HMIs: Beyond the Fixed Panel Interface

Factory automation mobility is not just about iPads. Companies of all sizes need to think about the software needed to push context-sensitive information to operators and managers.

Renee R. Bassett, Deputy Editor, Automation World
Renee R. Bassett, Deputy Editor, Automation World

Traditional standard practice is to consider human machine interfaces (HMIs) to be “windows” into a system, with some information allowed to be passed back and forth through those windows. Industrial users are expected to come to the window—knowing in advance which is the right one—to look for the information important to them. They’re also expected to know what to do with the information, both in and out of the system. But the Internet, consumer mobile devices, and the increasingly intelligent software behind them both is turning expectation on its head quicker than you can say “push technology.”

Push technology is a style of Internet-based communication where the request for a given transaction is initiated by the publisher or central server. It is contrasted with pull technology, where the request for information is initiated by the receiver or client. And it’s one of the drivers behind improvements in industrial interface design and alarm management now, according to Corey Foster, senior application engineer for Valin Corporation (www.valinonline.com).

“People are tired of being tied to a touchscreen or monitor. They want the information pushed to them rather than their needing to go look at a system on a regular basis,” Foster said.

Valin is a technical solutions provider for the technology, energy, life sciences, natural resources and transportation industries. In an interview, Foster discussed some of the advances and benefits to be found with modern HMI software, and some obstacles to implementing it, especially among small to midsize manufacturers.

An HMI that pushes production, quality and alarm information to the right level of user or management anywhere in the world is a significant advance. “It increases the visibility and reaction time to problems as they arise,” said Foster. “It also increases the expectation on and pride of the people at the plant floor. They get to see their efforts in the big picture and even compete from shift to shift and plant to plant. One customer reported production increases just by increasing visibility [because it let] the operators see the immediate effects of their efforts.”

If you’re going to push information out, it has to be the right information to the right person. That’s where another advance comes in: dynamic context-sensitive information. “Think of a copier machine that is jammed and it gives you information on fixing the problem. Think of the Help buttons in programs that give you help on a specific topic depending on what you are doing,” said Foster. “Both of those are ‘context-sensitive,’ but they are still static and local to the application. How about being dynamically updated as solutions are developed for commonly occurring problems?”

An example of dynamically updated information could be from an equipment maker that sends a machine out to multiple customers located all over the world.  “The OEM can update a PDF or webpage that is linked to from all of their other customers’ systems. In this way, an OEM’s customers can always to be sure to have the latest and greatest support information before they even have a problem. It’s FAQs on demand!” said Foster. 

A third important advance is data traceability, authorization and escalation.

“Sometimes problems are caused by operators pushing buttons they shouldn’t be, entering incorrect information, and then not being truthful about what they did. Being able to record their steps would give accountability to the operators, traceability on their actions, and troubleshooting information for the engineers,” said Foster. “CFR21 Part11is an FDA requirement for the pharmaceutical industry, but it has great application in every other industry, where similar problems exist.”

Foster said the production volume for one Valin customer “increased by 3 percent just by implementing some of these advanced features. Given their volume of can production, this equated to $400,000 per year, and their ROI was measured in months instead of years.”

So what are the biggest obstacles to improving existing interfaces? “Customers’ fears of the “new,” said Foster. “This is particularly true at large established organizations that have something that ‘works’ and works ‘well enough.’ Their infrastructure and the cost to upgrade is simply too large.”

When it comes small to mid-size companies that need to build that infrastructure but haven’t yet, the obstacle is quite different: People don’t believe how easily and cost-effectively advanced functionality can be implemented, says Foster. “Small companies think they are simply too small to be able to afford, or even to lay the groundwork for advance functionalities. But often times, by the time they get to be mid-sized companies, they have missed the easy window of opportunity to lay the groundwork.

Foster says his focus is on “dreaming with the customers and point[ing] out the long-term picture of where they want to be some day. Then, I point out the relatively small cost difference in starting early with the right long-term goal in mind, versus what the immediate solution provides.”

>> Renee R. Bassett, rbassett@automationworld.com, is Deputy Editor of Automation World.

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