Get in Touch With HMIs and Machines

HMIs Today Are the Main Point of Decision-Making for Operators, and This Will Continue in the Future

By Hank Hogan

Machine-to-machine communication and a modern, touch-enabled device means there’s no need to stand around an HMI to diagnose and solve a problem.

Machine-to-machine communication might benefit from the right touch—specifically the right multi-touch input displays. Along with the ability of modern HMIs to remotely collect data, the technology could give control engineers new tools and capabilities.

An example of how this might unfold comes from Lenze. The automation supplier announced a panel controller a year ago that features an ARM processor, Ethernet connectivity, a USB port and a resistive touch display.

Importantly, its operating system is Windows, and that brings a host of features, explains Lenze's technology evangelist Tom Jensen. These include the ability to easily pass information around and the power to graphically display it, leading to some interesting usage scenarios.

"If I have one HMI and two machines, when one machine burps, the HMI will notice and automatically ask, ‘Hey, do you want videos to help troubleshoot this other machine? Yes or no?'" Jensen explains.

The two machines operating under such unified control could be an application, such as a filler-capper combination, which are used in pharmaceutical or beverage processing. These devices might process 250 units per minute for pharmaceutical operations and as many as 1,200 per minute in the case of beverages, according to Jensen.

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In part, this new approach that could involve troubleshooting videos is now possible because the devices have the computing horsepower to oversee several multi-axis motion operations simultaneously. They also can handle the data load associated with a high volume of manufacturing throughput. Software running on the devices also can react to defined conditions, such as an alarm, a changeover request or a need for maintenance. In those cases, a video could pop up and guide personnel through the appropriate actions to take.

Some of Beckhoff Automation's industrial display families have multi-point projective capacitive input. This means that swiping, flicking, zooming and other operations found on consumer devices are possible. That familiarity brings benefits.

"It's much easier for training in an international market to get operators to understand a machine and navigate the different HMI screens more efficiently," says Nathan Eisel, Beckhoff’s North America support manager. He adds that the input technology can be used with thin gloves on, unlike some other multi-touch technologies.

Behind the scenes, the use of OPC UA means that the devices can exchange data with other machines. Beckhoff’s products can be either the client or the server without hardware add-ons. Thus, they can do machine-to-machine communication with other systems on the plant floor. Beyond that, they can also talk to management systems and move data from shop floor to top floor and vice versa, according to Eisel.

Looking forward, he sees two trends. One is unification of HMI and controllers into a single unit that talks both upstream and downstream, interacting with machines and management systems. The other is a change in the input and display systems. For example, Beckhoff Automation has studied the use of Google Glass, which integrates a heads-up display with a camera, in an industrial environment. The technology could indicate things to come—the birth of a wearable HMI.

HMIs today are the main point of decision-making for operators, and this will continue in the future, notes John Dirks, global product manager for Rockwell Automation’s PanelView Plus. The product family has panel sizes as small as four inches, with a 19-in. display planned.

In Spring 2013, the company announced a new version of HMI software. It allows its panels to connect to and display data from noncontrollers such as power monitors or smart overload relays.

As time goes by, the computers behind the panels will produce a wider array of data and will interface with more systems on and off the plant floor. Some of this data will be accessed remotely. For instance, the manager of a beverage plant might need to access a screen showing a key performance indicator of a bottle-filling machine. That can be done by connecting to the filling room HMI and extracting the data. This sort of machine-to-machine communication and a modern, touch-enabled device mean there's no need for personnel to stand at an HMI to diagnose and solve a problem.

As Dirks says, "The support person, be they maintenance, operations or an engineer, can connect into the terminal, see exactly what’s going on and be able to walk an operator through some troubleshooting steps without having to come out on the floor."