Embedded systems are extremely complex, and successful design engineers have been evolving design practices and tools to accommodate these new complexities for decades -- many adopting a graphical system design approach.
This evolution loaded more needs on the user interface front for monitoring embedded applications, and the new approach migrated from traditional instruments and legacy software applications with fixed user interfaces. The data they presented and the controls available for users were defined to cover all of the capabilities of the particular hardware or software and not any one specific use case.
Conversely, modern software design tools such as National Instruments’ LabVIEW allow developers to choose to display data or expose controls to the users. When users create an interface with the appropriate controls and displays for their specific needs, they get more accurate results while spending less time setting up measurements and interpreting data.
Early HMIs, top, were purely mechanical, limited in how much information could be displayed. They were replaced by the digital HMI, bottom, which is able to show virtually unlimited information.
Not just a pretty face
Now, user interface design and tools extend beyond how the controls look -- it's essential that they also provide the hardware connectivity, and analysis is often built into the control or indicator for rich functionality. The requirements do not stop there, however. Now user interfaces must be portable across operating systems and devices -- from rugged touch-panels to modern-day tablet PCs -- from Windows OS to embedded Android OS. The needs of embedded design interfaces are growing and design engineers need to ensure their software tools can keep up.
Modern-day tools are being used for most all embedded applications. Some exciting new areas include cloud-based monitoring. Two examples are:
Aggregation of Data: If the distance between elements in a system is measured in kilometers as opposed to millimeters, cloud data storage is probably being implemented. In this great monitoring application, you are monitoring the condition of each of the gearboxes in a wind farm with hundreds of turbines. Combining a rich monitoring application with cloud storage, you can easily collect, analyze, and compare your data in a single location.
Access to Data: In some cases, the embedded data acquisition or monitoring system being designed is difficult to access physically. For example, if you were monitoring the health of a pipeline in a remote stretch of Alaska, you would not need to send a technician to log the information and check the status of the system. If that data is being stored to the cloud, you can develop a rich user interface and access it from anywhere, including connected PCs and mobile devices.
When evaluating a monitoring software tool for embedded designs, design engineers should find software that includes data visualization and UI capabilities to give them all the tools they need to quickly display data and provide intuitive ways to interact with their custom logic. Users should expect built-in controls that work seamlessly with acquired data so they do not waste time converting and massaging data into new formats purely for display.
When design engineers want more than the default look and feel, software should be customizable and extensible -- ensuring they can define appearance and behaviors.