Why HMIs Are Everywhere
The near ubiquitous spread of HMIs throughout industry is due to the fact that they help companies make better business decisions by delivering, managing, and presenting information—in real time—in a visually compelling and actionable format. Incorporating HMIs into applications has been proven to increase productivity, lower costs, improve quality, and reduce material waste.
The near ubiquitous spread of HMIs throughout industry is due to the fact that they help companies make better business decisions by delivering, managing, and presenting information—in real time—in a visually compelling and actionable format. Incorporating HMIs into applications has been proven to increase productivity, lower costs, improve quality, and reduce material waste. HMIs help companies become more profitable by positioning them for change.
Bringing information everywhere
Three developments, in particular, have influenced industry’s growing dependence on HMIs, according to Gary Nelson, product marketing manager for InTouch industrial computers, DA servers, and toolkits for Wonderware:
Improvements in HMI software;
Ability of HMIs to visualize data more competently and bring information together where it matters most; and
Increased and improved integration and connectivity technologies.
“Companies are demanding tools that improve their business process,” says Nelson, “and HMIs help them do that by measuring the effectiveness of their processes and their machines. An HMI doesn’t just present data on a machine. It presents information in different forms to different people at different levels of an organization all the way up to the executive level. The QC manager evaluates statistics while an operator views machine performance. Plant floor data doesn’t stay at the plant floor level anymore, and the HMI is the key to moving that data.”
Increased capabilities at lower cost are encouraging manufacturers to place HMIs at more locations, and to move into applications they hadn't considered before. (Source: AutomationDirect)
Burgeoning use of HMIs is fueled by their transition from pure visualization tools to tools that help manage the manufacturing process. In the eyes of Bruce Fuller, director of product management, control and visualization business for Rockwell Automation, “There has been a huge shift over the past decade in what people expect from HMI interfaces and software.” Fuller sees HMI software functionality being pushed into a wider variety of embedded devices as customers demand more functionality and capability on the machine as well as at the operator interface.
HMI and PC merge
The rising importance of HMIs is strongly affected by their growing ties to the PC world. As Prasad Pai, HMI/SCADA—iFix product manager at GE Fanuc, puts it, “HMIs are fast becoming an extension of PCs and of the IT department. They’ve had to become IT-friendly.”
Greg Philbrook, HMI product manager for AutomationDirect, concurs. “The standard HMI is nothing more than an industrial hardened PC at a lower price. PC features—including trending, logging, Web, and email capabilities—are being incorporated into HMIs. Higher processor speeds are enabling animation, and drops in costs are allowing the lower end of the market to move into applications they hadn’t considered before.”
“HMIs used to be dumb terminals,” says Ted Thayer, Bosch Rexroth’s PLC and HMI product manager. “Now they’ve become industrial PCs running Microsoft Windows operating systems. Technological advancements available at lower costs have opened a lot of doors. Improved system integration allows any good HMI system to talk to many product lines, encouraging companies to increase the HMIs they use.”
“But it’s not just more interfaces or more information that underlie recent HMI proliferation,” adds Jay Coughlin, manager of HMI Business USA at Siemens Energy & Automation. “It is more useful information. These systems let you store data, then simplify those data in dashboards so that those who may be unfamiliar with, say, the inner workings of a machine, but who do know the ins and outs of making quality products, can see data in a format they understand.”
Industry- and application-specific
HMIs are incorporating more sophisticated software, enhanced graphics, tools such as wizards and informational portals, and capabilities that range from mobile and portable to wireless. Features that give users more reasons to apply an increasing number of HMIs include:
Specialized software. Industry-specific software—such as application packages for water and wastewater plants and packaging industry operations—provides objects, modules, and sample screens specific to that industry. This allows, for example, easier and more efficient monitoring of fluid flow rates and pressures, or provides built-in work-in-process steps for bottling operations. “Users can overlay industry packs on top of the system platform because they are easy to integrate,” says Wonderware’s Nelson, “making available more specialized information.”
Enhanced graphics and wizards. Striving to help users streamline screen development, some vendors are adding animation and harnessing the power of wizards to make it simpler to build visualization screens by prompting users through the process. For example, “we’ve recently introduced a water productivity solution that uses updated graphics and wizards to help configure some of the more common tools found in water and wastewater management operations,” says GE Fanuc’s Cerrato.
Kiosks. Information portals or kiosks that typically focus on diagnostics provide an electronic source for manuals, training materials, schematics, and more. “These innovative HMIs make information available quickly at a centralized location,” explains Phil Aponte, HMI product marketing manager for Siemens Energy & Automation. “An operator can view what’s happening on a nearby production line, or a maintenance worker can see a portion of a line that is down—all at the same kiosk.”
Wireless and mobile capabilities. Mobility also adds to the attraction of HMIs. “Mobile panels give operators a way to move around a workstation, either on a tethered cord or on a wireless panel, a real benefit during start ups and when adjustments need to be made,” says Siemens’ Coughlin.
Also, price decreases are opening the way for placing HMIs on small systems, such as packaging machines. “Units with screens 3- or 4-in. in size with very high resolutions can be used in portable applications such as remote well stations or mounted on vehicles,” adds AutomationDirect’s Philbrook. “These developments are allowing HMIs to go almost anywhere.”
Improvements in HMI hardware (right) and software (above) help businessess measure the effectiveness of their processes and their machines, and share information beyond the plant floor. Industrially hardened equipment coupled with sophisticated programs brings more intelligence to the device, while interconnectivity furthers corporate bottom-to-top reporting, analysis, and data warehousing. (Sources: Bosch Rexroth and Wonderware)
Although interest in wireless systems has not been as great as some had anticipated, most believe acceptance will come, making HMIs even more valuable. Bosch-Rexroth’s Thayer admits he’s comfortable with wireless, but that the typical customer has not shown a lot of interest in it yet. “But,” he says, “wireless will come, largely because it lowers cost. It eliminates cabling that deteriorates, breaks down, or gets cut.”
Industry-specific software packages help add detailed precision to specialized applications. this screen shows a backwash filter sequence for a water and wastewater management application built with a wizard designed to simplify visualization-screen development. (Source: GE Fanuc)
HMI as a controller?
“In the 1990s, HMIs changed how blue-collar workers did their jobs,” says Wonderware’s Nelson. “Today, they are changing how the boardroom does its job as well.”
Bosch Rexroth’s Thayer foresees a time when HMIs will perform control to such an extent that a PLC is almost unnecessary. “Today, we can actually embed the PLC control logic engine inside the HMI in its own hard real-time system,” he says. “An operator might run PLCs, control the line, and do database transactions from one station. It will make it a lot easier to tie systems together and lead to more simplified system architectures.”
The use of HMIs is limited only by the amount of information an operator can effectively use, says Rockwell Automation’s Fuller. “Advancements will continue to reduce development time and troubleshooting efforts. That’s where the next round of big changes will come. The differentiator, however, lies not in the hardware, but in the software and the kind of information it allows you to present and use on that display. As people want more and more information right where they are, they will need additional HMIs.”
Jeanine Katzel is a contributing editor to Control Engineering. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org .