Changing workforce well-equipped to use powerful, high-efficiency HMI software

The labor force today is rapidly evolving, and as it does, it is having a significant impact on the next generation of human-machine interface solutions.

By Scott Miller, Rockwell Automation June 2, 2011

Change is coming to the U.S. industrial workforce. The labor force today is rapidly evolving, and as it does, it is having a significant impact on the next generation of human-machine interface (HMI) solutions.

According to estimates made by the International Society of Automation (ISA), the United States currently employs about 200,000 automation professionals. The demand for new workers is growing at roughly 3% annually. At the same time, workers are retiring at a rate of more than 5% a year. As a result, the demand for 16,000 new automation professionals each year in the immediate future greatly exceeds the number of workers available today.

Because of these increasingly scarce resources, many automation professionals are required to wear more than one hat. For example, operators may be expected to help with maintenance and systems engineering. Or a maintenance engineer, once responsible for one plant, may now have maintenance duties at three additional plants within a city or state. The worker must be able to quickly and securely access machine diagnostics and operational information from equipment at each location.

As the shortage of experienced personnel converges with an overall drive for leaner, more profitable operations, manufacturers also need better ways to share data between the plant floor and business operations. To make more informed business decisions, it is crucial for those in all areas of a company to have access to role-specific information, such as raw material prices, customer demand data, production schedules, and throughput figures.

In addition, new hires expect the same level of usability and functionality that they have come to expect from their own personal technology. They use iPhones and Blackberries which give them instant access to just about everything, from driving directions and personal email to online shopping and music. As manufacturing professionals, these employees are demanding that same level of easy access and simple interaction with plant-floor and business data on their HMIs.

To address these requirements, manufacturers often deploy a modular HMI solution as one foundational element of their manufacturing system. To build a strong foundation, the HMI software tightly integrates with the control system and helps gather and display manufacturing information to a broader audience. By extending the HMI installation with web-based clients and pairing it with a manufacturing intelligence strategy, personnel at all levels can gain dramatically improved access to role-specific data, which helps drive improved business decisions that add dollars to the bottom line.

Applying HMI software with a common look-and-feel

As HMIs become standard and crucial components in the majority of manufacturing operations, flexibility and scalability are essential characteristics of a well-designed system. Deploying an HMI system that is tightly integrated with the control system can provide most of the process control and system monitoring required in a facility. A well-designed HMI system also can be leveraged as a solid foundation for additional visibility and information functions.

For faster application development and training, systems engineers should look for software solutions that are scalable and easy to configure. In one case, Golden Triangle Energy Cooperative in Craig, MO, worked with systems integrator Bachelor Controls Inc. (BCI) to customize Rockwell Automation FactoryTalk View Supervisory Edition (SE) HMI software for easier operator transition when the company switched to a new process control system for its ethanol production plant.

“It was important that the operator interface look similar to the interface from the old DCS,” explained Marvin Coker, senior project engineer, BCI. “We were able to customize the FactoryTalk View SE software to mimic the look and feel of the old interfaces, which made it much easier for the operators to adjust to the new system.”

One day of downtime was estimated to cost Golden Triangle up to $35,000, making easing the operator transition and learning curve for the new system essential. BCI’s phased approach to the installation gave the operations staff a chance to adjust to the new system and operator displays prior to the full plant switch-over. The plant was up and running at full capacity within the same day that restart procedures began.

Using EMI systems to improve business decisions

Tightly integrated machine-level HMI software and control systems give operators access to a vast array of plant floor information. However, by installing enterprise manufacturing intelligence (EMI) software, personnel throughout the company, from manufacturing operators and engineers to management personnel and executives, can access role-specific data feeding not only from the plant floor, but from different data sources throughout the supply chain.

Of course, having so much diverse information—from the cost of raw materials to production schedules to consumer demand for a particular product—can challenge manufacturers looking to intelligently leverage such a wealth of data for improved business performance. New EMI applications can help organize and analyze disparate sources of information to present organized and coherent reports that can be customized and password-protected, depending on an employee’s role within the company.

EMI technology can also facilitate troubleshooting. Older applications require a predefinition of the analysis to be run, only monitoring a certain metric on a certain line and producing what was essentially a data dump with no analysis or intelligence. Current products can monitor dozens of data sources to provide a more comprehensive picture of a problem, helping less experienced maintenance staff and controls engineers not only identify the issue, but solve it.

With ever-increasing concerns about data security, EMI technology also can improve monitoring capabilities. Older, disparate systems often each require different passwords and log-in procedures to access relevant information. However, leveraging one EMI application with password-protected, role-based access can ease the strain on the IT department’s time while providing a cohesive, single-source security blanket.

An example at a major pharmaceutical manufacturer illustrates the benefits of implementing a manufacturing intelligence strategy. The firm leveraged FactoryTalk VantagePoint software from Rockwell Automation to put quality improvements in the context of production outputs. Trying to combine complex laboratory data with quality and batch information from the plant floor had been incredibly time-consuming and difficult to manipulate to test for alternative recipes and quality outcomes. Using the manufacturing intelligence approach, the company was able to gain a comprehensive view of the manufacturing process and resulting quality concerns. By sharing that data with chemists developing recipes, it was able to help significantly reduce quality concerns and related waste when a batch did not meet set criteria. The company saw a return on investment on the EMI application in the first two weeks after installation.

Harnessing web-based systems for remote data access

The wealth of information that state-of-the-art HMI and manufacturing intelligence systems can provide at all levels can be extremely valuable for a company, but only if data are presented in a way that is easy to access and understand. With a web-based solution, employees can view tailored dashboards or reports from any standard Internet browser. The current generation of manufacturing personnel is increasingly comfortable using—indeed demands access to—web and browser-based tools for day-to-day information access. Web-based visualization technology makes interaction with data and manufacturing systems easier for a web-savvy generation, and can shorten training times thanks to intuitive designs and improved graphical environments.

For integrators and manufacturers, the days of using costly, difficult-to-implement remote viewing options for HMI systems are in the past. The latest generation of web-based HMI technology is easier to architect and is available at an economical low price point. These software applications leverage native browser functions, such as bookmarking for easier access to real-time data, to improve everything from maintenance tasks to throughput to production changes.

In one example, Ballard Power Systems, a Canadian-based global leader in the development of zero-emission proton exchange membrane fuel cells, installed an EMI application with web-based HMI capabilities from Rockwell Automation, to provide unified portal access to 35 research and development, production, and field test databases. Using the system gives Ballard Power secure access to all data sources from a single platform. The software’s powerful yet versatile toolsets also perform data analysis and reporting and can share information over the Internet using standard browsers rather than requiring client software be installed on every PC.

The system “provides the ability to look at multiple data sources and manipulate data from different applications so we can do more sophisticated analyses,” said William Blakeman, senior engineer and team leader, Integrated Plant Data Systems, Ballard Power Systems Inc. “It complements our existing systems, as diverse as they are, and actually enhances our return on investment in all of them because it allows us to view data from any of them in a single environment. All the information existed before, but it was completely unrelated and pulling it together proved to be far too labor intensive.”

The need for scalable visualization solutions that tightly integrate with the control platform, while simultaneously providing remote thin-client browser-based real-time monitoring and decision-making capabilities, is growing rapidly with the increasing demand for web-based HMI software and EMI technology, explained Craig Resnick, research director, ARC Advisory Group. “Manufacturers require HMI software solutions that provide the strong foundation necessary to maximize their investments in newer technologies such as role-based dashboards,” he said, “and allow them to take advantage of the extended analytic and diagnostic capabilities that these new EMI and web-based products offer.”

More information about visualization solutions for improved decision-making may be found by visiting the Rockwell Automation website.

FactoryTalk and Rockwell Automation are trademarks of Rockwell Automation Inc.