HTML 5: Driving Flexibility on the Plant Floor

April 25, 2016
New HMI applications based on open standards like HTML5 are replacing proprietary platforms and giving plant-floor users the same remote access and mobility benefits enjoyed by other areas of the business.

HTML5, a programming language favorite for consumer and business applications, is finally taking root in the industrial space, promising new levels of flexibility for both manufacturing customers and automation technology providers.

Support for HTML5 has come in fits and starts, but the standard has really gained traction these past few years as accelerated adoption of smartphone and tablet devices underscores the need for a programming solution that makes it easier to develop cross-platform websites and applications.

Applications written in HTML5 will automatically run across iOS, Android, Windows and other platforms as opposed to the alternative strategy of developing specific solutions for each native platform. As a result, HTML5 makes it far easier for automation vendors to embrace a cross-platform approach for their human-machine interface (HMI) and other automation systems while offering industrial users the same mobility and remote access benefits they’ve come to expect from mainstream business and consumer applications.

Rockwell Automation’s FactoryTalk ViewPoint HMI extends access to information to users’ mobile devices for improved real-time decision-making.

“It’s all about mobility and letting personnel in the manufacturing space use smartphones just as they do in their personal and business lives,” says Chirayu Shah, commercial program leader for HMI software at Rockwell Automation. “People think when we talk about HTML5, it’s all about the Internet, but for manufacturing customers, it’s more about leveraging the same technology stack to extend applications to other form factors so maintenance people can walk around the plant floor to monitor assets.”

HTML5 has taken its share of knocks for performance shortfalls and a lack of available tools, but the technology stack has really come together in recent years, making for a more robust development platform, experts say. A recent survey by Telerik, a provider of application development software, found more than half (57 percent) of respondents are confident that HTML5 is enterprise-ready today or will be within the next 12 months.

Though HTML5’s flexibility message has caught fire in the front and back office and as a staple development tool for consumer platforms, it’s been much slower to find its way into plant-floor strategies. That’s because the plant floor is an environment where applications tend to be proprietary and fixed hardware units like ruggedized PCs or vendor-specific workstations are the traditional means of accessing and interacting with key automation systems. But thanks to ongoing improvements, experts say the dynamic is starting to change, and automation vendors are actively embracing HTML5 as an enabling technology for their offerings.

“To get to the robustness needed for industrial plant applications takes a while,” says Allen Tubbs, product manager at Bosch Rexroth. “No one cares if Angry Bird crashes on your phone, but if access to a [plant-floor] machine crashes, you’re talking hundreds or thousands of dollars in lost time.”

Mobility a top business case

Though HTML5 is a developer tool, there are plenty of potential benefits for automation customers—particularly those adopting a mobility strategy around plant-floor operations. The traditional means of monitoring automation systems is to deploy operators on the plant to check in on each piece of equipment manually using a proprietary HMI running on a fixed machine, whether that’s a specialized workstation or a ruggedized PC. Larger manufacturers could have many HMIs spread throughout their plant floor, requiring operator maintenance and interaction on each. Smaller shops might only have one or two HMIs in place, which means operators might have to wait to gain access, causing backups and degrading the timeliness of information, explains Matteo Dariol, product support engineer at Bosch Rexroth.

With a web-based HMI written in HTML5, manufacturers can break the logjam of traditional plant-floor workflows. Plant-floor operators can monitor automation systems on a smartphone or tablet, giving them freedom to access critical information from wherever they are on the plant floor instead of being tethered to a particular physical installation, Dariol explains. Also, plant-floor managers, used to overseeing operations from a control room, no longer are tied to the control room, but can fully manage a facility from wherever they are—at an off-site meeting or from home.

“It’s the ability to monitor all these systems when you’re in the office, when you’re in a truck driving to some place to do a maintenance cycle, or when you’re on a plane flying to another city,” explains Rockwell’s Shah, adding that web-based access really simplifies things. “The ability to visualize and monitor things on the fly in real time creates huge benefits for customers.”

One of the biggest advantages of providing remote access to HMI information via tablets and phones is for the support personnel called in to help operators troubleshoot problems on the plant floor, notes Matt Wells, general manager for automation software at GE Digital. “Those people can get access to data on their phone so they can more effectively see what the operator is looking at in real time,” he explains. “Typically, they’d have to get in their car and drive back to the plant. Enabling them to have access to the information on their tablet eliminates that process and lets them get answers more quickly.”

Cornell University is using GE’s Proficy Mobile on iPads to facilitate off-hours troubleshooting of its complex HVAC, power, water and other facility systems serving 260 campus buildings. Since adding the mobility component to its HMI/SCADA platform, the plant-floor team has been able to bolster troubleshooting time by 40 percent, Cornell officials say, adding that late-night calls to the off-site manager are avoided because they can see and act on alarms from anywhere.

A web-accessible HMI offers other benefits for customers, including flexibility for choosing less expensive hardware options (Linux-based thin terminals, for example, vs. full-blown Windows PCs) as well as streamlined maintenance when rolling out system upgrades because there is no requirement to physically update each HMI screen. A cross-platform HMI developed in HTML5 also meshes nicely with the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) movement so prevalent in many organizations, which allows employees to use their own personal smartphones and tablets—whether Android or iOS—to access critical business systems.

Another big plus of the HTML5 movement is the ability to develop more intuitive, user-friendly HMIs, according to Derrick Stacey, a solutions engineer with B&R Automation. HTML5 lets automation providers develop one HMI and have it be “responsive,” or display differently based on the parameters of the device. And it lets them take advantage of common user interface (UI) components like gestures, making an HMI look and feel more like a familiar smartphone app. “HMI is its own field of study…and it doesn’t follow best practices as far as ergonomics, so users can reject them or [not] enjoy using them,” Stacey explains. “A mobile device allows quicker adoption of the interface and gets people up and running faster.”

Standards-based design

For automation providers, the ability to leverage a common standard and infrastructure to develop HMI and other automation applications greatly simplifies the development process and lessens reliance on having to master proprietary technologies. Opto 22, which makes a full suite of software and automation hardware, saw the writing on the wall for HTML5 adoption three and a half years ago and designed its groov mobile operator interface with it from the ground up.

Beckhoff Automation’s new TwinCAT HMI employs standards-based technologies like HTML5 to provide a future-proof, open platform for automation system design.

HTML5 opens up a new level of interoperability, with no plug-in requirements, support for native video and audio, and no need to develop for specific client operating system requirements, says Matt Newton, Opto 22’s director of technology marketing. “The great benefit HTML5 offers is it gets us away from plug-ins like Flash and Silverlight,” he says. “It makes development easier because there are no proprietary protocols or proprietary plug-ins—it’s all standards-based technology.“

Being standards-based also widens the pool of talent for automation system developers because more people know HTML5 than individual, proprietary automation environments, notes Rockwell’s Shah.

Beckhoff Automation, which has traditionally left HMI to other vendors, saw the industry shift to HTML5 as an opportunity to finally release its own HMI. Built with IT standards such as Microsoft Visual Studio, HTML5 and ­JavaScript, the new TwinCAT HMI requires no programming and is responsive, allowing developers to build a web-based interface irrespective of the operating system, browser or device, according to Daymon Thompson, automation specialist with Beckhoff. The new TwinCAT HMI, slated to roll out in the third quarter, supports multitouch interaction and numerous application scenarios, from a local panel application to a multi-client, multi-server setup.

A version of GE’s Cimplicity HMI based on HTML5 will be delivered later this year.

Rockwell is looking at HTML5 as a foundation technology, not just for its FactoryTalk ViewPoint HMI, but holistically, for many future products. The ability to take the HMI screen as it’s built in a traditional environment and publish that with a couple of clicks over to a mobile display greatly simplifies development, eliminating the need to rebuild content to make it web-enabled, Shah says. Rockwell is also bolstering its mobility capabilities via a co-innovation partnership with Microsoft dubbed Project Stanton, which will focus on providing secure peer-to-peer communications to improve industrial productivity.

For its part, GE Digital plans to leverage HTML5 in a wide range of places relative to automation with an initial focus on mobility. It plans to replace its traditional thick-client HMIs with native HTML5-based options, including its iFix traditional HMI/SCADA offering due by mid-year, and Cimplicity, an HMI/SCADA option tuned for high-speed transactions, by end of year.

In the end, however, it’s not really about the technologies or tools—it’s about providing much needed flexibility to industrial customers. “Customers don’t necessarily care what technology is used—they just want to see their content,” Wells says. “At GE, we will leverage HTML5 to make sure we give our customers deployment agility so they can feed that content…into the hands of people who need it.”

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