It's good to see yet another step toward standardization on the factory floor. This is one more step away from hodge-podge world of plant automation. I would guess this will also give control engineers some relief from the daunting task of original programming.
It's actually amazing to me that there hasn't been a common HMI look and feel and standards prior to this kind of effort--or at least one that has any teeth. Coordinating that diversity must be a bear for organizations to manage let alone impeding worker productivity. Why has it taken so long to push standards?
HMIs are an interesting, sometimes overlooked area of focus for software/display technology improvements. Yet they play a vital part in what happens on the factory floor, and how well, and how quickly, operators can adapt to, or fix, problems in process control. It seems like improvements have been ongoing for a really long time. It's good to see that some kind of standardization is finally arriving, at least on packaging lines.
I agree it is a good thing, Ann, especially as systems are becoming increasingly complex. I would imagine this becomes a more manageable world for control engineers -- greater complexity, simpler interfaces and less original programming.
Rob, my understanding is that better, more use-friendly HMI systems are key for both control engineers and operators. There's a shift underway to put more decision-making into the hands of lower-cost operators rather than engineers, which is made possible by more automation of functions and databases that experienced engineers used to do, as you've mentioned several times. This is also being facilitated by better HMI systems.
That's a new twist I was not aware of, Ann. I didn't realize the decision making was shifting to lower-cost operators. I knew vendors were relieving plant operators of the original programming that used to be part of running a plant, but I didn't realize that meant non-engineers had their hands on the controls.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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