# Simple Circuit Keeps Process Control Loops In Tune

Spare a moment’s pity for the process engineer, whose job it is to keep industrial automation running no matter what. These poor souls seem to be forever on call, fielding panicked requests to come to the factory floor whenever the line goes down. Day or night, weekends, vacations, whatever — when it breaks, the process engineer jumps.

The pressures of such a gig can be enormous, and seem to have weighed on [Tom Goff] enough that he spent a weekend building a junk bin analog signal generator to replace a loop calibrator that he misplaced. Two process control signaling schemes were to be supported — the 0 to 10 VDC analog signal, and the venerable 4-20 mA current loop. All that’s needed for both outputs is an Arduino and an LM358 dual op-amp, plus a few support components. The 0-10 V signal starts as a PWM output from the Arduino, with its 0-5 V average amplified by one of the op-amps set up as a non-inverting amp with a gain of 2. With a little filtering, the voltage output is pretty stable, and swings nicely through the desired range — see the video below for that.

The current loop output is only slightly more complicated. An identical circuit on a separate Arduino output generates the same 10 V max output, but a code change limits the low end of the range to 1 V. This output of the op-amp is fed through a 500-Ω trimmer pot, and the magic of Ohm’s Law results in a 4-20 mA current. The circuit lives on a piece of perf board in a small enclosure and does the job it was built for — nothing fancy needed.

And spoiler alert: [Tom] found the missing loop calibrator — after he built this, of course. Isn’t that always the way?

# The 4-20 MA Current Loop

The I/O capabilities built into most microcontrollers make it easy to measure the analog world. Say you want to build a data logger for temperature. All you need to do is get some kind of sensor that has a linear voltage output that represents the temperature range you need to monitor — zero to five volts representing 0° to 100°C, perhaps. Hook the sensor up to and analog input, whip up a little code, and you’re done. Easy stuff.

Now put a twist on it: you need to mount the sensor far from the microcontroller. The longer your wires, the bigger the voltage drop will be, until eventually your five-volt swing representing a 100° range is more like a one-volt swing. Plus your long sensor leads will act like a nice antenna to pick up all kinds of noise that’ll make digging a usable voltage signal off the line all the harder.

Luckily, industrial process engineers figured out how to deal with these problems a long time ago by using current loops for sensing and control. The most common standard is the 4-mA-to-20-mA current loop, and here we’ll take a look at how it came to be, how it works, and how you can leverage this basic process control technique for your microcontroller projects.