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Notes to Students with Regards to Process Dynamics and PID Controller Tuning

Learning how to tune PID controllers is a skill born of much practice. Regardless of how thoroughly you may study the subject of PID control on paper, you really do not understand it until you have spent a fair amount of time actually tuning real controllers.

In order to gain this experience, though, you need access to working processes and the freedom to disturb those processes over and over again. If your school’s lab has several “toy” processes built to facilitate this type of learning experience, that is great. However, your learning will grow even more if you have a way to practice PID tuning at your own convenience.

Thankfully, there is a relatively simple way to build your own “process’ for PID tuning practice. First, you need to obtain an electronic single-loop PID controller1 and connect it to a resistor-capacitor network such as this:


The 250  resistor converts the controller’s 4-20 mA signal into a 1-5 VDC signal, which then drives the passive integrator (lag) RC networks. The two stages of RC “lag” simulate a self-regulating process with a second-order lag and a steady-state gain of 1. The potentiometers establish the lag times for each stage, providing a convenient way to alter the process characteristics for more tuning practice. Feel free to extend the circuit with additional RC lag networks for even more delay (and an even harder-to-tune process!).

Since this simulated “process” is direct-acting (i.e. increasing manipulated variable signal results in an increasing process variable signal), the controller must be configured for reverse action (i.e. increasing process variable signal results in a decreasing manipulated variable signal) in order to achieve negative feedback. You are welcome to configure the controller for direct action just to see what the effects will be, but I assure you control will be impossible: the PV will saturate beyond 100% or below 0% no matter how the PID values are set.

1Many instrument manufacturers sell simple, single-loop controllers for reasonable prices, comparable to the price of a college textbook. You need to get one that accepts 1-5 VDC input signals and generates 4-20 mA output signals, and has a “manual” mode of operation in addition to automatic – these features are very important! Avoid controllers that can only accept thermocouple inputs, and/or only have time-proportioning (PWM) outputs. Additionally, I strongly recommend you take the time to experimentally learn the actions of proportional, integral, and derivative as outlined in this article before you embark on any PID tuning exercises.

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