order for the battery at the same time I bought the CPU. I felt this was because Automation Direct's website/online order system keeps you informed on what you need to know, even the little things, like needing a backup battery for your CPU. I think the DL240 can last a while without a backup battery on a big capacitor charge in the CPU, but I still got the backup battery anyway.
Everything arrived from Automation Direct super fast. I was impressed with the fact that when they say "in stock", they actually mean it's in stock. It had to be true because everything came in one big box and was here a couple of days later.
I had the prints designed before the PLC parts arrived so my assembly technicians could start wiring the panel right away. I do not recall them asking me any questions about the way the electrical drawings were designed, so I assume that everything wired ok. The only thing that bugged me was I use AutoCad Electrical 2004, and the template for the input and output modules alternate the I/O addresses which causes the I/O numbers to be out of sequence on the electrical prints. I know how to fix the PLC template (build file) in AutoCad Electrical, but since this was my first Automation Direct job, I left it alone. The AutoCad Electrical template seems to match the wiring terminal block visually, so for ease of wiring, I can see where this is an advantage, but from the perspective of looking at the prints, some other electrician probably is going to ask himself, "What was this guy smoking when he designed these prints!"...Well anyway...I haven't decided if I will change the AutoCad Electrical PLC build file or leave it alone if I do another Automation Direct PLC. The point is, it's confusing...
After the design of the electrical prints, I started by installing the new DirectSoft32 software and taking a crack at this new PLC. The installation was normal, no problems installing the software. Upon starting the application development, here are a few things I noticed. Maybe I never figured out how to do thing correctly, but these are my first impressions, so feel free to correct me. Here are a few software and hardware quarks that bugged me.
DirectSoft 32 looks like Windows, but behaves like DOS. I found myself doing more F2, F3 or keystroke sequences than actually drag and dropping anything. I never did figure out how to copy and paste just one signal contact on rung 2 and paste it in the middle of rung 5. I had to manually insert the new instruction in rung 5 with a right click insert, or pressing the insert key on the keyboard. I couldn't connect rungs or rails with drag and drop so I learned how to use the CTRL key and SHIFT + CTRL key with your arrow keys to draw and erase lines. I also used the F3 and F2 keys to insert normally open and normally closed contacts. I did figure out that you can copy and paste whole rungs, so that was normal. By the time I was done with my application, I stopped using the mouse. I felt like I was back in the DOS days. Not my style of programming software, maybe someone else likes this, but not me.
No way to organize or break down logic in your machine. Again, maybe there is way to do this, but I didn't figure it out. In GE VersaPro, GE Proficy or even Allen Bradley RS Logix 500, you can create separate ladder files. I use this method to organize a machine. For example, I would call Ladder 1 the MAIN ladder that calls all the other ladders. Each other ladder then contains the logic to run each head or station on my automation. I didn't see how to organize my program this way so I was forced to put everything into one big gigantic ladder. My ladder program was about 420 rungs long. That's a lot of scrolling folks to get to parts of my logic and remember what rung everything was located.
No online timer adjustments. One of the things you can't do is change a timer value online at the timer function in the rung. I didn't try this yet, but I assume you could load the timer into a Data View table and edit the value in the Data View. Don't know if this would work, but I had an after thought.
Accumulator? What's an accumulator? I don't think I ever took a liking to the accumulator in the PLC. After a while I got use to how the accumulator works and started thinking like an accumulator, so it was getting easier as I went along. The accumulator is how you do any type of math or manipulation of registers in this PLC. You have to read registers by loading values into the accumulator, then do math against what is stored in the accumulator. Your results are stored in the accumulator, which you must then write the value out into a register and store it away. LDR means load a real number into the accumulator. ADDR means add a real number in the accumulator to the registered referenced, then store the results back into the accumulator. OUTD means take what is in the accumulator now, and store it into the destination resister. The D in OUT means store a double register or a 32-bit number. Real number takes two registers to store.
Binary, Hex, BCD, Decimal, WORD, or DWORD? If you don't understand all these different types of formats, you better learn before you tackle this PLC. I felt that this PLC was a bit stricter on types of registers than most I've worked on. Even down to using the correct function for the type of data you are working with. For example if you are using a real number type, you need to use an ADDR instead of a normal ADD function. Once you write a value to a register, you better remember what format it is when you read it back in your program at a later time or your gonna mess yourself up. It seems with other PLCs, some of this type handling is hidden a bit more under the hood, where Automation Direct exposes all these types where you can really mess up some calculations if your trying to cross a Hex register with a Real number register. Make sure you have a FIRM understanding of what your doing and what you need to calculate or convert. In other PLCs, some of this hidden thinking is protected by blocking off memory areas of the PLC. For example everyone knows that the memory location N7:0 is an integer and the memory location F8:0 is a real register in an Allen Bradley PLC. However in an Automation Direct PLC, a register is a V1400 can be either be an integer or real number depending on what you wrote to it from the accumulator. You also have to remember that a real number takes up a double word "DWORD" so if you wrote a real number to memory location V1400, the next available V memory is V1402. If you don't remember this and you write another real number into memory location V1401, your gonna have a big mess on your hands when none of your timers, math, or calculations come out right when you put your PLC in run mode.
DL240 CPU? Why waste the time. Ok here is an error on my part that you can learn from. I purchased a DL240 CPU for $189.00 because that is what was used in the past by my end user customer. Being a first time user to Automation Direct, I didn't know there is a BIG difference between a DL240 and a DL250-1 CPU. The cost of a DL250-1 is only $249.00, $60.00 more. Remember I already told you that I was doing analog? If your doing analog, you need to purchase a DL250-1. Getting this model CPU let's you do floating point math. You also get 10 times the amount of memory and bit of word addressing. In a DL240 you can not access each bit of a word. Like for example N7:0/3, but in a DL250-1 you can access each bit of a word. Like for example V1400.3. What I was after the most was the floating point math. $60.00 more is worth it to me. I recommend using the DL250-1 as a MINIMUM spec in your PLC. You also get 4 loop PIDs. Amazing value for the cost.
16 point card but eight status LED's? One-way Automation Direct must be cutting cost or space on the face of their I/O cards is having you toggle a switch to see all 16 status LEDs. Switch in the A position to view the first 8 points, switch in the B position to view the last 8 points. I wasn't too hip on this idea myself, but to each his own right?
Some things I liked about the software and hardware include:
Hands down, WOW on the find and replace. One of the things I did a lot in my first program was I didn't understand all the "alias" addresses. So I accidentally created quite a few addresses in one memory location that was an alias in another place. So I had some weird stuff going on in the PLC because I was actually using the same memory location in the PLC but it was referenced two different ways. In order to fix my error, I used the find and replace. The first time you find an address and replace it with another, you'll see how powerful and intuitive this function is.
Documentation editor can copy and paste to and from Microsoft Excel. I like to find speedy ways to import "documentation" or tags. VersaPro from GE Fanuc is also another software package I use that allows me to copy a row in the tag editor and paste it into Excel. I then can use the AutoFill feature in Excel to replicate tags, then I copy from Excel and paste directly into the tag editor in either VersaPro or DirectSoft 32. Nice feature and saves me tons of time typing repetitive tags.
Speedy internal coil insert. I've already mention that my mouse collected dust when I was using DirectSoft 32, but one of the things I found handy is using internal coils in my program was fast entry. An internal coil is referenced as a C0, C3, C11 etc. You can just type "0" enter, and "C0" coil with a normally open automatically inserts. You don't have to insert the normally open contact first, then type your address. You can just pick a blank spot anywhere on the rung and type "0" then hit your enter key, and you get a normally open contact with the address already filled in for that new coil. Nice speedy touch for DOS typers. Mouse users will feel lonely.
Force bit protection. I like the fact if you power down your PLC, your forced bits are reset back to normal state. This seems like a good safety measure. Kind of made me "whine about it" at first, but after I thought about why this makes sense, I wish more PLCs would adopt this policy. If you want to force a bit on all the time, you have to create a branch and use a "always on" or "always off" contact to get around something you need on a more permanent bases to debug your machine.
All in one editor and communication. Like everyone else EXCEPT Allen Bradley, communication from your software to PLC is all handled within DirectSoft 32, no fiddling around with trying to communicate with another software package, then use that software package to download your program. Configure your com port in the software and download away. Simple, easy and effective. I found no problems connecting the first time with the DL240 or DL250-1 CPU. I did have to reconfigure my connection by selecting a different CPU type when I upgraded my CPU to a DL250-1 CPU.
Amazing website for information. I am truly impressed with the website navigation and the amount of information accessible. When you look up parts you get all the information you need. Part number, price, in stock and a direct link to download the manual right then and there about the product you were looking for. You also get a list of suggested other items that compliment your product, like that back-up battery I was telling you about earlier. Or maybe you need a programming cable that connects to your DL250-1. It's all right there. Products that compliment each other to help you along on your first project so you don't forget to order something you might need. But lastly, you don't have to register to download product manuals. Imagine that? One of my pet peeves is to register on a website to download a product manual for a product I already purchased. Why do they want my registration data? I already bought the product just let me download the manual now, pretty please?
In summary, I would definitely use this PLC again even if it wasn't spec'd by the end user. Everything went smooth with tiny effort on my part to check some information in the catalog or read some PDFs online from the website. I had no problems with the hardware or software for that matter. Rock solid software that never crashed. Cost is obviously one of the biggest pros about Automation Direct, but I think your getting far more value that what you have been charged when you purchased. Reasonably cost items such as buying a programming cable makes perfect sense. $30.00 for a programming cable is reasonable, $100 for a programming cable is not. A programming cable that can be soldered by a technician in an hour that is, not one of those special RS-232 to RS-485 type cables. Several things have been thought out and executed well by this company. Information accessibly is one that earns high marks. Anytime I can integrate something new without ever contacting or calling tech support certainly in my mind deserves high marks. I did ask a few questions in the forums, but those don't count.
Learning curve rating:
Curve 0 = Walk in the park.
Curve 10 = Get out the scholastic cap and crash in the classroom.
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