By linking ergonomics, navigation, and design, new HMI systems are able to display complex processes in a way that is easy for the user to understand and manage. The new OMAC standard goes one step further by defining a common look and feel between operator panels in packaging plants.
We can expect more progress on this topic in 2013. Even though the concept of standardizing machine user interfaces seems straightforward and easy, it really is an area that defies standardization. Especially in a packaging line, individual cells and operations have distinctly different needs. So it will be interesting to keep an eye on the work of the OMAC Packaging Workgroup this year.
The overlap between these two trends -- baby boomer retirement and lower-skilled operators taking over plant functions -- may be opportunisitic. If the baby boomers are retiring, it's a good time to switch from an engineer to an operator.
Ann, I think the trend here is younger, less technically educated operators rather than engineers being replaced by younger engineers. With the level of automation in some plants, even fewer operators are required. This movement is toward integrating training resources (ready access to documentation, training videos and more) from the HMI itself. That enables more self-teaching, and innovative use of machine animations which can "show" how to perform a maintenance task, for example, versus reading a series of steps. This type of animation using 3D models is still expensive to develop but doesn't seem beyond reach in the not-too-distant future. Some automation vendors are moving in this direction but getting photo-realistics 3D animation is still in the future. Great to see how things are moving ahead in this area.
The new thing here is the standardization of HMIs screens to a common look and feel. OEM machinery builders, apart from the packaging industry, might resist this just because the operator interface is a clear part of the value added of the machine. It will be interesting to see how widely this is adopted, especially adding the functionality of changing system parameters directly from the HMI (versus using the automation vendor's computer tools). Overall, the operator interface is going through a significant transformation with lower cost, much more capable hardware and now also touchscreens joining in. Should be interesting to see how it develops toward becoming more of a "Dashboard" for machines.
Yes, Ann, I was under the impression the shift from baby boomers to younger workers is still within the community of engineering. But maybe not. Maybe they're replacing the boomer engineers with non-engineers. I would make an interesting article.
Interesting, Rob. I hadn't connected the dots between the baby boomer retiring trend and younger workers with the cost-cutting trend of using less expensive operators instead of engineers on the factory floor. I'm not sure they're the same thing. First, the engineer vs operator trend is usually described as being due to improved HMI, as we were originally discussing. Plus, isn't the first trend occurring mostly within engineering?
I guess that shouldn't be surprising, Ann. This could be part of the trend of replacing the baby-boomer engineers at plants. As the boomers retire, I hear they are being replaced by younger workers who have less automation and control experience, but more computer experience, which is mostly appropriate given the changing nature of automation. And of course they would be lower-cost workers simply because of their youth and inexperience.
The decision-making can shift to lower-cost operators because they're making fewer decisions--and more low-level ones--as more functions get automated. This is by no means the case everywhere, but it's yet another cost-cutting trend. That's what I've heard, anyway.
With strong marketplace demand for qualified engineers across the board that currently outstrips the available supply, there may never be a better time for engineers and project managers to advance their careers and salaries. Whether those moves are successful in the short-term and long-term is likely to depend on how the transition from one job to the next is handled.
Audi is testing a new technology that eases many assembly activities at its Neckarsulm plant: the so-called "chairless chair." The device's carbon-fiber construction allows employees to sit without a chair. At the same time, it improves their posture and reduces the strain on their legs.
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