DIY Programmable Logic Controller Trainer

This short article presents a simple do-it-yourself (DIY) trainer that may be used for experiments with Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) and other industrial and automation components. The 19 x 14 inch work area with a single 15-inch DIN rail provides a solid base that allows you to use real-world industrial components such DIN rail mounted relays, motor starters, and smaller PLCs. The front panel is designed to hold up to five 22 mm switches.

As you search the ‘net you will find several suppliers that offer PLC trainers. Each testbed has certain advantages depending on the design. For example, to save costs, some trainers use non-standard components such as tiny pushbuttons in place of the robust 22 mm switches. This is appropriate for learning to program a PLC but not for the holistic understanding that comes with handling and wiring real world components.

Consider this trainer a starting point upon which you may improve. This article includes pictures and a partial parts list to get you started. If this testbed is too large, you may be interested in this smaller low-cost version. Aditionally, you may be able to save money by building the device with components you already own.

Figure 1: Side view of the trainer showing the EAO lighted pushbuttons.

Parts list for the industrial testbed

This assembly was built using readily available parts including:

In addition to the materials, you will need a variety of tools including a drill, saw, measuring tools, scratch awl, deburring tools, and center punch. It is also helpful to use a knockout punch tool (slug buster) for the 22 mm hole. Such a tool will cut through the 1/16” aluminum like a knife through butter. We should note that some people prefer a step drill bit or even a holesaw as the cost is lower.

Metal work and assembly

We will not attempt to describe how to work with sheet metal as there are many online tutorials. These resources are available produced by passionate experts in the field. They shine and do a better job that your author ever could.

One particularly useful YouTube video was posted by Mark Presling as How to Safely Drill Holes in Sheet Metal Using a Twist Drill.

Tech Tip: Component cost often follows the Pareto distribution otherwise known as the 80-20 rule. The principle suggests that most of a project’s cost is contained within a small percentage of its components. In this example, nearly all the cost is tied up in the front panel. This may seem counterintuitive as the base plate is more expensive. However, the front panel with its many holes represents a considerable amount of embodied work. If you value your time, remember that the labor costs quickly add up.

Figure 2: Top level view of the PLC trainer including a variety of DIN rail mounted industrial control devices.

Parting thoughts

One final comment. The DIY techniques and skill in the use of tools are invaluable if you plan on continuing in the field. This includes assembling the control panel itself, or just as important, the small jigs to hold sensors or actuators such as pneumatics. I believe you will find that industrial control and automation is so much more than wiring and programming.

Please leave comments and suggestions below. Provide suggestions for enhancing the rig. Pictures of your handywork are especially welcomed.

Best Wishes,


About the author

Aaron Dahlen, LCDR USCG (Ret.), serves as an application engineer at DigiKey. He has a unique electronics and automation foundation built over a 27-year military career as a technician and engineer which was further enhanced by 12 years of teaching (interwoven). With an MSEE degree from Minnesota State University, Mankato, Dahlen has taught in an ABET accredited EE program, served as the program coordinator for an EET program, and taught component-level repair to military electronics technicians. Dahlen has returned to his Northern Minnesota home and thoroughly enjoys researching and writing articles such as this. LinkedIn | Aaron Dahlen - Application Engineer - DigiKey

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