Information systems: The exploding power of HMI software
Once a hardware-driven technology, HMI systems now depend on the power of software to control operations and applications. Led by advancements in programming languages and innovations in interfaces and mobility, these workhorses of manufacturing are playing expanded roles throughout the enterprise—and with the influence of a new-age workforce are looking to add greater functionality in the future.
The modern HMI joins the human element with a device or system in ways un-thought-of only a short time ago. Continually advancing technology enables disparate elements to talk the same language, to communicate, and to interact. HMIs today are intuitive, functional, and easy to use. They have become the interface that gives operators and managers alike the tools they need to ask an automation and control system to perform just about any task, and enable the system to understand what is being asked of it and perform that task.
In the past, discussions about HMIs centered on metal control boxes and the physical devices installed on and in them. Today, however, software is the heart of these systems, connecting graphical user interfaces (GUI), PC workspaces, and PLCs, and performing on the computer screen the functions of physical devices. Thanks to increasingly powerful programs, changes can be made simply and easily by reconfiguring the HMI for new functionality instead of physically rebuilding something new.
Software-driven HMIs have made ease-of-use a given, providing operators and engineers with the ability to access sophisticated machine or process functions quickly. “A well-designed system provides control, automation, and decision-making capabilities, and has data acquisition/telemetry functionality built in,” said Richard Clark, product marketing manager at InduSoft. “It can store data, control where and how it is stored, and do something intelligent with it as needed for process control and operation. In addition, data can be fed to higher level systems, such as an MES or CRM, for just-in-time production, advance ordering, inventory control, process efficiency tuning, SPC, regulatory requirements, and other reporting and analysis tasks.”
Software, the great enabler
Powerful software has become the great enabler for the HMI. “We have seen minor evolutions in the short term, but the HMI space will be totally redefined in the long run,” observed John Krajewski, director of product management for HMI supervisory, Invensys.
“We’re moving toward a seamless relationship between the MES/ERP systems and process control/factory automation, tracking entire processes or operations from beginning to end,” added Lou Szabo, business development manager at Pepperl+Fuchs. “Technologies such as multi-touch enable personnel to go from system to system effortlessly and see the whole picture. Today’s younger worker goes to an HMI screen and the first thing he does is take two fingers and expand the screen. So much is built right into the software, bringing a new level of sophistication to the industrial operation.”
In a phrase, current HMI software is just plain better. It is able to minimize inadvertent human actions or computer system errors that can damage operations, noted Marcos Taccolini, CEO of Tatsoft LLC. “Modern HMIs promote safer operations through better error handling on protocols and procedures, enhanced encryption, and better version control and object modeling, making it less complex to formulate and operate automation systems. HMI software programs of just a few decades ago were written in assembly language,” he continued. “They were very complex and it was difficult to interact with them. Every new generation of software since has been about implementing more functionality within a better and easier-to-use interface and creating and running applications that run faster and safer. It is unquestionable that the latest software technologies, such as .Net C# for programming or WPF and XAML for creating user interfaces, result in safer solutions compared to systems created with legacy or older software tools.”
Because of these significant changes, most facilities using software products of the 1980s and 1990s will want to improve their systems in some way, added Dave Hellyer, Tatsoft’s senior vice president of sales and marketing. “New systems are the way to embrace new technologies. Companies that try to extend the lifecycle of software tools too much face increasing maintenance costs of legacy software applications,” warned Hellyer. “Worse, production facilities and management information flow may slow due to bottlenecks created by previous-generation tools. An austere economic environment is not the time to curb investment in tools that can promote efficiency. Rather, it is the time to do it. In a thriving economy, a company can more easily afford inefficiency. In difficult times, manufacturers need every benefit advanced technologies can give. Industrial automation systems are composed of many layers. It is not necessary to upgrade an entire installation at once.”
Integrated information portals: Doing more with less
Overall, the functionality of state-of-the-art HMIs is more sophisticated and complex, yet simpler and easier to use. Powerful software makes them more accurate, robust, and repeatable. “Virtualization is a good example of that power,” said Mike Mendicino, product manager, Pepperl+Fuchs. “If you’re buying one, fairly expensive system to run 20 processes as virtual machines instead of purchasing 20 separate physical units, you have important economies-of-scale there in what the software and the hardware can do.”
Alan Cone, product marketing manager, Siemens Industry, concurred. “Techniques such as virtualization enable end-users and OEMs alike to do a lot more. Virtualization allows a sharing of resources while enabling highly robust systems. It helps reduce hardware costs and promotes application portability. An OEM can build one virtual machine and deploy it multiple times faster than with traditional methods. It helps standardize products, facilitate maintenance, speed the production cycle, and reduce time to market. Users are asking for more intelligence in the HMI. As the result of more sophisticated software, HMIs are now integrated information portals able to promote better control, better quality, and more throughput.”
Increasingly sophisticated HMI programming languages optimize performance and allow facilities to construct visualization systems with advanced capabilities, added Tatsoft’s Taccolini. “As the earlier transition from DOS to Microsoft Windows revolutionized the way we work, so now a set of new technologies is creating new design. These range from the adoption of the .Net framework, hardware acceleration graphics, and multicore CPUs running 64 bits to exponential growth of communication bandwidth and remote and cloud applications.”
Software evolution is promoting increased integration, added InduSoft’s Clark. “Our software is built on integration. All our devices can talk to any other. This is what defines integration. Still, new types of devices can create integration or support issues. If a new device is popular, we will likely be incorporating the technology into a driver that will talk to our products at some point. If its application is narrow or limited, however, it will likely have a short run. Popular devices are built on common technologies.”