Learning PLC Programming At Home?


Which option are you using; the space in your garage so you can safely wire controllers and sensors you bought from Automation Direct without blowing breakers or burning the house down, or are you working in your home office?

Either is fine but, if your using your home office, there are a few essentials you need to have and things you must know to be safe and work productively.

Regardless of whether you went to college or vocational school or took a Rockwell ControlLogix Course, you must, and I mean must spend time at home practicing.

There is just no shortcut to putting in the time programming. And for most newbies, beginners, recent graduates or even new engineers you likely won’t be spending the bulk of your time at work building a program.

So out an 8-hour day, you may get a couple of hours on the keyboard and that means 75% of your day will be spent doing something other than what you need the most practice in.

So, if you have a brain the size of an ant’s ass you will spend significant time reading, and programming at home. And if you don’t you won’t likely be doing your job for very long, because you will not be prepared when you need to be and eventually the world will discover that, and your boss will make changes.

Now, that I have eloquently made the case for you needing to spend time practicing programming at home, let’s get to gathering the essentials you will need to properly setup your home office.

Along the way I will share some tips and tricks to make your study time successful and tolerable while you work. Keep this in mind, working on a computer for hours and days and weeks at a time can be stressful and can cause physical strain on your back, neck and hands.

So now is the time you need to invest in the right gear. 

  1. Software – Most people in America start learning ladder logic using the free to download RSLogix Micro Starter software. They just signup at Rockwell automation’s website, create a free membership account and then go to the download page and get started. They also generally download the RSEmulate software for program simulation and RSLinx software for communication networking as well.
  2. Hardware – If you’re like most newbies you’re also going to go to eBay and search for a MicroLogix 1000. As the RSLogix 500 software you just downloaded can be used to program it, but don’t forget to get a serial network cable. Go back to eBay and search for a serial network cable. Now if you opt to get a MicroLogix 1400 you will want to get an ethernet cable to use just for your programming.
  3. Desk – many use whatever desk they have at home, some even use the kitchen table. Many don’t usually have spare rooms or buy homes with the intent to have a home office. Maybe you can’t work in your garage because it’s not heated in the winter, or you don’t have a garage then you are going to have to buy a folding table from Walmart. Keep in mind that once you setup your hardware and computer and get things connected most don’t like disassembling it at the end of every day, also consider getting an adjustable standup desk if you can afford it. While not an essential it sure as heck helps after long hours of programming.
  4. Surge Protector – yes, you are going to want to get used to using surge protectors to prevent from having to reset breakers. Now many experienced engineers may say, you should never be blowing breakers when programming. Well, you have hardware your going to want to wire and you may want to practice wiring relays and sensors etc. So, take my advice, get a solid surge protector, as a matter of fact you need to always be thinking about circuit protection. Every time you wire anything, in a control’s capacity. It should come second nature to you, you absolutely need to remember to protect your circuit from failure.
  5. Notebooks – many programmers burn through notepads and many also keep a notebook filled with field notes and programming notes. Engineers as a whole make and keep notes, it goes with the territory and you will find yourself doing the same thing, so lay on a half dozen notepads and a couple of notebooks. The notebooks are usually filled with notes you wish to keep long term and the notepads are used for short term notes, while you’re working on projects and such. You will burn through notepads…. just saying.
  6. Backup – this is essential. There are two options for backing up your work, one is used for easy retrieval and many use a portable hard drive to do this and the second is to back up your hard drive to prepare for the inevitable crash. For the first one, it would be wise if you can afford it, to purchase a solid-state hard drive with as much memory as you can afford. And the second backup option could be Backblaze, which for $5 a month will backup your entire hard drive with unlimited content.
  7. White Board – many use these to keep track of programming tasks, they use them to brainstorm and brain dump. They also use them to make lists, to help them keep accountable. The nice thing about whiteboards is their ability to change rapidly and keep information visual without digging through notepads or notebooks. Programming is referred to as a visual medium, having the ability to sketch out circuits and algorithms in short hand on a large white board comes in handy, especially for beginners.

8. Cords – you are also going to need a pig tail, which is a three prong 120-volt power cable that is cut off at the end to use as a power cable for your MicroLogix processor. Usually most people just find a cable attached to a device they don’t need anymore and just cut it off, they strip back the wires and then hard wire it to the processor. Then they plug it into their surge protector and are ready to energize the PLC and start programming.

9. Shelves – yes, shelves. Because your going to need to collect some books, store your hardware, cables, etc. So, get a set for shelves for your office and training space, you’re going to need them. You’re going to need to collect books on hydraulics, electrical controls, PLC programming (PLC Professor has a decent set) leadership, project management and many also acquire a few books on mathematics. A math refresher book, an algebra book as well as a book on computer networking (Network for Dummies is a good choice) and many more.

10. File Cabinet – yes, were getting serious now. You are going to file stuff away, i.e.; programs, copies of printed files, notes, a copy of your resumes. Most engineers, and or technicians create different resumes (plural) because they never send the same resume for different jobs. Instead they send different resumes for different jobs they apply for. But more on that subject in another article. For now, get a two-drawer file cabinet at least, a four-drawer cabinet would be better, even if at first you don’t use all the drawers.

11. Printer – you most certainly are going to need a good printer. Most engineers prefer a wireless networked printer these days. It makes using a laptop at the kitchen table or on the front porch and printing from there a whole lot easier for them and it will be great for you too. In addition, you will get practice setting up networks, as a matter of fact you should practice pinging your printer, to test if your printer is on the network giving you practice finding devices on a network.

12. Large PC Screens – you really need at least one 22 inch or larger screen. In todays world, having a large screen is a must. But, if you can’t afford one its ok, as in the world of controls engineering and PLC programming onsite programming is almost exclusively done using a laptop, without a large screen. However, when you’re in the office simulating your programming with 3D software having multiple screens having always turns out to be pretty damn handy.

13. Wireless Keyboard & Mouse– most programmers use the finger mouse on their laptops when in the field. As a matter of fact, you will want to spend considerable time doing the same to get used to not using the finger mouse and laptop keyboard. However, in the office most engineers use a wireless mouse and keyboard and you should too. It makes getting your work done quicker and more efficient. By the way using your finger mousepad in the field should only be for quick edits not writing a full program.

14. Headphones – yes headphones. Many programmers put in headphones to listen to music when programming, not all of them, but many of them do. If your prone to rocking out normally don’t feel bad about doing the same when coding, as a matter of fact you may find you are able to concentrate better with some energizing or relaxing music while concentrating on your task. This is exactly why many technicians have a Pandora subscription, and why you might want to think about getting one too. Consider a wireless set for comfort.

15. Desk Supplies – stapler, mid-sized calculator, tape dispenser, three-hole punch, pen & pencil jar, pencil sharpener, post it notes, dry erase markers and much more. Make a stop at your local office supply store when setting up your home training office. Don’t underestimate your need for office supplies, as a real and full engineer you’re going to be working as a professional. Making notes, stapling together million-dollar ‘scopes of work’ proposals and paper clipping together cross-country flight itineraries. The list is endless.

16. Hand Tools – yes, you are going to need to good set of hand tools. You won’t need to copy the set you use at work with the set you use at home, but you will need many of the same pieces. And don’t try to ferry the same set to and from work every day. As, the day may come when you forget it at one location or the other and then that day will be screwed up because of that mistake.

17. Monitor Stand – it always seems that the chair and the desk don’t always match, either the chair won’t go high enough, or the desk is too short. The best way to get the computer monitor to align properly with your eyesight would be to use a monitor stand. The center of your monitor should align with your eyesight, without you having to tilt your head up or down. Get a stand that lets you look straight ahead so that your eyesight lands in the middle of the monitor. Try not to skimp on this, if you can it will prevent neck strain from hours working on the computer.

18. Lighting – obviously you will have a ceiling light in your office, but you are going to need additional lighting as well. A flashlight for one to aid in seeing pins and numbers on your hardware for example. Many professionals I know also use a tall lamp with a flexible neck, they can be found online and are cheap. You can use this to help when video taping your work for your online portfolio which you will fill with examples of your work.

19. Router – You need high internet speed with a router that offers wireless and hardwired options. The need for high speed internet should be obvious, and a router that offer you wireless internet is invaluable as well, but you should get a router that you can use an ethernet cable with also. For those times when your practicing setting up various network topologies for your hardware networks. Becoming familiar with IT network configurations will be a valuable skillset as you move into an intermediate level of your training.

In Closing

This is a minimal list; these are the bare essentials when setting up your home office when learning PLC programming at home.

This list is what many would call the bare minimum for those learning at home. It does not cover every good suggestion but instead tries to list the essentials for a beginner. Take this list serious because you will circle back to every item on this list eventually, so make wise purchases.