Industry update of operator interface products

As prices drop and capability improves, machine builders and SIs develop a healthy appetite for OI products. Part I of this presentation of key findings focuses on the results of hardware product categories.

 By Jim Taylor, Venture Development Corp., and Joe Feeley, Editor in Chief


ver the second half of last year, technology researchers at Venture Development Corp. completed a study on North American markets for industrial electronic monitors, operator interface terminals and related application software. Control Design readers were among the participants in the survey. In Part I of our presentation of key findings, we’ll look at the hardware results. In May, Part II will inspect relevant software results.

The hardware product categories examined in the study are monitors, both alphanumeric and graphical; operator interface terminals, including alphanumeric, graphic, PC-based, web browsers and portable units; and application software

First, the Market Report
In 2003, shipments of industrial operator interface terminals to markets in North America for OEM & system integrator applications totaled about $331 million, a much larger share than shipments for end-user applications at $185 million. Furthermore, shipments for OEM & system integrator applications are forecast to have a higher growth rate (9.1% CAGR) than shipments for end-user applications (6.2%).

OEM & system integrator applications accounted for 63% of the shipment of alphanumeric, graphic and PC-based terminals North American markets in 2003, with end-user applications accounting for the remaining 37%.

In the OEM & system integrator market segment, these units were applied to packaging equipment, representing 18% of the total shipments; assembly equipment at 16.5%, and material handling systems at 16.2%. The growth rate for use of these products in industrial machinery is pegged at nearly 7% through 2006. Among the major applications, the highest growth rates are forecast for use with packaging (7.5%) and material handling equipment (7.5%). Table (Page 41) details the applications by machine segment. The automotive industry was the largest end user segment with 30% of the shipments, followed by Food & Beverage at 19%.

Among the users of web browser terminals, growth again is expected to be highest for the industrial OEM and system integrator applications. Average growth of use amongst these specifiers is expected to be 16% through 2006. Here as well, packaging equipment took 18% of the current shipments, with material handling and textile manufacturing equipment each consuming 15% of the shipments. Table 2 summarizes the growth by machine segment.
Portable OI terminals are still an emerging market, but among machine builder and system integrator specifiers, growth is expected to exceed 27% annually through 2006.

Choose Your Technology
CRT Versus Flat Panel Displays
—Flat panel displays are the standard in almost all shipments of operator interface terminals in this study, and no major supplier is expected to offer CRT displays in 2006.

The trend also is toward greater demand for larger displays and higher resolution. However, the study finds a smaller opposing trend toward very small displays with lower resolution for use in machine/equipment applications where panel space is limited.

The survey sees another identifiable trend toward screen size simplification and standardization. As component prices keep falling and margins become thinner, many display providers are manufacturing fewer sizes, with 14 in. and 9 in, among those being abandoned for more common sizes.

LCD/Thin-film technology (TFT) displays are expected to continue as the dominant flat panel display technology (72% of current shipments), due to improving performance, and declining prices. TFT screens are brighter, have better resolution, and more contrast than LCD-Super Twisted Nematic (STN) technology, and with consumer markets driving down prices, suppliers are far more likely to use TFT technology—as a consequence, its share should rise to more than 77%.

Touchscreens—The survey finds the majority of operator terminal shipments (70%) incorporate touchscreens, either as the exclusive input device or in addition to a keypad. Touchscreens’ market share is expected to increase as growth is anticipated for both those with only touchscreens, and those with both touchscreens and keypads. The shipment share of terminals with only keypads is expected to decline.

Resistive technology is used on the vast majority of operator interface terminals equipped with touchscreens. See Figure 1 for details. Resistive’s continued popularity is due to the cost-effectiveness of this technology, and the ability to stand up to harsh industrial environments with high reliability. Capacitive technology has gained in popularity during the past five years, but the cost penalty and inability to function when operators wear gloves will hold it far behind.

Data Communication Networks—Not surprisingly, the survey participants identified Ethernet as the most used communication network with stationary operator interface terminals. They foresee a shift from 10-Mbps Ethernet to higher bandwidth 100-Mbps and 1-Gbps networks, driven by the need for more data communications at higher speeds.
Use of wireless communications, particularly IEEE 802.11g, is expected to increase, as many vendors now add wireless capability to their products. As you might expect, the highest usage is tagged to portable terminals.

What You Want
Reliability was the most identified criteria for all the hardware products under study except the web browser and portable operator interface terminals; reliability was the second most identified for them (See Table 3).

The most-mentioned selection criterion for the web browsers was ease of interfacing to systems. Ruggedness was most identified for the portable operator interface terminals.  
Ease of system interfacing was the second most identified criteria for all the other product categories, except for the portable operator interface terminals—there it was third. Ease of use also was frequently identified.

A majority of operator interface terminal users tell us they require self-diagnostics, online programming, and online editing. Significant shares also require time stamping, and trending.
The respondents told us their typical specifications for average operating temperature ranges for the industrial monitors and operator interface terminals under study were high temperatures of roughly 110° F, and lows at approximately 35° F. The average relative humidity requirement identified by users was 81–82%.

Hazardous environment requirements, e.g., Class 1, Div. 1 or Div 2, were specified by users for only a small share (5.2%) of the operator interface terminals purchased.

Finally, the participants were asked what additional features, functionality, or improvements they’d like their vendors to incorporate into the products. For monitors, respondents returned a laundry list of items, with higher quality/reliability for harsh environments being mentioned by 15% of them.

For operator interface terminals, multiple communication modules was identified by 14% of respondents.

Looking forward, the survey asked participants to identify those non-product or commercial considerations that would sway their selection of the hardware for future purchases. Technical support at 69% and price at 68% led the way, overwhelming the responses given for vendor reputation and brand name recognition. See Figure 2 for the complete list.

Where to Look

The survey asked the participants to identify the sources they use most to learn about products and vendors.

Fifty-four percent of the respondents identified the Internet as an information source for monitors and operator interface terminals and suppliers. Of the Internet resources used, the most identified sources were search engines, with 68%, beating out vendor sites and distributor sites.

Further, 50% or more of respondents identified trade periodical ads and articles as information sources. Control Design and its sister publication CONTROL were identified by 49% of the respondents as trade periodical sources in which users learn about industrial electronic monitors and operator interface terminals, and vendors of these products.

Jim Taylor is group manager for industrial automation at Venture Development Corp. He can be reached at

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