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The Story of the "PLC Professor" Learning Solutions

The Inspiration  

The seed for the "PLC Professor" was planted in 2003 with a colleague, Fred Rowe, my chief protagonist during my five years at Kendall Electric, a Rockwell Automation distributor based in southwestern Michigan. My responsibilities were course development and classroom delivery for the Rockwell Automation (Allen Bradley) Controller/HMI/Networxs family of products. Fred brought to my attention a market that was unaddressed, that of competent industrial electricians that were still building small relay panels for small projects. These projects were typically built with three plus relays that equaled and even exceeded the cost of a MicroLogix1000, a 1761-L10BXB. They needed the knowledge of PLCs as well as the ability to write simple ladder logic programs for the devices. This is where it started but we have progressed way beyond to training materials for universities and industry classrooms.

The Solution

Fred assembled a dozen hardware trainers, 1761-L10BXB processors with a rail mount 24vdc power supply and a 1761-SIM-B16 (input simulator card). I stripped down the three day RSLogix500 class to a one day class that included both lectures and simple lab projects, including a garage door opener and a plant air compressor duty cycle control. We delivered the class several times; it was well received by the customers. There were two options for the class, with or without taking the Micrologix trainer home with them for further learning.

 From my terraza... 

Time on My Hands

In 2007, I left Kendall Electric to provide technical support at a mission in the Dominican Republic. That area of the Dominican Republic is one of those places where a sense of urgency is unheard of, thereby yielding a lot of spare time. Needing productive projects for at least eight hours a day, I started to build on the idea of lab projects for the 10 point I/O controller. This would be a good controller for the public since, at the time, it was around $99 and the programming software was and still is free to the public.

I did not use any of the original lab projects used at Kendall Electric. Instead, I started from scratch and created lab projects for “The Five Originals”, XIC – XIO – OTE – OTL and OTU. Timer and counter instructions were addressed next because they represented the next level of simple instructions. With the completion of each lab, I looked for the next level of complexity. Eventually, I realized that I had projects for more than half of the 71 instructions supported by that processor, so why not just keep going until I had lab projects written for the entire instruction set.

Reinforcement

Now that I had Lab projects for the entire instruction set, it occurred to me that I was missing the short discussions with Q&A that followed immediately after every lab session in the classroom. I had come this far, so why not keep going. I went through each lab project, one at a time, recording the results and discussing the implications until I had 40+ videos that covered all of the lab projects. I literally learned how to create these videos as I went, each video a little better than the last. If you have watched these early productions, then you have seen the gradual improvement. It is unlikely that we will re-record all of those early productions until we have accomplished a long list of new content.

Sage on the Stage

At some point, I realized that there had to be general lectures to explain the concepts that were previously delivered with a few slides in front of a live class. I began at the beginning, creating slides that included everything that I presented in front of a classroom of learners. Without a white board and markers to sketch out concepts, I needed to enhance the slides with animations. My first attempts at canning a “Sage on the Stage” were produced as PowerPoint shows that the learner could easily click through while reading text boxes. This did not yield a palatable result, especially with the limitation of PPTs in navigating backwards in the sequence to repeat a segment. In searching for a solution, I stumbled upon PPT Slide narration. I pursued narrating the slides and eventually discovered Camtasia Studio as an add-in to PPT. I had already been using SnagIt for the static screen captures for many years.

The Wonderful World Wide Web

I eventually added an electronic copy of the lab manual in the catalog. From this point on, a learner could watch all of the videos free on YouTube, purchase an electronic PDF (no longer available) and complete the entire process for less than $25… anywhere in the world. In addition to Micro Starter Lite and RSLinx Lite, Rockwell has a version of 500 Emulate pro gratis; with these three applications, you can complete all of the labs in “The Complete PLCLearn Series”, with the exception of the message instructions, which requires two processors and, in some cases, a Net-AIC+ interface module.

Even though I had 60+ videos on my YouTube channel, I found it frustrating trying to organize them in a way that made it easier for the learner to watch them in the proper order. I then created playlists and placed links on the website to those playlists and still the learners wandered around YouTube, looking for the next video in the sequence. The playlists have been replaced with the items under the Classrooms tab in the main menu. Adding to this challenge came the realization that I could not produce and support the entire gamut of subjects that would complete a learner’s quest for an education in industrial automation. I needed to be a classroom in a school. I knew that the additional content was available on the web, but I also knew that it was not easy for the new learner to find the content, much less discern between the “Good, the Bad and the Ugly”. My solution was to provide a website structured to marshal all of the necessary content at a central location, organizing it into classrooms. My first goal was to add the PLC Professor content and then create the additional classrooms for many other subjects, including math, physics, English and even art with an industrial flavor. This is the PLC eUniversity.

With a lot of experience, both teaching RSLogix5000 and using it in the field, I decided to repeat the development process I had just learned the hard way, but with ControlLogix/CompactLogix, or rather the “Logix Engine”. This effort placed the first lab project manual on the shelves in the university bookstore with an accompanying video lecture/discussion disk set.

That effort has expanded from Volume One of RS5000 to include Volume Two, both with Lab Discussion disk sets. One of the current projects is a four volume set of lab project manuals that duplicates the original “Complete PLCLearn Series”, but with a CompactLogix processor in place of MicroLogix processors.
I have reduced my engineering projects to a minimum and my primary focus is now the transfer of knowledge to all who are interested. At the beginning, a learner could watch all of the videos free on YouTube, purchase an electronic PDF and complete the entire process for less than $25. With the launch of this website, we are going in a new direction. We have converted the “Complete PLCLearn Series” to an online class, updating and adding new content along the way. These online classes are available on a cloud based LMS (Learning Management System) with tests and a certificate upon completion.

A Change of Venue

IN 2007, I PURGED MYSELF OF ALL POSSESSIONS, SAVE A HALF DOZEN PLASTIC TUBS OF “STUFF” AND MOVED TO THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC. THE PROCESS LEADING UP TO THIS MOVE WAS SIMPLE: MAKE UP YOUR MIND, MAKE A PLAN AND EXECUTE THE PLAN.
STEP ONE WAS GETTING TOTALLY OUT OF DEBT:
  • I created a spreadsheet with all of my debts in horizontal rows, with columns that represented successive months (payments).

  • The first column was the balance of the each debt, the value shrinking with each monthly payment.

  • The largest debt occupied the top row and the smallest debt the lowest row on the spreadsheet.

  • As each of the smaller debts was paid off, the payment amount was assigned to the debt above on the spreadsheet, or what was now the smallest debt. This was done to accelerate the payoff date.

  • Additional columns to the right reflected future results to provide an incentive to stick to the plan. Within 18 months, I was debt free.

STEP TWO WAS PURGING MYSELF OF POSSESSIONS.

Possessions tend to dispossess you emotionally and spiritually. I had closets, a basement and a garage full of things that I had purchased to self medicate. Even though I was participating in many charitable events, it was not enough. I found several pairs of slacks in my closest with the store tags still attached… never worn. That is just one example of things that I thought that I needed and yet lost track of them in a mass of “things”.

  • Find possessions to put on eBay. You would be surprised what will sell on eBay.

  • What I could not sell, I gave away.

  • For the items that I could not find a person/organization to accept for free, I rented a large dumpster and filled it to the brim with them.

  • As the basement, garage and closet began to empty, I felt a tremendous sensation of lightness and freedom.

STEP THREE WAS PREPARING A PLACE TO LIVE IN THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC.

My plan was to join a friend who started a mission for children in the foothills of the mountains west of Santo Domingo; I started saving to build a habitation in that locale. Some of the things that I sold, like a brand new Dodge minivan and a mint 2000 Jeep Wrangler Sahara, paid for my apartment and the purchase of my first avocado plantation (300 trees). Once moved to the Dominican Republic, I added my technical skill set to the staff at the mission and began designing buildings, teaching computer classes and redesigning Pinewood Derby to accommodate  the local resources (no tech instead of high tech). On the last two trips, I designed and built LED lighting structures for the church stage that serve the same purpose as areas of fabric illuminated by spotlights. During 2008, I created most of the Complete PLCLearn Series lab projects and recorded the lab lecture/discussions. Most of this was accomplished during spare time at the mission in the Dominican Republic. I spent between six to eighteen weeks per year at the mission. The well being of the children there is my primary passion.

 

Video - on Friends of Cambita - Facebook The bald guy at the starting line in this video is not me!!! Those sound effects are of a "Hemi".

Pinewood Derby track built with locally available materials, "no tech". No timer...the cars trip a limit switch (microswitch) at the end of track that energizes a 12vdc dpdt relay that prevents the relay for the other lane from energizing and lights the 12vdc LED encapsulated in an empty decorated prescription bottle. Uses either a 12vdc power adapter (when power is available) or any 12vdc combination of cells (typically a motorcycle battery). The starting line mechanism releases "los carritos" by lifting the handle, trips a limit switch and illuminates the green beacon (empty vitamin bottle, upside down and painted red with LEDs inside).

   

Typical of engineers, our social functionality and communication skills usually bring up the rear when it comes to our efforts in improving ourselves, including our grammar and sometimes our enunciation of words. My wonderful friend and wife Pamela Joy labors tirelessly, day after day, to improve my sensitivity to other people, my correct pronunciation of words, the elimination of words that do not exist and my written grammar. She is the grammar Queen of PLC Professor. All manuals go through her bulldog tenacity before they go to the printer.

More recently I have received many helpful insights from my friend and colleague, Professor Terry Stevens, at the Padnos School of Engineering, Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids, MI. Above all other attributes in a friend, I value candor the most. You may not always like what they say to you in confidence, but you can always trust their intent...and most often, it is advise of incredible value.

Professor Stevens has been using our training collateral in his classes for several years now. Feedback from both him and his learners has further enhanced the quality of our materials.