Check your brain at the door

Dropping prices and open-architecture enhancements have a lot to do with making it a machine control value-add, but some of this changeover has to do with, for lack of a better description, what you’d call the dumbing-down of HMI.

By Joe Feeley, Editor in Chief

Joe FeeleyIt’s become something of a ritual to devote April’s column to a few thoughts about and reactions to National Manufacturing Week’s annual March pilgrimage to Chicago. Try as I might these past few years to find some resoundingly positive, upbeat spin to put on the four-day conference and exhibition, reality usually gets the best of me as we bear witness to the slow demise of big, national U.S. trade shows.

Now, for sure there were more than a few nifty products and ideas being promoted, and we’ll be reporting about their influence on machine control during the rest of 2002. We always do that. But, for a few minutes here, I have to yield to my cynicism over some troubling findings from the show.

I ran into more evidence of a sorry movement that seems to be gaining some ground. It’s not a true trend yet, the likes of which are included in this month’s cover story by Rich Merritt, but it has become visible enough to talk about here.

It’s clear that we’re all seeing a move away from text and pushbutton-based operator interface on machines in favor of graphical touchscreens. Dropping prices and open-architecture enhancements have a lot to do with making it a machine control value-add, but some of this changeover has to do with, for lack of a better description, what you’d call the dumbing-down of HMI.

More than a few HMI vendors at NMW affirmed what we hear from machine builders from time to time. They say some end-user customers are becoming convinced that the skill levels of their machine and process operators are declining to the point where what’s needed are simple—and I mean simple—stop/go, red light/green light display panels that require absolutely no interpretation.

I even came across a company that provides monitoring systems for fast-food restaurants for maintaining flow through hamburger ovens. The display panel is as simple a system as you can find—a Pavlov’s dog-level of response—and requires no thought at all to use. This company probably wasn’t finding too many leads for the fast-food service industry at the Design Engineering Show, so I wonder how much business they think is out there in our industrial automation space.

The hype and hope around the tremendous potential of object-based visualization is being tempered on the factory floor by fears that the employees can’t handle very much of it. I have to wonder if the results of the latest round of over-zealous downsizing and slashed training budgets are coming home to roost. If that’s the case, we’re in for trouble.

Let’s hope this is a trend that withers and dies before too long. The forced exodus of engineering talent from the factory floor was trouble enough. It’s even worse if we’re losing the operators, too.

A lot of you are closer to this than I am. I’d like to hear from you about it. Is this just a fleeting blip on the radar screen or something more? Maybe we can get a better handle on what’s going on here.

Finally, this column can’t end without a word of thanks and appreciation to Senior Editor Bob Waterbury, whose hydraulics feature this month marks his last editorial endeavor for Control Design.

Bob has decided to retire and lead the good life, doing what he wants and deserves, after a long career of solid, dependable editorial work at Control Design and several other technical magazines before that. All of us at Control Design wish him an abundance of health and happiness.

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