Your connection to the factory floor may be the same device you use for social media and gaming. Human-machine interfaces (HMI) have been experiencing long, slow, incremental growth for decades. Lately, though, HMI has rocketed into new tech territory as smartphones and tablets proliferate among consumers. Now, plant managers want the same sophisticated view into that plant that they get on their home devices.
Concurrent with the trend to consumerize HMI, we're seeing an increase in mobilized HMI. Not surprisingly, given all these new devices connecting to the plant, security is becoming an issue. Other HMI trends include TVized large flat screens, increased use of thin clients, a broader view of data on the screen, and everything HMI coming at a cheaper price.
Consumer devices take over the plant floor
With mounting customer requests to connect consumer devices to the plant system, automation vendors quickly adopted strategies to include these devices as part of their HMI offering. "On iPhone and iPad, there are a couple things we do -- we web-publish reports; you can pull up screen snapshots or customized reports on your iPhone or iPad," Tom Craven, operator interface product manager at GE Intelligent Platforms, told Design News. "More and more that's becoming a requirement on projects. Three or four years ago that was unheard of."
Even stationary HMI is shifting to consumer devices. "There is one application where a customer took an iPad touch, mounted it on the outside of a panel, and physically used the iPad as an HMI. All they did is wire power and use WiFi to get to the Internet," Nick Clute, business development manager at Turck, told us. "As consumer devices continue to grow, we're going to see more of these applications. We're going to see more industrial software written for consumer devices."
Data on the go
As well as the convenience of using familiar smartphones and tablets, plant engineers like these devices for on-the-go connectivity. Even non-consumer-device HMI is going mobile. "Mobility has been a big driver in HMI with most, if not all, vendors offering solutions," said Alexander Pinkham, product marketing manager at Iconics. "While many solutions are read-only extensions of current desktop offerings, Iconics provides a range of options from native apps for Apple, Android, and Windows to the ability to use HTML5 clients to interact with graphical displays."
Millennials want consumer-like capabilities
Young engineers are particularly drawn to consumer device HMI. They expect plant HMI to meet the technical sophistication of their smartphones. From there, they can create their own HMI interface. "The movement to quick mobile prototyping to achieve immediate results is stimulating for the younger generation of HMI engineers who are joining the workforce; the millennials," said Pinkham. "The more our customers explore our offerings, the more they find new things that they can trend or aggregate into displays to incite new ideas that can lead to more investigation and more effective visualizations."
Another aspect of HMI attractive to young engineers is TV-like screens. "We have graphics on 19-inch monitors that can be used on the machine. It's not a touch panel, but most shop guys don't like touchscreens," Randy Pearson, international business development manager at Siemens, said. "Touch is still new to all of us. Newer and younger engineers will bring touch in, and then it will be prevalent."