Touchscreen Advantages—Part II

Hardware Interfaces Can’t Match Software’s Upside for Difficult Environments, Lower Costs and Space Savings

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By Phil Burgert

[This is the second of a two-part article on the the use of touchscreens for discrete manufacturing operator interface applications. Part I appeared in the May issue of Control Design, or you can read the complete story now at]

Touchscreen-based HMI is finding its way into more and more discrete manufacturing applications, replacing traditional interfaces such as keyboards and mechanical buttons. Reduced footprint, lower cost, less wiring and reprogramming capabilities all impact touchscreen’s surge.

But versatility and flexibility are the big drivers at BG Industrial Control (, Placentia, Calif., which uses touchscreens from AutomationDirect in a system it developed for real-time monitoring of employee efficiency and productivity in textile rental plants (Figure 1).

“It’s a simple application,” says Brian Greer, president of BG Industrial Control. “The complicated part is figuring out the logic and how to make that work to use the database and connectivity.” The work at five plants with a total of 160 touchscreens involves washing, ironing, folding and keeping track of textile uniform pieces as they travel through the plant. Touchscreens have been used in the plants for five years, but they have been upgraded in the past two years.”


Figure 1: With touchscreen Ethernet-based controllers from BG Industrial Control, employees switch to different stations and continue monitoring daily efficiency.

Each individual workstation has a touchscreen, says Greer. “A worker logs in an employee number and the task to be performed and then view the item’s name and the rate at which they are supposed to work,” he says. “It shows them how they are doing during the course of the day. That’s all reported back on the main computer and it sends out production reports.”

The most important advantage of touchscreens over other panels is versatility, says Greer. “I can send out actual strings or actual names,” he says. “I can use variable screens and use it for maintenance or to send messages.”

Rick Tomfohrde, HMI business development manager with Pepperl+Fuchs (, notes the ability of operators to directly see and touch machine visuals to activate desired functions as a chief advantage of touchscreens when compared to keyboards or mechanical buttons. “Any other style of input requires some back-and-forth, hand-eye coordination by the operator,” says Tomfohrde. “While this might seem simple, and it often is, each cycle takes just a little more time and is just a bit more tedious and prone to error. Over time these incremental bits add up to reduced throughput and more operator errors.”

A touchscreen’s biggest advantages are cost and flexibility, says Gary Marchuk, member of the business development team at AutomationDirect ( “Since touchscreen HMI products are software-based, the interface can change with the alterations of an operation or process,” he says. “With some control systems remaining in place for years, changes in the process can be made easily.”


Lawrence Liang, product manager for Advantech Industrial Automation Group (, says his company’s ratio of touch to non-touch HMIs sold is 85% to 15%. “The key advantage of touchscreen monitors is that they act as both an input and output device with a graphical user interface,” he says.

Touchscreens have dropped in price, says Shaun Kneller, sales manager with B&R Industrial Automation ( “A keyboard with 50 or 60 keys on it might even be as expensive as a panel,” he says. Kneller notes it wasn’t long ago when industrial PCs with a touchscreen cost $10,000, but comparable devices now are $3,000 or less.

Ryan Gunderson, product marketing manager for PanelView at Rockwell Automation (, notes that touchscreen operator panels really have taken over much of what was handled with push buttons since the start of this decade. “Now touchscreen volume projections are three times that of graphical keypads moving forward.”

Mind the Disadvantages

The only disadvantage that Bob Meads, president and senior software engineer for Odessa, Fla.-based system integrator iQuest (, notes is that the screens do require cleaning. “This is far outweighed by the environmental problems and cleaning requirements with traditional interfaces,” he says. “Some say touchscreens don’t allow a robust interaction with the process. However, if the applications are designed with the touchscreen in mind, the application can enjoy all the benefits without the drawbacks.”

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