Time to Upgrade Your HMI?

March 8, 2014
Advances in video, touch, high-definition graphics and other consumer technologies have changed the way you might upgrade your interface.

Using devices like smartphones as operator interfaces is no longer just a fantasy. For Shaun McBride and Michael Dearing, chief water operator and wastewater superintendent at the Water and Sewer Dept. in Union Township, Mich., these are real tools helping their small staffs focus on improving an infrastructure serving 10,000 residents over 28 square miles.

By giving field technicians the ability to read operating data over a smartphone, the department has joined a group of early adopters borrowing consumer technologies to upgrade their human-machine interfaces (HMIs).

These early adopters have found that these touch, visualization and communications technologies have tilted the cost-benefit analysis in favor of the investment.

At Union Township’s Water and Sewer Dept., the decision to upgrade was easy because the smartphones were a logical extension of the department’s remote monitoring strategy. Not all that long ago, technicians would have to drive to the wells, pumping stations and water-treatment sites to collect operating data such as flow rates, tank levels and pump status. To reduce the amount of time that the technicians spent on this task, the department installed desktop remote-monitoring software that tapped into the HMI software already running on PCs at some sites.

As helpful as this was, not all remote locations had PCs, and the software was useless on phone screens. McBride and Dearing wanted to take the initiative a step further, so they jumped at the chance to put the data on smartphones that their technicians could view while in the field.

They seized on the opportunity presented by Opto 22’s groov HMI software (www.opto22.com), which works on any device using a modern web browser such as smartphones, tablets, PCs and even web-enabled, big-screen televisions.

The operator interfaces built by McBride and Dearing display equipment status and various process measurements on the phones. “For wastewater, we monitor flows, power consumption and tank levels,” Dearing notes. Technicians can also see other key metrics, such as dissolved oxygen, pH and turbidity. The PCs running the HMIs are still in use, but are now used primarily for analysis.

Security features in groov prevent users from succumbing to the temptation to surf the net while monitoring a process. “You can lock a device to dedicate it to a particular task on a machine,” says Benson Hougland, vice president of marketing at Opto 22. On the flip side, those same features can give users with the appropriate clearance access to key performance indicators (KPIs) for the entire plant.

Go with the flow
Mobility is not the only benefit of adapting consumer technologies for industrial use. Another is economic benefit, which comes from using commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies. Not only does the much bigger consumer market permit investing more development dollars and amortizing costs across a larger population, but availability and familiarity also contribute to the attractiveness of a COTS route.

“A lot of people are using these consumer devices—tablets, handhelds and so on—in their everyday lives,” Hougland notes. “So when they see them on the plant floor, there is a sense of familiarity. Let’s not forget that the people who built these products invested a lot of time and money in developing interfaces that make these products easy to use.”

Hougland also points to an accompanying software ecosystem that promotes developing tailored applications. “When you’re using proprietary devices, you have to use their development tools, which are typically more expensive and require specialized training,” he says. “Off-the-shelf tablets and mobile devices, on the other hand, have open development environments that let just about anyone develop applications. Today, in consumer markets, even kids are developing applications for app stores.”

Opto 22 is replicating this advantage in industry with its groov software, Hougland says. Interfaces developed with groov connect industrial automation to tablets, phones and other such devices through the web browser resident in these devices. Users also have the option to make the link through an app for iOS or Android devices.

The familiarity bred by popular consumer devices reduces the need to train workers in using the new, more powerful interfaces. “Multitouch capability and the use of different gestures and voice commands are defining the user interfaces of smart mobile devices and tablets,” notes Abdulilah Alzayyat, product manager at Bosch Rexroth (www.boschrexroth-us.com). He expects the large number of experienced people to streamline the conversion from buttons and visual indicators to the new interfaces.

In fact, the proliferation of smartphones and tablets is already generating expectations among some workers. “We see the younger employees of our customers walk up to an operator interface and try to manipulate the screen using the pinch and zoom movement with their fingers,” reports Tom Craven, OI/HMI product manager at GE Intelligent Platforms (www.ge-ip.com). “When they realize they can’t control the screen and information that way, there’s this reaction of ‘Why not?’”

Where’s the payback?
Despite these expectations, multitouch screens have been slow to catch on in industry, but not because of a resistance to touch. “Touch has been part and parcel of the industrial HMIs for a long time,” says John Krajewski, director of product management for HMI and supervisory products at Invensys, now a part of Schneider Electric (www.iom.invensys.com). “In fact, there have been more touchscreens per capita in industrial systems than there were in consumer systems over the past 20 years.” Only recently has that ratio flipped, mostly because of multitouch technology.

The obstacle to its proliferation in industry has been a lack of perceived value by users. “There needs to be a problem it solves,” Krajewski explains. “Does it somehow reduce downtime, increase efficiency or reduce waste? Users are looking for business drivers.”

>> Are Consumer Technologies Hardened Enough? Click here for more info.

Some automation suppliers respond by making the case that the new multitouch panels in high-definition, widescreen formats make the HMIs both faster and safer to use. Consider an application that B&R Industrial Automation (www.br-automation.com) developed to demonstrate the panels’ use on injection molding machines.

Designers divided the wide screen vertically into three sections, placing the basic settings on the left, the machine options in the center, and the menu selector on the right. “Widescreen formats let you put several windows in front of the operator, who can click through additional pages on the right without having to scroll back and forth,” says John Kowal, B&R’s director of business development. Not having to toggle back and forth between screens is more efficient.

Multitouch technology allows requiring two-handed input, which is already a common safety feature to ensure that the operator’s hands are out of the way, Kowal adds. On multitouch HMIs, two-handed input also offers a measure of protection against unintentional selections. To start or stop a motor, for example, the operator might have to touch selections in two windows simultaneously to guard against actuating a mechanism accidentally.

Another argument in favor of multitouch displays is that the technology is not much more expensive than single touch when considered over the life of a machine. The extra cost ranges from marginal to nothing, according to Doua Yang, industrial PC product specialist at Beckhoff Automation (www.beckhoffautomation.com).“Of course, when you are an early adopter of a new technology, picking apart list prices isn’t really the point.”

For equipment builders, for example, multitouch can be a key differentiator from competitors still using single touch. “Single-touch HMIs are by no means on the verge of extinction, but multitouch is clearly a more desirable option,” Yang says. “If the implementation of new technology such as multitouch HMIs can help a builder to outsell its competition, the HMI has paid for itself.”

For users who are early adopters, a multitouch HMI can help to speed changeovers or find problems faster. “In these instances, the HMI will pay for itself over a short amount of time because these time savings and efficiencies add up,” Yang adds.

Graphics pay dividends, too
Consumer-inspired high-definition graphics can also influence upgrade decisions. Though crisper images and more detail are what usually come to mind when people think of high definition, nicer looking images are typically not needed. Instead, Krajewski and his colleagues at Invensys use high definition to improve the decision-making capability of operators. They are examining what they call data-to-ink or data-to-pixel ratios. “How much of the ink (or pixels) is actually communicating information to the operator, and how much is just used for a flashy visual presentation?” Krajewski asks. “Unfortunately, the data-to-ink ratio has been quite low.”

The focus now is to raise it to deliver more functionality in a given space. “As displays gain more resolution, they are capable of holding more content,” Krajewski says. “Each pixel should communicate something to the operations team and empower it to make more informed decisions.” The same principle can be used conversely to put an HMI’s graphics on much smaller screens, such as those found on phones and other handheld devices.

This effort supports a broader movement among automation vendors to offer more features and functions through software, rather than hardware. “It’s possible to integrate the multitouch HMI, machine control and multimedia content such as videos and PDF documentation on the same processor, and have it all accessible from the same screen,” Yang says. The integration not only can streamline access to documentation when it is needed but can also make it easier to use.

Although automation suppliers have been offering multimedia documentation for a while, they have been steadily enhancing it with customizable options for troubleshooting and quality control. “For instance, sensors or predefined conditions can trigger video recordings of machine operations,” explains Deana Fu, product manager at Mitsubishi Electric Automation (www.meau.com). “When errors or warnings occur, pre-recorded instructional videos can pop up with the recommended resolution.”

HMIs can deliver these instructions by emulating tablets and smartphones. “They allow the local downloading and viewing of PDFs, instructional videos and other documentation through remote connectivity,” says Raul Guerrero, product manager for Eaton’s Electrical Sector (www.eaton.com/Eaton/ProductsServices/Electrical).

Is this technology worth the investment? “Users must determine whether they want to get more from their machinery,” Guerrero responds. “For example, being able to see a video on how to repair a machine when a particular fault occurs can help to minimize unplanned downtime.” Combining the ability to view videos and data logs with the ability to receive alarms and descriptions of faults by email only expedites repairs and streamlines continuous improvement, he adds.