HMI: Form vs. Function?

Are Industrial Screens Beginning to Look More Like Smartphones?

By Control Design Staff

Along with the growing use of smartphones and other mobile devices used for remote HMI monitoring functions, we note that many operators and technicians are more comfortable with the touchscreens on a smartphone than on a conventional HMI. Are there starting to be deployments of industrial HMI screens that look more like phones on the shop floors?

—From January '13 Control Design

(On the Go With HMI)


Functionality Is What Matters
HMIs used in the machines built by our organization have designs driven by functionality, not style. My experience with smartphones and the Windows 8 Metro interface indicates that they are perhaps adequate for entertainment, but are much less user-friendly for any application requiring serious computing or significant data entry.

Nobody reads the manual unless they have a problem, and seldom even then, so if your interface requires an explanation in a manual before the user can operate it, the battle is already lost.

The argument might be made that operator interfaces should take on the appearance of smartphones to make them more understandable to a younger generation of workers. In my opinion, that alone is not enough to dictate an interface style, and it discounts one advantage that younger generations seem to have compared to us geezers: the ability to rapidly adapt to new (to them) electronic interfaces like those used on smartphones and industrial HMIs.

Kim L. Ground,
senior EE — controls,
Surface Finishing Technologies

Imagine the Possibilities
Ten years ago, this was the subject of obscure lab experiments and generally garnered laughter and ideas of science fiction.

I certainly can envision deployment of smart devices in the industrial environment in the very near future. "Smartphone" is a misnomer as the "phone" part is now minuscule by comparison to all the other functions.

Applications such as Aurasma, an augmented reality tool described by Matt Mills in a TED presentation, clearly demonstrate how easy this deployment can be. Imagine a production line tech pointing his cellphone camera at a piece of equipment on the line, and immediately the setup procedures, documentation, etc., appear on the screen.

Why not use these smart devices on the line rather than leaving them in the employee's clothes locker? He is already totally familiar with the interface. Minimal training required.

Gerald Beaudoin,
automation project manager,
Leahy Orchards

High-Performance HMI
Industrial HMI screens are starting to take advantage of the usability research that has gone into making smartphones easy to operate. Apple and Google have invested in extensive research and testing to create simple, consistent and easy-to-use interfaces for iOS and Android operating systems, and both companies publish usability guidelines for developers creating iOS and Android apps. Beyond HMI screens, smartphone interfaces are arguably also influencing desktop PC user interfaces. Microsoft Windows 8 is a prime example.

Smartphone usability guidelines and practices are beginning to be implemented in HMI screen design. This direction is particularly evident in a series of best practices for building effective HMI screens — called "high-performance HMI" — that emphasizes prioritizing on-screen data, using more informative graphics, and muting colors so key data stand out. High-performance HMI is described in The High-Performance HMI Handbook by Bill Hollifield and Eddie Habibi of PAS.

Selam Shimelash,
application engineer,
Opto 22

Richer User Experience
In addition to an increase in mobile connectivity (for the shop floor), we will also see a revolution in the machine operator interfaces on the machine itself by making them much more intuitive to interact with. The main contributor to this revolution will be multi-touch technology, which already has had a great impact on how we interact with our mobile devices. Additionally, displays themselves will get larger as pricing continues to decrease, thanks to lower component costs.

Supporting swipe and pinch and zoom gestures on larger displays allows designers of machine operator interfaces much more freedom to create a user experience that is richer in terms of graphics and content shown on the screen. In combination with the underlying control system gaining ability to show more production and diagnostic data, the need for special separate engineering and diagnostic tools will decrease, which will reduce training and maintenance costs for technicians and operators, lowering the total cost of ownership of machinery and boosting profitability.

Robert Muehlfellner,
director, automation technology,
B&R Industrial Automation

User Experience Key
User experience is becoming a more important requirement in manufacturing automation. Users want interfaces similar to what they experience on smartphones and tablets. This is further complicated by the proliferation of available real-time data. We also need to provide a user interface that can leverage information from MES and IT systems in an intuitive manner.

Scott A. Miller,
business manager,
Rockwell Automation