Personal Passion Creates Industry Innovation

When it comes to operator interfaces, mobility is top of mind and everyone wants it yesterday.

When you want to control a packaging machine or monitor tank levels at the far side of the plant, enjoying the convenience of a smartphone or tablet computer at home makes the long walk to a tethered HMI feel like you’re hitching your wagon to a horse to buy groceries. The increasing use of modern Web browsers and mobile operating systems, however, is allowing the development of industrial-strength wireless monitoring and control applications to make the jump to lightspeed.

I saw a great example of this recently during a briefing on Opto 22’s (www.groov.com) groov platform—an industrially hardened network appliance and associated HMI/SCADA build and view software. You can read all the details about how groov works in Dave Greenfield’s blog (www.automationworld.com/bridging-hmi-terminalmobile-gap). What I found especially intriguing about the technology is the genesis of the idea behind groov.

The idea was born a few years ago when Opto 22’s vice president of marketing and development, Benson Hougland, created a tool for controlling his home electronics using a smartphone and Opto 22 SNAP PAC controllers. “I had to learn HTML, JavaScript, PHP for SQL communications, and control code. I needed to create a serious toolset. I did it and it worked, but I found out I had to relearn all those tools to make a change.”

Hougland was monitoring and remotely controlling his home lighting, HVAC, pool temperature and more from his smartphone with a functional but complicated system. Then Opto 22 CEO and President Mark Engman had the refrigeration unit on his boat fail expensively. Hougland’s system could have prevented it, but Engman challenged him to make the system simpler.

So Hougland gathered a 4G radio, router and other off-the-shelf components, followed iOS and Android app-development guidelines, and worked with other Opto 22 engineers to create groov. Like a TiVo DVR box, the groov Box is a secure Web server that takes advantage of the caching technology in Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Internet Explorer 9 and 10 Web browsers, “so, as I switch to different pages, it’s all there,” says Hougland.

As for groov’s interface design tools—such as scalable touchscreen buttons, gauges and range indicators, and support for images and real-time IP camera video—Hougland consulted industrial sources. Choices within groov Build are based on best practices gleaned from the High Performance HMI Handbook (Hollifield et. al.) and the ASM (Abnormal Situation Management) Consortium Guidelines for Effective Operator Interface Design. 

Commenting on the attention to detail he paid to interface design as a result of following these best practices, Hougland jokingly downplayed his role saying: “I’m the fonts and colors guy in the company.“

In response, Opto 22 Vice President Bob Sheffres said, “And it’s not a joke.” After pausing for effect, he added: “It’s a personality disorder.”

>> In addition to being the Managing Editor for Automation World magazine Renee Robbins Bassett writes about batch processing and packaging trends in the food, beverage, pharmaceutical and CPG industries. You can e-mail her at rbassett@automationworld.com and find her blog at automationworld.com.

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