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Top 5 Non-PLC based Certifications for PLC Programmers

Vladimir Romanov
June 17, 2020

PLC Programmers would traditionally master their craft through on-the-job learning, PLC programming classes, self-learning or a combination of the three. Although it’s important to understand these concepts when applying for an automation job, it’s good to have a base understanding of fields closely related to the field of industrial manufacturing. Furthermore, over the last decade, the job of a control systems engineer has evolved beyond just PLC programming. It’s not uncommon for an employer to expect professionals in this position to configure networks, understand SCADA systems, work with cloud applications, work with process engineers and more.

In this post, we will explore five excellent certifications that may supplement the knowledge and aid in search of a job for a PLC programmer.

Cloud Computing - AWS Certified Solutions Architect Associate

Cloud computing is growing in popularity in manufacturing. The technology has multiple use cases including data storage, remote control system monitoring and cost-reduction compared to on-site servers. The cloud servers have their challenges when it comes to manufacturing. An industrial plant would typically have a large amount of data flowing through the production floor. As these plants aren’t always in proximity to ISPs, the connection to the outside world may not be optimal. For this reason, on-site engineers or 3rd party system integrators are hired to properly package, buffer and monitor the data flowing to any cloud applications.

There are multiple providers of cloud computing. However, the top three are multinational giants: Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud Platform. Each one of these platforms has an accreditation program that allows an individual to take an exam and earn a certification. Although we encourage you to explore every option, we believe that AWS has a higher market share, clearer structure of the certificates and a higher value for those accredited through their program. For those reasons, our recommendation is to pursue the AWS certification path. Remember that even though a company may use a different provider, your certification will be just as valuable as the services are similar between the three providers.

Step 1 - AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner

The first step in the process is to become certified as a Cloud Practitioner. This entry-level certification into AWS verifies the basic knowledge of AWS based services. The content is focused on understanding pricing tiers, basic functionality and certain use cases of the different technologies.

PLC Programming - Server Room of Networking Infrastructure

One may choose to skip the CCP certification and take the AWS Certified Architect Associate immediately. However, there are a number of reasons to take the CCP first; both practical and financial. The CCP covers a lot of the same topics as the next stage; the studies will not go to waste. Furthermore, the certification allows those who are new to the format or cloud computing in general to become familiar with the process and see the questions one should expect during the examination process. Lastly, once complete, the certification unlocks benefits for the user. One of these benefits is a 50% reduced cost coupon off the next certification. Taking into account the cost of CCP, the user breaks even once they apply the coupon and pass the next certification level. In other words, there’s no reason to skip the CCP unless you have extensive cloud computing experience already.

AWS CCP Certification Details

Cost - $100

More Information and Registration - AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner

Step 2 - AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate

Once you pass the CCP exam, you may choose to take one of the three second level certifications: Solutions Architect, SysOps Administrator or Developer. If your goal is to specialize in cloud based solutions, we recommend that you spend some time reviewing the different paths and selecting accordingly. However, as a PLC programmer, we recommend the “Solutions Architect” path. This branch of the AWS infrastructure deals with the system at a higher level than the other ones. You’ll have a broad understanding of the services and excellent knowledge of how to implement them without too many details. Should you choose to invest yourself into these services further, you may choose to take the examinations later on.

As mentioned before, the Solutions Architect - Associate exam will test your advanced knowledge of cloud computing services offered by AWS. However, this isn’t a simple exam; you’ll have to get exposure to AWS services, their deployment and administration prior to taking the exam. We recommend creating an account and experimenting with different services. To aid with this activity, AWS offers a generous trial that makes most of the applications free of charge with certain conditions.

The Associate certification is very valuable for businesses which are using AWS. They are required to maintain a certain number of associates on their team in order to maintain a status that gives them advantages over those who don’t. In other words, you may get hired on the basis of this certification alone, although the knowledge is definitely worth it.

AWS CSAA Certification Details

Cost - $150 ($75 with the CCP discount)

More Information and Registration - AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Associate

Step 3 - Other AWS Certifications

At this point, you will be familiar with the certification process as well as most services available in AWS. There is a wide range of certifications available should you decide to continue with your studies. In addition to the three branches mentioned above, there are “speciality” certifications available as well: networking, security, machine learning, alexa skill builder, data analytics and database.

Networking - Cisco Certified Network Associate

Cisco Certification Path for Engineers, Technicians, and Professionals

In the last decade, the lines between control systems and network infrastructure have been blurring. A control systems engineer is now expected to configure devices that connect to the network, devices that will send data over the network and critical network equipment such as switches and routers. What’s even more apparent in the industry is that manufacturers have begun integrating complex networking infrastructure directly into control systems equipment. An example of this are the Stratix switches by Rockwell Automation. They’re a Cisco based switch that has a familiar control systems user interface in RSLogix and Studio 5000. The device can be configured by either party, but is more often than not configured by a PLC programmer.

In addition to obtaining practical knowledge through the certification, the networking administration concepts are extremely helpful in understanding how data is routed at any facility. The person who masters the material within CCNA will understand the basics of networking as well as advanced protocols used to route traffic between devices, lines, facilities, servers, cloud and more.

Step 1 - Cisco Certified Technician

Cisco’s approach to certification paths is similar to the one from AWS. The first step in the certification journey is the CCT examination. This certification requires a single exam that evaluates basic network knowledge. Within this test, the individuals will be required to understand how to work with networking hardware, how to configure settings for common network layouts and how to troubleshoot basic problems. Keep in mind that this knowledge will be tested in Cisco devices. However, the Stratix switches commonly used in industrial environments are actually Cisco switches layered with Rockwell technology. Furthermore, the knowledge within this exam is directly applicable to industrial networks and you’ll understand how packets are passed, devices communicate and how to create your own network topologies.

Cisco CCT Certification Details

Cost - $125

More Information and Registration - Cisco Certified Technician Routing and Switching

Step 2 - Cisco Certified Network Associate

The second stage in your Cisco Networking journey is the CCNA. This certification is the recognized standard when it comes to entry level IT professionals and is well known to many employers. This certification expands on the knowledge you build in the CCT and provides yet another foundational knowledge for an IT professional.

The CCNA has been changed by Cisco over the years. It used to require two exams, then it became an OR condition which allowed the student to take a single exam. Finally, in 2020, it has been changed to require a single exam. This means that you may study for a single exam and take the Cisco CCNA certification directly without the need for the CCT. However, most prefer going the CCT route as it gives you an opportunity to see the examination format, test your knowledge and have an easier time at the CCNA certification. Although it’s an entry level exam, it’s still challenging and requires quite a bit of preparation.

Cisco CCNA Certification Details

Cost - $300

More Information and Registration - Cisco Certified Networking Associate

Step 3 - Other Cisco Certifications

The CCT and the CCNA certifications are just the beginning of what Cisco has to offer. As you go through these paths, you’ll find that there are many areas of expertise you may want to explore within Cisco. After the CCNA certification, you may select a path of specialty in Cyber Security, Enterprise Solutions, Data Center administration, Service Provider or more. Each one of these paths has a Professional and Expert level certifications. Each one of the paths allows the person to learn a piece of technology that will advance their career, teach them best practices when it comes to this area of networking and improve their knowledge as an engineer, PLC programmer or otherwise.

SCADA Systems - Ignition Core and Gold Certifications

PLC programming and HMI development are excellent areas of expertise. However, SCADA systems combine the two as well as a data portion to give a complete control and overview of a manufacturing facility. As your career as a PLC programmer evolves, you will be involved in SCADA and business projects that require you to think beyond the basic control systems. Therefore, mastering this area early on will give you an opportunity to understand how manufacturing systems are established.

PLC Programming - SCADA System Control Room
PLC Programming - SCADA System Control Room

Ignition is a relatively young and small company that has developed a good solution within the SCADA space: Ignition. Ignition is a development platform that has many features for building a top tier manufacturing SCADA solution. These features include mobile screens, user authentication, server redundancy, cyber security and much more.

What makes Ignition particularly interesting for those looking to get into SCADA development is the fact that they provide a completely free unlimited trial of their software for up to two hours at a time. In other words, you can develop and test their system for two hours, reset, and proceed to work for two more hours in it. By leveraging the free trial, one can continuously develop a solution in Ignition, learn the different tools and master this area of manufacturing control systems.

Step 1 - Inductive University Certificate

Inductive Automation has created a series of tutorials made available completely for free to everyone. By going through these courses, one will learn about the platform and receive a certificate of completion at the end. These classes will cover many topics when it comes to SCADA development. The students will learn how to develop screens, how to deploy them in a production environment and how to configure advanced features mentioned above.

Inductive University Certification Details

Cost - FREE

More Information and Registration - Inductive University

Step 2 - Inductive University Core Certification

Once you complete the training above, you will be eligible to take a “take-home” examination in order to earn a Core Certification credential from Inductive Automation. The examination consists of multiple questions that will be based on the material you’ve studied. In this test, you’ll have a section in which you will debug an existing application as well as a section in which you’ll have to create an application based on specifications in each question. The test is challenging and takes several days to complete. However, it’s an excellent way to get hands on practice building a SCADA system, learn about the different modules of Ignition and go through the process of troubleshooting an actual system.

The test has a limited duration, which may be extended. Furthermore, you have several attempts at the test as the questions are open ended and are subject to interpretation from the student and the person correcting the exam.

Cost - FREE (When registered as an Integrator)

More Information and Registration - Inductive University

Lean Six Sigma

PLC programmers at a plant level are often involved in activities which extend beyond writing code. They’re required to assist operational managers in executing projects, addressing flaws in the production process and lead teams on the production floor. Lean Six Sigma is the methodology which is used across the world to monitor, prioritize and execute process specific projects that lead primarily to cost savings. Through these initiatives, manufacturing facilities are able to achieve cheaper production runs, less scrap, better productivity and lower downtime. As a PLC programmer, you will be involved one way or another in some of these projects.

The certification is typically administered in three tiers: Yellow Belt, Green Belt and Black Belt. Each one will typically require a more stringent examination as well as field experience with Lean Six Sigma projects.

We recommend that PLC programmers obtain a Green Belt certification to list on their resume and be aware of how projects are executed. Typically, a Black Belt will lead larger projects in which you will have an important role.

Step 1 - Lean Six Sigma Green Belt

Although you may choose to take a very brief class to earn your Yellow Belt certification, it’s advisable to go straight for the Green Belt.

In this tier of Lean Six Sigma you will learn the basic as well as advanced principles of how projects are executed. You are expected to be able to discover, analyze, lead and execute the projects. Furthermore, at this point, you are expected to have minor experience with manufacturing, process optimization and a general understanding of project management.

This certification is available for most community colleges, universities as well as online associations.

Cost - $295

More Information and Registration - IASSC Green Belt

Step 2 - Lean Six Sigma Black Belt

A certified Black Belt is an individual who will lead Six Sigma projects within a facility. This person has participated in multiple projects, knows the principles and is capable of leading a team of individuals.

At this stage you are expected to have experience working on Lean Six Sigma projects and have demonstrated advanced knowledge of the topics.

Cost - $395

More Information and Registration - IASSC Black Belt

Cyber Security

Programmable Logic Controllers as well as industrial automation infrastructure is connected over a network which may come under cyber attack. The field of cyber security employs engineers who specialize in such threats, are able to monitor abnormalities and eliminate weak spots. As some of the industry 4.0 methodologies continue to push all the devices to be on the network, plants will become more vulnerable to such attacks. Therefore, it’s important to have a basic understanding of network security, proper network layouts and how to protect the infrastructure through firewalls, good VLAN practices and so on.

There is a vast array of certifications in the realm of cyber security, penetration testing and ethical hacking. We recommend becoming familiar with each one of those fields and see what makes sense for you to pursue first. As you grow your PLC programming career, you will become an invaluable IT resource capable of securing the infrastructure from external threats.

Conclusion

As a PLC programmer you are expected to continuously learn and develop your skill set. It is important to learn within areas that are closely related to manufacturing and/or are complimentary. As you grow in your career, some of the certifications we went over may help you land a better job, promotion or completely pivot your career in a different direction. Whatever it may be, there’s always something new to learn.

Make sure to share with us what you’ve decided to pursue!

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