Information systems: The exploding power of HMI software
The influence—and power--of a new-age workforce
Many factors affect the evolution and development of technological advancements. HMI software is no exception. Its capabilities are growing for many reasons, from innovations in software programming to the user demands for specific functionality. One significant but often overlooked dynamic is the influence of today’s changing workforce. HMI software must grow and change because the people inside the manufacturing facility demand it.
More than just a workforce transition, this change involves an alteration of the way we work. Today’s workers are digital natives. Where industrial automation once employed long-standing practices and long-term, typically technology-resistant personnel, today’s worker embraces technology at home and looks for it in the control system and industrial automation technologies s/he encounters on the plant floor. “They query and collaborate more openly,” noted John Krajewski, director of product management for HMI supervisory, Invensys. “Their attitudes are driving change in automation. Virtualization is a good example. As little as three years ago, a customer using virtualization was rare. Now nearly everyone—or at least any operation of any size—is leveraging its benefits.”
People today are more willing to take risks with technology, Krajewski continued. “IT embraced virtualization much earlier and faster than the plant control floor. Email servers have been virtualized for years. Office-level applications proved the viability and reliability of these technologies and showed the advantages. We manage systems while leveraging fewer computers, providing more resources, and reducing costs. Today, we know it is worth the risk.”
Employees who grew up on Google and Microsoft Windows are now at decision-making levels, and are influencing software development with their expectations about handling the problems they face. For instance, said Krajewski, “the amount of data obtained from a temperature or pressure transmitter used to be small. Now these devices generate lots of information. But traditional techniques were not made to handle large volumes of data. Such situations are forcing change in the marketplace. Systems are bigger, plants are more complex, and levels of automation are greater—and the operator is less engaged and only as good as the information delivered to him. In response, more sophisticated and elaborate HMI software programs are being developed and introduced to help operators be more proficient by putting collaboration tools and expert subject matter at their fingertips. Not a lot of this has occurred yet, but the process is definitely in motion."
Today’s workforce, for the most part, learned to use an Apple iPad before (or instead of) learning to write. As a result, workers expect to have simple yet powerful interfaces at their fingertips, virtually unlimited connectivity, and capability that is self-explanatory. Contrary to the prevailing view, technology is not always a barrier to interaction. “You can have a level of integration beyond the expectation of previous generations,” insisted Dave Hellyer, vice president, Tatsoft LLC. “Increasing social isolation resulting from complex and advanced technologies has been subject to considerable debate, but some studies show technology is actually enhancing social interaction because it increases communication and expands social circles. [More on social isolation and new technology issues may be found in the Pew Internet & American Life Project.]
His colleague, Tatsoft CEO Marcos Taccolini, elaborated: “The higher level of integration facilitated by advanced HMI software offers access to distributed information and distributed applications,” he said. “It empowers users. The reality we are approaching now focuses on user interaction and seamless integration of information and activities. We are looking at a centralized interface that provides communications, command inputs, and access to information, all in one.”
Mike Mendicino, product manager, Pepperl+Fuchs, offered a slightly different view. “I don’t think the issue surrounding the use of new technologies is necessarily an older/younger one,” he said. “Currently, you don’t see a lot of new and exotic features in industrial settings. But it is because no one has thought about developing software to bring that utility to this level. It takes someone at the software level to make those features happen for industry. The software comes first on your smart phone, and then someone at a DCS company sees it, or has a customer ask for it, and decides to execute that feature for the process. Most software developers see multi-touch features available in HMI products in two or three years,” he continued. “The hardware has to be enabled to accommodate these features as well. In the end, all of it will be transparent to the user.”
End-users are and will continue to be the source of creative ways to use HMI software. Their ideas drive the innovation and functionalities of many new products. “For example, if it were not for sophisticated software and the ingenuity of control systems and process control engineers,” said Richard Clark, product marketing manager at InduSoft, “current regulatory record keeping would involve mountains of paperwork, a great deal of process inefficiency, extraordinarily high overhead costs in manufacturing, and a lot of errors and mistakes in the flow of the product manufacture process. Software and a properly designed application minimize these negatives and improve production efficiency greatly.”
Perhaps Alan Cone, product marketing manager, Siemens Industry, summed it up best: “Today’s more technically savvy workers are saying ‘let’s do that in our factories.’ People like technology today. They have grown up with it. They want it…at home and at work.”
The power to surprise us all
How will powerful software shape HMIs in the manufacturing facility to come? A further merging of applications and devices is certain, nearly everyone agreed. In the early days of MMIs and HMIs, applications were separate and distinct. “One software package ran the displays, another the data collection, and yet another the reports,” said Taccolini. “Now, applications and interfaces are born integrated to address the bigger picture. Data flow and analysis, real-time calculations, multiple device outputs are programmed and deployed as one. Users interact with applications from a central point and access all kinds of data, from instrument readings for maintenance to SCADA displays to KPI analysis to messaging workers.”
HMI software of tomorrow needs to assume the role of guide, said Krajewski. “The content of an HMI screen display needs to help an operator make better decisions. Stress precipitates mistakes,” he pointed out. “Remember, today’s operators typically have less seniority, are less experienced than their predecessors. HMI software needs to facilitate decisions, enable operators to work better, and minimize mistakes. Software developers need to add content that helps ensure repeatable results. Operators, manufacturers, facilities don’t want to be software experts. They make food, generate power, or operate a facility. They’re looking for tools to help them facilitate the process.”
Automation and robotics are already a reality, added Clark. “Some facilities require only a minimum number of operators. Raw materials come in and completed products go out, all assembled by automated SCADA processes and robotics. The advantage of systems controlled by such sophisticated software is that every product is exactly the same as the previous one. I don’t think there now exists a level of sophistication to automate all processing in this way, but it certainly is a goal of many process control engineering teams around the world.”
And it is a goal that may be achieved one day. Such innovation depends on a wider availability of increasingly sophisticated tools and on the incorporation of HMIs into design, machine control, and manufacturing processes in ways not even thought of yet. “At some point,” said Clark, “younger workers who have grown up gaming in a 3D environment will work with control systems. 3D interfaces already exist in some military applications. They likely will appear in industrial control systems as well one day—and undoubtedly in ways that will surprise us all.”
Jeanine Katzel is a contributing editor to Control Engineering. Reach her at jkatzel(at)sbcglobal.net.
- New developments in HMI software have brought major advances in functionality.
- HMIs are now applying concepts proven in consumer electronics.
- More than just pretty lights, such functionality can support solid improvements in operator effectiveness.
For additional information about HMI software, products, and systems, visit the websites of the companies mentioned in this article:
For more on the changing world of HMI software read special sections below on multi-touch technology for SCADA, HMI programming languages, the impact of the new-age workforce, and building OS-neutral, mobile interfaces.