The saviors of PLC programmer sanity

Embedded Intelligence writer Jeremy Pollard continues his series of columns on those influential few who made enormous impacts on the shape of industrial automation.

By Jeremy Pollard, Columnist

"DID YOU KNOW Rockwell's Automation Fair was born at a meeting between Don Davis and me at an ISA show?” Scott Zifferer, co-founder of ICOM Software, asked me. “We were busing in our customers so they could see everyone else,” he told Don Davis, Allen-Bradley’s president at the time. “We should bus them in where they can only see us!” Rockwell fleshed out the idea and launched the new event in the early 1990s.

Enough trivia. Let’s continue our little series of columns on those influential few who made enormous impacts on the shape of industrial automation.

Zifferer's visionary products originated back in about 1984. While he worked as a product design engineer at what is now Amcast Industrial, he managed the first PLC project in the foundry. “I wanted to use a computer for PLC programming and documentation, instead of the dedicated hardware A-B called a T-3 Terminal,” Zifferer says. “Allen-Bradley was, itself, developing a similar approach, but was slow in doing so.”

Success hinged on making T-3 users comfortable with the enhanced user interface that the ICOM software provided.

Incremental change from then on pulled its customer base along by being a complimentary product to A-B's offering, driven by the real needs of the end user.

ICOM's evolutionary approach to help control engineers and maintenance people interface with A-B PLCs improved acceptance of PLCs for projects that, in the early days, might not have gone that way. The resulting love-in with ICOM's PLC programming software and the A-B distributor channel resulted in the most successful industrial PLC-programming software company in the ‘80s.


"These days, we would never choose a PLC vendor that didn’t have programming software. These innovators helped us become more efficient, deliberate, and more productive."



By his own admission, he was not first to market, and, in fact, there were many similar products in the first half of the decade. But Zifferer was the only one solely focused on market leader A-B.

Users of programming software benefit daily from ICOM's contribution. In fact, Zifferer holds eight patents on the software functionality that we use today.

His idea didn't stop with the technology. He used the existing A-B distribution network to get this magic into everyone’s hands. They excelled in customer service, which became a hallmark of the business. They were the software kings in A-B land.

We use PLC programming software effectively today because of Zifferer, and also due to the efforts of another great innovator, Neil Taylor.

Taylor started Taylor Industrial software, a company similar to ICOM, but focused on Modicon PLCs since “it was a natural fit,” says Taylor. “I was consulting and saw the need to replace drafting table-produced ladder diagrams, which cost plenty to maintain and too much time to create.”

His initial focus was documentation, and the resulting output was the envy of a growing industry. A variety of report options and reporting formats helped many a midnight-shift controls guy troubleshoot his PLCs, albeit off-line. Taylor moved into online PLC program monitoring for Modicon and A-B PLCs, and was wildly successful with the Modicon offering.

Taylor moved into other elements of PLC programming and documentation support by adding more manufacturers to the line-up. Using the same look and feel software, integrators could shift PLC-gears quickly. Other products tried to have the “common look and feel” within a product line, but Taylor was the best at providing that across different PLC manufacturers.

Zifferer’s company merged with Rockwell Automation in 1993, and he left in 1997. Taylor sold his company to TCP, which was rolled into GE Fanuc. The Modicon programming product was spun off to Schneider Electric and is used today.

These days, we would never choose a PLC vendor that didn’t have programming software. These engineering and maintenance innovators helped us become more efficient, deliberate, and more productive.

There have been others such as Dick Hollenbeck of Topdoc/Tele-Denken Resources, Heardy Myers of ProDoc/MDT, Updoc/Xcel Software, Graysoft, but there were no better innovators and visionaries than Taylor and Zifferer.

When I asked him about his contribution to the automation world, Taylor says he enjoyed being part of the beginning of the PC-based software business, and it still is hard to appreciate what the impact of that has become.

Zifferer says ICOM increased A-B’s business by 50%, and he was proud of the fact that he helped many people do their jobs easier with more productivity.

Thanks guys, for taking the risk.


  About the Author
Jeremy Pollard, CET, has been writing about technology and software issues for many years. Publisher of The Software User ONLINE, he has been involved in control system programming and training for more than 20 years. Browse to www.tsuonline.com or e-mail him at jpollard@tsuonline.com.
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