The HMI of the future will look very familiar
Is the cloud safe?
When the Internet is mentioned in the context of an industrial automation application such as HMI/SCADA, one of the first concerns involves security. As with any system, there’s always some chance of a security breach, but cloud-based SCADA often provides better protection than similar systems managed internally.
In many companies, shrinking budgets have dramatically reduced IT staff and resources, and remaining IT personnel often don’t have the time or the expertise to keep current with constantly evolving potential threats. On the other hand, cloud providers specialize in providing secure access to applications along with carefully protected data storage. Their people are trained continually on how to protect their systems from internal and external security threats, and cloud providers can afford the required IT staff because they spread their costs among many customers.
Many companies rely on a single Internet provider, but this means that if Internet service goes down, then access to HMI control and monitoring functions is lost. The cloud instead uses multiple Internet providers to ensure uptime, with data stored on more servers in diverse locations to ensure secure backup in the event of a catastrophic event.
The latest SCADA applications are changing the way automation systems are deployed and accessed in industrial settings. Along with being able to access systems using COTS devices such as smartphones, tablets, and cloud-based computing, SCADA packages also provide users with the choice to use another popular COTS technology known as multi-touch.
Benefits of multi-touch
When COTS technologies migrate to industrial automation such as cloud computing, it’s typical to feel some skepticism as to whether the benefits will outweigh the possible drawbacks. Will the new technology be secure and reliable enough for industrial applications? Can it withstand the rigors of a dirty, noisy industrial manufacturing or distribution site? Will the cost-benefit ratio make sense, resulting in a positive ROI?
Combining SCADA for multi-touch applications along with the industrial hardware designed for harsh environments, users are now benefitting from these technical advances. Multi-touch HMI works through a system of touches and finger movements called gestures, very similar to the zoom, pan, and pinch gestures used to navigate smartphone and tablet screens (see Figure 3).
Gestures are very intuitive and enable much faster execution times. On average, a multi-touch command can be executed three times faster than the same command performed by keystrokes and mouse clicks. This allows operators to respond much faster to alarms and changes, and also frees up time to analyze and improve operations. Another advantage of multi-touch HMI is enhanced safety as advanced touchscreens enable operation by gloved hands. Multi-touch HMI can also be programmed so that critical safety-related actions require two-handed operation.
Multi-touch technology is usually a better choice for harsh environments than keyboards and pointing devices. No moving parts are exposed to dust, water, and other contaminates, prolonging the equipment’s life span. Protecting keyboards and pointing devices in hazardous areas, such as Zone 1 or 2, is possible, but typically very expensive. Multi-touch HMI screens can also be supplied with a protective overlay of glass or polycarbonate to safeguard them from splashes, dirt, and extreme temperatures.
Helping to fill a gap
One of the biggest issues for today’s manufacturers is the need to hire and train new automation professionals and operators as baby-boomer employees retire. Inevitably, most of these new workers will be from generations very familiar with smartphones, tablets, and multi-touch. In fact, asking these workers to use keyboards and pointing devices instead of multi-touch would be akin to asking them to operate a TV without a remote.
Multi-touch techniques for SCADA applications reduce the amount of training required to get these new automation professionals and operators up to speed. Moreover, since the method for accessing the system is so similar to the way they use their smartphones and tablets, more instruction can be focused on understanding and analyzing data, rather than how to access it.
Soon it will be difficult to train new operators who have only used multi-touch screens to use older keystrokes and pointing methods, resulting in increased training time and expense. In speaking with end users and system integrators, an interesting phenomenon is also occurring: mature workers in larger than expected numbers also prefer multi-touch technologies.
The same is often true for cloud-based access to HMI/SCADA systems through smartphones and tablets. Waiting for IT to load an application onto a desktop PC, and depending on IT to keep the network up and running, isn’t an attractive option for many. Much preferred is browser-based access via their own device or, better yet, app access which provides many advantages in both consumer and industrial applications.
The future is already here
Most employees of manufacturing firms use their smartphones and tablets to access e-mail, the web, and key data sources such as their bank accounts from virtually anywhere via a few simple touch commands. Consequently, they will expect this type of functionality in their work lives. Companies that don’t update their systems with the software required for this type of access run the risk of looking antiquated to their employees, incurring high costs and foregoing important benefits.
The latest SCADA technologies don’t just satisfy employees’ desires; they also provide faster access to more data, which improves overall operations. For example, data mining has become very important in this information age, and cloud-based HMI systems are built to effectively manage large amounts of data.
The ability to access and respond to data in more intuitive ways is already improving the safety and efficiency of manufacturing operations. Graphical interfaces have made it easier to view and analyze data, and multi-touch SCADA technologies and access via handheld devices are increasing those capabilities.
Multi-touch and cloud computing for SCADA are the newest developments that enable COTS technologies to be used in industrial settings, but they won’t be the last. Computer, smartphone, and other consumer electronics manufacturers are continually developing more intuitive ways to use their products. Many are working on using eye movements and other revolutionary methods for navigation, as well as adding new functionalities such as wearable 3D viewing devices. HMI/SCADA applications will inevitably be at the forefront for allowing new technologies to be adapted for industrial environments.
While most manufacturers won’t immediately adopt all these new technologies—tablets, smartphones, multi-touch screens, and cloud computing—most are already using some, with more being adopted on a continuing basis. Now that SCADA packages offer an affordable and reliable way for industrial companies to use these devices for accessing automation systems, they will eventually become as common as desktops once were. Laggards will run the risk of being overshadowed by competitors who are increasing profits through efficiency gains and cost cutting provided by these technologies.
Fabio Terezinho is vice president of consulting services for InduSoft.
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