A Ripe Market for Operator Interfaces
To paraphrase a famous automobile commercial by saying "This is not your father's operator interface" would be a massive understatement of an analogy. If you've been in industry more than just a few years, you've seen for yourself a number of the changes that have taken place with the products that were once known as man-machine interfaces, before becoming the more politically correct human-machine interfaces, and which are now more commonly referred to as operator interfaces.
Control Engineering and Reed Research Group (both a part of Reed Business Information) recently conducted a research study on operator interfaces to learn more about user requirements and purchasing plans for these products. The study showed that of the 246 respondents, nearly all predicted their need for operator interface technology would increase or hold constant in the year ahead (53% and 42%, respectively).
Driving this need is a requirement not only for the greater functionality more typically found in today's operator interface products, but a demand for even more functionality.
Other highlights of the survey include:
"In order to meet the higher benchmarks of automation and flexibility, operator interfaces must be faster, less expensive and allow for more connectivity than ever before," says Greg Philbrook, HMI product manager, AutomationDirect, explaining the results found in the Control Engineering survey. "Companies can't afford to have five different operator interface part numbers on their shelves to connect to five different manufacturer devices on their plant floor—one device should connect to everything. Operator interfaces must fulfill the demand for passing more information from the manufacturing floor into the enterprise databases of the front office and have greater data storing capability and commercial TCP/IP protocol support (SMTP email, FTP file transfer, Web servers, etc.) Open protocols are key as well. Modbus TCP for Ethernet, DeviceNet and Profibus for fieldbus, and Modbus RTU for serial connections are must-haves for an operator interface in today's manufacturing environment."
Beyond their presence as one of the most common tools encountered in any manufacturing facility (process or discrete), operator interfaces are demonstrative of how a product can be dramatically affected by market fluctuations and yet be a harbinger of things to come.
"Due to the drop in price of electronic components from Asia, the operator interface terminal market has become a very competitive, high growth area," says Philbrook, considering the market from a global viewpoint. "There's no longer any cost savings in terms of time and material when populating an enclosure with indicators and pushbuttons. Development time has become more precious than ever with the rapid decrease of engineering resources in the manufacturing industry. Software configuration tools must be simple and easy to learn while still supporting the functionality that the customer demands."
With these market forces coming to bear in a time when IT technologies impact plant floor realities more and more, it should come as no surprise that operator interfaces could prove to be the bellwether for the increasingly common uniting of IT and engineering in plants around the world. According to Philbrook, "HMI technology is rapidly bridging the gap between the industrial control world which typically adopts technology at a slower pace and the faster pace commercial electronic world."
The bottom line for purchasers is that with the operator interface industry rapidly advancing ahead of most other control technologies, users have the most to gain. Prices and development times are decreasing, while features are increasing. If you're in the market, the stars are aligned in your favor.
AutomationDirect Product Highlight
AutomationDirect's EZTouch line of operator interface touch panels provides a graphical interface designed for easily interchanging and displaying graphical data from a programmable logic controller. With EZTouch, users can replace pushbuttons, switches, meters, and other peripheral devices with just one panel. Models available offer screens ranging in size from 6-in. to 15-in.
For more information, click here .
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