The Wait Continues for Handheld HMI

A survey of CONTROL DESIGN readers shows that although machine builders are using industrial-grade handhelds in their designs with varying amounts of success, most customers remain unimpressed.

By Rich Merritt

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]We periodically investigate portable, operator-interface technology, looking for machine builders who use it. For years we've failed to find more than one or two companies using some form of handhelds. This year there's a little more evidence, an indication that machine builders and the technology are coming around.

Many of you tell us you've looked hard at handhelds, and found them wanting for one reason or another. However, from what we've discovered, many of those fears are unwarranted.

Handhelds just might be one of those "freight train" technologies that catch on, build up speed, and take an entire industry with them. You might want to reconsider handhelds before your competitors beat you to the punch with a big "Wow Factor."

Evidence to Make the Case
Machine builders are using handhelds with varying amounts of success. Ed Ortiz, senior project engineer at Manitex, a builder of cranes, lifting equipment and caerial platforms in Georgetown, Tex., uses handhelds to download data and software into computers installed in his company's cranes. "We use a standard crane computer in all our cranes, and download the appropriate software and data for each model," he explains. "This includes data needed for the load-moment indicator." The handheld isn't offered to the customer because it's used only for initial programming.

Bill Evans, engineer at York, a HVAC manufacturer in York, Pa., also uses handhelds for setup. "We program and set up variable, air-volume cooling boxes," he says. Evans adds handhelds have become a good selling point for York's machines.

On the other hand, Bob Erko, chief engineer at Tennant, a Minneapolis-based maker of floor maintenance equipment, got the opposite result. His salespeople won't sell it. "We started out using PDAs as a data conduit between our machines and a PC," explains Erko. "We also used the PDA as a user interface or programming pendant."

It seems the Palm handheld Tennant chose didn't work out. "It took us a year to develop the product," continues Erko. "By the time we had it developed and were ready to stock PDAs, the device went obsolete. We make a product with a 10-year minimum lifespan. When marketing got wind that the device was going obsolete, it became an impossible sale. The sad thing is that we really could have leveraged the user interface for the good of our customers. Now, if you mention Palm around here, be prepared to dodge incoming daggers. It was easier to sell a complete new system than to convince people the handheld would be a viable, long-term industrial option."

Handheld technology has come a long way from the original Palm computers in a very short time, making them much more useful. Indusoft, for example, claims it has dozens of customers that use handhelds, including machine builders. Indusoft reports most of its customers won't talk about it because the handhelds give them a competitive edge. They told us of two companies that use the technology.

Micron Systems, a builder of process control systems in Houston, uses a Casio PDA as a full-featured operator interface with its multi-loop controller and compressor controls. MCL Control, a builder of safety and control packages in the energy industry, also in Houston, uses the same InduSoft CEView HMI/SCADA software to configure identical HMI displays on its big panel screens and on an H-P iPAC PDA (See Figure 1).

In addition, handheld computers can replace dedicated pendant-type products. For example, robot teaching pendants have long been required in the semiconductor industry. If pendant suppliers discontinue them, robot users could be in trouble.

Bill Jones, chief engineer at Semi Tool, a maker of semiconductor processing equipment in Kalispell, Mont., says his company used a teach pendant for six or seven years, until the supplier stopped making them. Rather than seek out another teaching pendant, Jones adapted a handheld computer (See Figure 2 below) from Xycom, and programmed it to act as the teaching pendant. "We use it in maintenance mode to teach the robots used in our semiconductor processing equipment," says Jones.

Similarly, Wemo Automation, a robot builder in Bor, Sweden, uses handhelds as more than a teach pendant. Wemo uses handheld mobile panels from B&R Industrial Automation to perform everything from setup to maintenance. "With B&R's software, only one tool is needed to program and service all components of the robot system," says Bengt Stahl, Wemo's co-founder. "Further, the same software is used for all types of robot control."

Solution Seeking a Problem?
We conducted a small survey of CONTROL DESIGN's readers, asking them if they use handheld technologies with the machines they build. Not surprisingly, 89% said "no" (64 of 72 responses). When asked why not, slightly less than half of respondents said they didn't consider using handhelds because they saw no customer demand.

Bob Horrell, project manager at Strasbaugh, San Luis Obispo, Calif, a manufacturer of precision equipment for the optics industry, provides a good example of this trend. "Communication with the tools we build — CMP, silicon polishers, surface grinders and edge grinders—is done through recipe entry at the tool or is downloaded from a host," he says. "Handhelds may be desirable at a future time, but there have been no requests up to now."

Steven Connell, manager of systems engineering at Glasstech, manufacturer of glass bending and tempering equipment in Perrysburg, Ohio, also sees no need for handhelds. "Our machine is in a fixed location, we already have redundant HMIs in a couple of locations, the setup of the machine is not a one-man job, and you don't have to worry about a handheld being misplaced," he notes. "Handhelds also are small, so not a lot of data can be displayed." On larger machines that have a few hundred parameters, he adds, it can be difficult to find the specific parameter you need.

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