4 ways in which today's HMIs are better than ever: Part 1

Today's HMIs promise unprecedented ease of use and improved access to critical data and controls.

By Christine LaFave Grace, managing editor

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Tim Stone, an engineer turned product manager at Advantech Corp., remembers the days when a human-machine interface (HMI) meant an “ugly LCD screen and push buttons and all that stuff.”

“To be frank about it,” he says, “it wasn’t all that functional, but it served a purpose, which was, ‘I’m going to get to the next level of controlling a manufacturing process by having something that I can look at and respond to.’ ”

Fast-forward a few decades, and users can control industrial processes ranging from machine operation to parts purchasing from virtually anywhere in a facility in much the same way they’d interact with their personal tablet computer. The beautiful paradox of the evolution of HMI technology is that even as HMIs have been adapted by a wider range of industrial users for a wider variety of applications, they’re becoming more personal.

It’s a fact that’s remarkable, even if it’s not totally unexpected, given that the trend of more power + greater user-friendliness has played out extensively in consumer products, maybe most notably in mobile phones.

Advances including gesture control and multitouch operation, better built-in security, and expanded interoperability (the ability to play nicely with other control systems) are making HMIs capable of aiding in industrial asset management in unprecedented ways. Here, a look at four ways in which today’s HMIs are better than ever.

1. Sheer capability

“HMI is not just for the machine operator anymore,” says Marissa Tucker, product marketing manager of controls and HMI at Parker Hannifin. “You have people, for instance, in purchasing, who may want to get information about how much material has been used, how much is left. You may have someone on the factory floor saying, ‘How much scrap was created and why?’ Or you might have the FDA come in and say, ‘I need to audit you guys. Give me your records of who was operating this machine at this time.’ ”

Thanks to greatly enhanced communication capabilities that allow today’s HMIs to “talk” to each other, to SCADA systems, to enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and manufacturing execution systems (MES) and more, users can now easily answer those questions, Tucker says.

When important data such as temperature measurements from a given machine can be sent from a PLC to an HMI and stored there for any user who might need access to it, HMIs are empowered to support more-efficient decision-making, say Tucker and Richard Clark, an application developer for InduSoft Web Studio at Wonderware by Schneider Electric.

“I think that the biggest thing that people don’t realize that HMIs are capable of is the fact that they can be a gateway,” Clark says. Beyond monitoring and controlling a machine in real time, HMIs can provide easy access to a wealth of information about that machine’s performance over time, best practices for the machine’s operation, and even troubleshooting assistance – whether the HMI is running on a control panel on a machine itself or on a mobile device.

This could be as simple as having an HMI store manuals or how-to videos, Tucker says, or it could mean allowing for a machine operator to interface directly via video or text chat with a product expert from the original equipment manufacturer to help solve problems.

Says Bob Argyle, chief customer officer at Leading2Lean, a cloud-based visual management platform provider: “On the plant floor, this means that instead of limiting the HMI to controlling and operating the machine, it can also be leveraged to provide and pull data and reports from other systems [e.g., ERP, CMMS, and MES systems], giving the shop floor additional visibility to help solve problems more quickly and reduce manual data entry.”

Gesture control and voice commands, two functionalities on the rise in the HMI market, further enhance HMIs’ usability. Clark says InduSoft Web Studio HMI software can recognize “every kind of gesture you could possibly think of – sliding, moving, pinching, twisting” windows on the screen and more. This functionality is familiar to (and comfortable for) users of consumer mobile devices, and adopting HMIs with these advanced capabilities can help serve another leading goal of manufacturers: attracting top talent.

“One of the challenges companies had is attracting the tech-savvy, digital-native generation to (industrial) jobs when the equipment that they had was really from the 1970s,” says Andrew Stuart, solution manager at Honeywell for the Experion product suite.

Companies know they need to hire replacements for operators nearing retirement, he says, “and they obviously want to attract the best people.” HMIs that function more like the smart consumer products that workers use at home on a daily basis not only are more appealing to the digital-native generation, Stuart indicates, but also they’re simpler for all workers to adapt to.

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