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Analog Electronic PID Controllers

Although analog electronic process controllers are considered a newer technology than pneumatic process controllers, they are actually “more obsolete” than pneumatic controllers. Panel-mounted (inside a control room environment) analog electronic controllers were a great improvement over panel-mounted pneumatic controllers when they were first introduced to industry, but they were superseded by digital controller technology later on. Field-mounted pneumatic controllers were either replaced by panel-mounted electronic controllers (either analog or digital) or left alone. Applications still exist for field-mounted pneumatic controllers, even now at the beginning of the 21st century, but very few applications exist for analog electronic controllers in any location. 

Analog electronic controllers enjoy only two advantages over digital electronic controllers: greater reliability and faster response. Now that digital industrial electronics has reached a very high level of reliability, the first advantage is academic, leaving only the second advantage for practical consideration. The advantage of faster speed may be fruitful in applications such as motion control, but for most industrial processes even the slowest digital controller is fast enough1. Furthermore, the numerous advantages offered by digital technology (data recording, networking capability, self-diagnostics,flexible configuration, function blocks for implementing different control strategies) severely weaken the relative importance of reliability and speed.

Most analog electronic PID controllers utilized operational amplifiers in their designs. It is relatively easy to construct circuits performing amplification (gain), integration, differentiation, summation, and other useful control functions with just a few op-amps, resistors, and capacitors.


Circuit design

The following schematic diagram shows a full PID controller implemented using eight operational amplifiers, designed to input and output voltage signals representing PV, SP, and Output:



This controller implements the parallel, or independent PID algorithm, since each tuning adjustment (P, I, and D) act independently of each other:


It is possible to construct an analog PID controller with fewer operational amplifiers. An example is shown here:



As you can see, a single operational amplifier does all the work of calculating proportional, integral, and derivative responses. The first three amplifiers do nothing but buffer the input signals and calculate error (PV SP, or SP PV, depending on the direction of action).

This controller design happens to implement the series or interacting PID equation. Adjusting either the derivative or integral potentiometers also has an effect on the proportional (gain) value, and adjusting the gain of course has an effect on all terms of the PID equation:


It should be apparent to you now why analog controllers tend to implement the series equation instead of the parallel or ideal PID equations: they are simpler and less expensive to build that way.


Single-loop analog controllers

One popular analog electronic controller was the Foxboro model 62H, shown in the following photographs. Like the model 130 pneumatic controller, this electronic controller was designed to fit into a rack next to several other controllers. Tuning parameters were adjustable by moving potentiometer knobs under a side-panel accessible by partially removing the controller from its rack:


The Fisher corporation manufactured a series of analog electronic controllers called the AC2, which were similar in construction to the Foxboro model 62H, but very narrow in width so that many could be fit into a compact panel space.

Like the pneumatic panel-mounted controllers preceding, and digital panel-mount controllers to follow, the tuning parameters for a panel-mounted analog electronic controller were typically accessed on the controller’s side. The controller could be slid partially out of the panel to reveal the P, I, and D adjustment knobs (as well as direct/reverse action switches and other configuration controls).

Indicators on the front of an analog electronic controller served to display the process variable (PV), setpoint (SP), and manipulated variable (MV, or output) for operator information. Many analog electronic controllers did not have separate meter indications for PV and SP, but rather used a single meter movement to display the error signal, or difference between PV and SP. On the Foxboro model 62H, a hand-adjustable knob provided both indication and control over SP, while a small edge-reading meter movement displayed the error. A negative meter indication showed that the PV was below setpoint, and a positive meter indication showed that the PV was above setpoint. The Fisher AC2 analog electronic controller used the same basic technique, cleverly applied in such a way that the PV was displayed in real engineering units. The setpoint adjustment was a large wheel, mounted so the edge faced the operator. Along the circumference of this wheel was a scale showing the process variable range, from the LRV at one extreme of the wheel’s travel to the URV at the other extreme of the wheel’s travel. The actual setpoint value was the middle of the wheel from the operator’s view of the wheel edge. A single meter movement needle traced an arc along the circumference of the wheel along this same viewable range. If the error was zero (PV = SP), the needle would be positioned in the middle of this viewing range, pointed at the same value along the scale as the setpoint. If the error was positive, the needle would rise up to point to a larger (higher) value on the scale, and if the error was negative the needle would point to a smaller (lower) value on the scale. For any fixed value of PV, this error needle would therefore move in exact step with the wheel as it was rotated by the operator’s hand. Thus, a single adjustment and a single meter movement displayed both SP and PV in very clear and unambiguous form.

Taylor manufactured a line of analog panel-mounted controllers that worked much the same way, with the SP adjustment being a graduated tape reeled to and fro by the SP adjustment knob. The middle of the viewable section of tape (as seen through a plastic window) was the setpoint value, and a single meter movement needle pointed to the PV value as a function of error. If the error happened to be zero (PV = SP), the needle would point to the middle of this viewable section of tape, which was the SP value.

Another popular panel-mounted analog electronic controller was the Moore Syncro, which featured plug-in modules for implementing different control algorithms (different PID equations, nonlinear signal conditioning, etc.). These plug-in function modules were a hardware precursor to the software “function blocks” appearing in later generations of digital controllers: a simple way of organizing controller functionality so that technicians unfamiliar with computer programming could easily configure a controller to do different types of control functions. Later models of the Syncro featured fluorescent bargraph displays of PV and SP for easy viewing in low-light conditions.

Analog single-loop controllers are largely a thing of the past, with the exception of some low-cost or specialty applications. An example of the former is shown here, a simple analog temperature controller small enough to fit in the palm of my hand:



This particular controller happened to be part of a sulfur dioxide analyzer system, controlling the internal temperature of a gas regulator panel to prevent vapors in the sample stream from condensing in low spots of the tubing and regulator system. The accuracy of such a temperature control application was not critical – if temperature was regulated to ±5 degrees Fahrenheit it would be more than adequate. This is an application where an analog controller makes perfect sense: it is very compact, simple, extremely reliable, and inexpensive. None of the features associated with digital PID controllers (programmability, networking, precision) would have any merit in this application.


Multi-loop analog control systems

In contrast to single-loop analog controllers, multi-loop systems control dozens or even hundreds of process loops at a time. Prior to the advent of reliable digital technology, the only electronic process control systems capable of handling the numerous loops within large industrial installations such as power generating plants, oil refineries, and chemical processing facilities were analog systems, and several manufacturers produced multi-loop analog systems just for these large-scale control applications.

One of the most technologically advanced analog electronic products manufactured for industrial control applications was the Foxboro SPEC 200 system2. Although the SPEC 200 system used panel-mounted indicators, recorders, and other interface components resembling panel-mounted control systems, the actual control functions were implemented in a separate equipment rack which Foxboro called a nest3. Printed circuit boards plugged into each “nest” provided all the control functions (PID controllers, alarm units, integrators, signal selectors, etc.) necessary, with analog signal wires connecting the various functions together with panel-mounted displays and with field instruments to form a working system.

Analog field instrument signals (4-20 mA, or in some cases 10-50 mA) were all converted to a 0-10 VDC range for signal processing within the SPEC 200 nest. Operational amplifiers (mostly the model LM301) formed the “building blocks” of the control functions, with a +/- 15 VDC power supply providing DC power for everything to operate.

An an example of SPEC 200 technology, the following photographs show a model 2AX+A4 proportional-integral (P+I) controller card, inserted into a metal frame (called a “module” by Foxboro). This module was designed to fit into a slot in a SPEC 200 “nest” where it would reside alongside many other similar cards, each card performing its own control function:

Tuning and alarm adjustments may be seen in the right-hand photograph. This particular controller is set to a proportional band value of approximately 170, and an integral time constant of just over 0.01 minutes per repeat. A two-position rotary switch near the bottom of the card selected either reverse (“Dec”) or direct (“Inc”) control action.

The array of copper pins at the top of the module form the male half of a cable connector, providing connection between the control card and the front-panel instrument accessible to operations personnel. Since the tuning controls appear on the face of this controller card (making it a “card tuned” controller), they were not accessible to operators but rather only to the technical personnel with access to the nest area. Other versions of controller cards (“control station tuned”) had blank places where the P and I potentiometer adjustments appear on this model, with tuning adjustments provided on the panel-mounted instrument displays for easier access to operators.

The set of ten screw terminals at the bottom of the module provided connection points for the input and output voltage signals. The following list gives the general descriptions of each terminal pair, with the descriptions for this particular P + I controller written in italic type:



Terminals (1+) and (1-): Input signal #1 (Process variable input)

Terminals (2+) and (2-): Output signal #1 (Manipulated variable output)

Terminals (3+) and (3-): Input #2, Output #4, or Option #1 (Remote setpoint)

Terminals (4+) and (4-): Input #3, Output #3, or Option #2 (Optional alarm)

Terminals (5+) and (5-): Input #4, Output #2, or Option #3 (Optional 24 VAC)

A photograph of the printed circuit board (card) removed from the metal module clearly shows the analog electronic components:


Foxboro went to great lengths in their design process to maximize reliability of the SPEC 200 system, already an inherently reliable technology by virtue of its simple, analog nature. As a result, the reliability of SPEC 200 control systems is the stuff of legend4.


1The real problem with digital controller speed is that the time delay between successive “scans” translates into dead time for the control loop. Dead time is the single greatest impediment to feedback control.

2Although the SPEC 200 system – like most analog electronic control systems – is considered obsolete, working installations may still be found at the time of this writing (2008). A report published by the Electric Power Research Institute (see References at the end of this chapter) in 2001 documents a SPEC 200 analog control system installed in a nuclear power plant in the United States as recently as 1992, and another as recently as 2001 in a Korean nuclear power plant.

3Foxboro provided the option of a self-contained, panel-mounted SPEC 200 controller unit with all electronics contained in a single module, but the split architecture of the display/nest areas was preferred for large installations where many dozens of loops (especially cascade, feedforward, ratio, and other multi-component control strategies) would be serviced by the same system.

4I once encountered an engineer who joked that the number “200” in “SPEC 200” represented the number of years the system was designed to continuously operate. At another facility, I encountered instrument technicians who were a bit afraid of a SPEC 200 system running a section of their plant: the system had never suffered a failure of any kind since it was installed decades ago, and as a result no one in the shop had any experience troubleshooting it. As it turns out, the entire facility was eventually shut down and sold, with the SPEC 200 nest running faithfully until the day its power was turned off!

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