Improve remote HMI and OIT access


Standards to the rescue

Figure 2: Using familiar multi-touch technology, operators can troubleshoot and execute commands as much as three times faster than with a single-touch interface. Courtesy: Indusoft, Invensys, and AutomationDirectSearching for a way to speed and standardize app development, HMI software and OIT hardware suppliers turned to HTML5. With HTML5, mobile applications can be as functionally rich and user friendly as the traditional native applications built using Java or C++.

Moreover, HTML5 eliminates the need to create numerous apps because it renders the same user interface correctly sized across multiple formats and operating systems. All users therefore see a similar screen regardless of the device. Better yet from the supplier point of view, HTML5 enables developers to write an application once, then instantly deploy it everywhere. This allows suppliers to quickly deploy new and improved apps to virtually all smartphones and tablets, delivering numerous benefits.

Mobile HMI apps advantages

Mobile HMI applications can offer:

  • Enhanced functionality
  • Ability to easily and quickly retrieve and interact with data
  • Device independence
  • Similar screen experience across multiple platforms
  • Easy navigation methods via multi-touch technology.

Remote access improvements for smartphones and tablets are powering bring your own device (BYOD), a technology implementation that allows employees to use personal handheld devices for work purposes. BYOD can cut costs and improve productivity, but it must include a wide variety of handheld devices to be effective, and the user experience must be first rate. This often means an app is needed, and suppliers are using HTML5 to meet this need. 

Small screens everywhere

As handheld devices become the more common method for remotely retrieving and manipulating HMI and OIT data, the user experience must be geared for these devices. Unfortunately, many current remote access HMI and OIT solutions are still optimized for traditional PC, keyboard, and mouse interaction. These solutions use drop-down menus and commands best accessed via a keyboard and mouse, with remote access from handheld devices somewhat of an afterthought.

To satisfy users and increase productivity, today's HMI and OIT remote access solutions must instead be developed to work well on platforms ranging from a full-featured PC to a smartphone. These solutions must allow users to manipulate HMI and OIT data as they would with other apps on their devices. To do so, these HMI solutions will have to include optimized screen sizes, different command structures, and multi-touch functionality.

Multi-touch functionality lets users scroll, zoom, expand, and rotate items with familiar smartphone and tablet gestures, such as swipe and pinch. Unlike traditional single-point touchscreens, multi-touch systems recognize the position of several simultaneous touch contacts to perform user-requested actions.

These combinations of touches and finger movements are called gestures. Typical examples of gestures are zoom and pan, which are commonly used to navigate the Web from smartphones and tablet devices. As compared to single-touch, multi-touch enables operators to execute commands as much as three times faster (Figure 2).

Mobile application example

For example, an operator gets a text-message alarm on his smartphone indicating a problem with a particular machine. He quickly presses an app button to fire up the remote access solution. Using multi-touch functionality, he swipes quickly to locate the specific alarm screen related to the machine, instead of using menus to go from screen to screen in a sequential manner.

The operator then uses a two-finger un-pinch gesture to zoom in to the area of interest and quickly determine the exact nature of the problem. He then makes the change required to resolve the issue, all in a matter of seconds.

Of course, similar actions could be performed via a browser with single-point touch. The difference is primarily related to time, but saving time can be of the essence when responding to a problem, and can often make the difference between uninterrupted operation and significant downtime.

The advent of PC-based HMI software and embedded Microsoft Windows OITs lowered the costs of purchasing, deploying, and maintaining an automation system. Their standard protocols and architectures ushered in the era of networked systems and the demise of islands of automation. As Internet technologies and security became more reliable and secure, the demand for remote access grew.

When mobile access was initially offered it was intended for workers using PCs, so the screen sizes and navigation methods were the same as they were for the host system, often a PC-based HMI. However, the expanded capabilities of handheld devices have changed how automation users retrieve and interact with plant data.

Some HMI software and OIT hardware suppliers are embracing this new paradigm by offering solutions that are built from the ground up with the understanding that the number of remote access users with smartphones and tablets will rise exponentially. Remote access capabilities created for handheld devices, often via apps, often have superior functionality compared to browser-based access.

- Marcia Gadbois is vice president of InduSoft, Invensys, and Jeff Payne is automation group product manager of AutomationDirect. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering,


This Control Engineering online article for April has more information than the print/digital version, with links to related articles below.

Key concepts

  • Human machine interface (HMI) software and operator interface terminal (OIT) hardware deliver remote access.
  • Smartphones, tablets, and other devices benefit from applications optimized beyond a browser.
  • Internet connectivity and mobility can improve overall operations.

Consider this

Could the right information to the right people at the right time improve your productivity and competitiveness?

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