From Consumer Electronics to your HMI

Machine builders, HMI designers and industrial PC users take note: Smart phones and other consumer electronics are changing the way operators expect to interact with machines - and how you will create interfaces.

By Renee Robbins, Control Engineering March 1, 2010


Sidebar (below): How to build an HMI: An iPad ‘virtual teardown’ from iSuppli

Industrial human-machine interface (HMI) technologies benefit from accelerating advances in consumer technologies. Next-generation screens, input devices, software, and processors for consumers continue to raise industrial user expectations for higher performance and greater ease of use. Are you ready?

“Industrial applications are being impacted by the proliferation of consumer hardware and software, most specifically smart phones,” says Andy Gryc, senior product marketing manager for QNX Software Systems. QNX makes the QNX Neutrino real-time operating system for embedded control. “The current explosion of Apple devices (iPhone and iPod) — and to a lesser extent Blackberries, Android, and the Pre — are exposing end users to high-quality intuitive HMIs,” Gryc says. “Those end users are the same individuals who operate industrial equipment. Expectations of what an industrial HMI should provide, and how easy it is to use, are beginning to track to the expectations of today’s consumer devices.”


QNX Software System’s HMI frameworks include

Gryc says he’s seen a trained engineer “forget” how to operate an oscilloscope and attempt to use the Apple pinch-and-spread gesture to zoom into a scope trace. “Similarly, connectivity demands are spreading from consumer devices as well,” he says. “We’ve had some unusual requests from the industrial segment lately, such as inquiries about adapting application store technology into what would be normally considered an isolated system.”

IT organizations and tech watchers are used to a steady stream of advancements, but recent months have accelerated innovations into mainstream consciousness. Apple’s announcement of its iPad tablet computer in January captured the attention of gadget-loving consumers, and the disclosure of Microsoft’s “Courier” tablet PC project four months earlier took the tech world by storm. PC World writer Ian Paul said it’s not clear whether Microsoft’s double-screen tablet device that functions like a day planner will ever see the light of day, but “Courier looks like it could revolutionize personal business devices.”

Tablet PCs also stole the show at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) earlier this year, sharing the stage with smart phones, E-readers, netbook computers, and motion-sensitive gaming consoles. Such gadgets affect how humans expect to interact with machines. Corey McAtee, product manager for Beckhoff Automation, says, “In the consumer market, one of the leading new technologies today is ‘multi-touch.’ We should see this technology make its way into the industrial market before long. When this happens, users will see a dynamic change in HMI functionality.” Multi-touch or multi-input sensing requires both hands — or two fingers — be placed on the display to enable and/or confirm an operation, just as the engineer attempted on the oscilloscope.

Increased personal familiarity with Internet browsers has increased the demand for information accessible via the Web. Shown is Rockwell Automation’s FactoryTalk ViewPoint with FactoryTalk View (Site Edition and Machine Edition) software

In general, the prevalence of personal electronic devices and technology has “improved the acceptance of HMIs, enabled more content, and given users more flexibility in accessing this information,” says Cheryl Ades Anspach, product manager at Rockwell Automation. “We are seeing users apply small operator interfaces to machines that never had one.” In the past, she says, it was more difficult to convince someone that graphical information is significantly more intuitive than traditional pilot lights and push buttons. “Now that most people have first-hand experiences with graphical HMIs, users better understand their value,” she says.

While the move from mechanical pushbuttons to electronic keyboards and monitors may have been met with resistance 10 or 15 years ago, today there’s more likely to be a pull from end users frustrated by traditional HMIs. “When users see faster processors, larger display sizes, and other technologies available in the commercial market, some expect the industrial market to offer them around the same time,” says Ades Anspach. Industrial suppliers can find that migration difficult, especially in selecting and cost-effectively applying consumer technologies to HMIs.

Key technology changes

Ades Anspach cites the following advances as likely to show up in industrial displays:

Increased solid state, hard disk and compact flash speeds and sizes;

Optical drives (“As technology changes — think of how CDs led to DVDs, capabilities expanded to reading and writing, and speeds increased — these will move into the industrial space,” she predicts.);

Processors, drives and other technologies capable of withstanding higher temperatures;

Faster processors; and

Larger display sizes.

Display sizes have been getting larger in the consumer market (think gaming laptops and flat screen TVs), but other display attributes are also advancing. According to DisplaySearch, a market research firm, Apple’s iPad was launched with a 9.7-in., 1024 × 768 pixel, LED-backlit, IPS TFT LCD display. In a blog post discussing it, a DisplaySearch analyst said, “It is quite apparent that the display technology was of paramount concern to Apple, who noted that they chose it ‘because it uses a display technology called IPS (in-plane switching), [and] it has a wide, 178° viewing angle. So you can hold it almost any way you want, and still get a brilliant picture, with excellent color and contrast.’”


Apple’s iPad may be new, but tablet PCs are not. In 2006, Fujitsu announced its LifeBook T4215 tablet PC with Windows, which had a 12.1 -in. screen.

Apple also noted that the iPad uses “arsenic-free display glass” (which is now standard from Corning) and a “mercury-free LCD display” (which is one of the benefits of LED backlights), said the DisplaySearch analyst. “The front surface of the display is coated with a ‘fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating,’ which was introduced in the iPhone 3G S…. Apple also claimed that they have the largest capacitive multi-touch display, with “’thousands of sensors’ to provide the same touch sensing accuracy that the iPod Touch and iPhone have.”

Apple also chose a 4:3 wide aspect ratio for its screen rather than a 16:9 or 16:10 wide aspect ratio. “In a display world that has ‘gone wide,’ this is unique,” the analyst said. But while laptop PC users long ago “went wide,” industrial HMI users aren’t there — yet. “Suppliers of 17-in. displays are decreasing their investments in this size screen and moving toward larger display sizes,” says Rockwell’s Ades Anspach. “Although these will be cost-effective, adoption of this technology may be limited because some users have standardized on 17-in. displays and will have to redesign machines to accommodate a larger display.”


Microsoft is reportedly working on a new tablet PC called Courier that features two touchscreens and opens like a book. Source: PC World

Bruce DeVisser, product marketing manager for touch input at Fujitsu Components America Inc., says other technologies have crossed over into the industrial space. “Haptic feedback, embodied as a vibration of the touch panel (like how a cell phone vibrates), is very useful for noisy industrial environments. Also filtering down to the plant floor: special “anti-smudge” coatings. “A display in black mode (power-saving or screen-saver state) is unappealing to [consumer] users if it is covered with fingerprints. In the industrial market, designers are realizing that having an anti-smudge feature is a positive selling point,” says DeVisser.

Obstacles to technology transfer

What hampers technology transfer from consumer to industrial sectors? Rockwell Automation’s Ades Anspach says,” consumer electronics require fast ramp-ups at very high volumes and are produced for a relatively short amount of time. In contrast, industrial products have lower volumes that need to be available for two to three years, or more. When suppliers look at what components to industrialize, they look at the level of acceptance and long-term trends, along with reliability, manufacturability, and cost constraints. This process affects all aspects of operator interfaces, including displays, processors and memory.”

As an example, memory for operator interfaces is slowly migrating from compact flash (CF) to ScanDisk (SD) cards, Ades Anspach says. “This slower migration benefits both operator interface suppliers and customers. No one wants dozens of different types of memory cards to support their facility.” Also, not all commercial technology makes sense for the industrial market, she says; for example, “at present, 1 terabyte (TB) drives do not have any practical application.”

Sometimes the technology has to evolve before smart machine builders and embedded control makers can see how to apply it industrially. Such is the case with multi-core processors and other advances. McAtee says all Beckhoff industrial PC and HMI technology is derived from technology originally developed for the consumer and office markets; however, “these components have been ruggedized into high-powered controllers that thrive on the plant floor. Recent examples include multi-core processors including Intel Core 2 Quad processors, energy-saving Intel Atom processors, use of solid state disks, and high resolution 24-in. monitors for large, widescreen HMIs.”

McAtee says Beckhoff’s industrial advances are made possible by greater PC processing power, which enables ever higher software demands, and from Beckhoff’s Industrial Ethernet communications protocol, EtherCAT — a technology that also began with consumer products. “As 8, 16, and higher-multiple cores become available, they will soon be added to the industrial lineup,” McAtee says.


Greater familiarity with graphic HMIs helps improve interfaces and put more of them on machines. Shown is the Allen-Bradley PanelView Plus 400 from Rockwell Automation.

Multi-core processors support development of panel PCs, which integrate controllers and HMIs in one unit. They also support sophisticated graphics and other high-level display software, which is another aspect of consumer technology migrating to the plant floor.

Rockwell Automation product manager Ryan Gunderson sees display functionality improving as touchscreen hardware improves. “Ironically, HMIs with touchscreens have been widely available in the industrial market for more than a decade, but only recently in consumer electronics,” he says. “One benefit we expect to see now [in industrial panels] is more add-on applications, such as Adobe PDF viewers, media players, and browsers that are better suited for touchscreens and do not rely solely on a mouse and keyboard.”

Gryc says QNX Software Systems provides HMI frameworks that include sophisticated connectivity and “consumer technology” while remaining real-time and robust enough to meet traditional industrial requirements. A smart energy control system based on the QNX Neutrino RTOS, for example, has an HMI that incorporates Adobe Flash Lite technology.

“Flash Lite allows developers to take advantage of the Flash toolbox,” says Gryc, “which includes all the elements needed to build a clear, effective HMI that supports … layering and multimedia,” which is more common in consumer applications.

Industrial human-machine interface (HMI) technologies benefit from accelerating advances in consumer technologies, according to the March 2010 Control Engineering North American edition cover story.

Scott Miller, business manager with Rockwell Automation, agrees that increased personal familiarity with Internet browsers has increased the demand for Web-based industrial applications. “Achieving this level of accessibility calls for HMI software that tightly integrates with the control system to gather and display manufacturing information to a broader audience,” says Miller. “From an engineer remotely diagnosing the machine to a manager checking production status, extending the HMI solution with Web-based clients and pairing it with an enterprise manufacturing intelligence (EMI) software solution dramatically improves access to role-specific data.”

Beckhoff’s McAtee takes it further. “[If you] combine [multi-touch] functionality with wide format 24-in. screens, device vendors and machine designers would be able to remove all physical push buttons from the panel, allowing the user to manage every machine function directly on the touchscreen. This would permit easy scrolling and zooming through dashboards and menus, beyond the capabilities of conventional touchscreen technology.”

Bottomline for HMI developers: Plant engineers and technicians want their industrial machine interfaces to be as smart and intuitive as increasingly common consumer devices. The challenge is keeping up.

Author Information

Renee Robbins is senior editor of Control Engineering. Reach her at .

How to build an HMI: An iPad ‘virtual teardown’ from iSuppli

The mid-range, 3G-wireless version of Apple Inc.’s upcoming iPad is expected to carry a combined bill of materials (BOM) and manufacturing cost of $287.15, according to El Segundo, CA, research firm iSuppli Corp. The estimate is based on a “virtual teardown” generated in part by leveraging iSuppli Corp.’s Mobile Handset Cost Model tool. According to iSuppli estimates, the mid-priced version of the iPad equipped with 32 gigabytes of NAND flash memory and 3G wireless capability will contain $275.95 worth of components and other materials. This version of the device will cost $11.20 to manufacture, making it the most profitable member of the iPad product line on a percentage basis.

The attached table presents the results of iSuppli’s cost estimate for all six versions of the iPad. Please note these cost estimates account only for hardware and manufacturing costs and do not include other expenses such as software, royalties and licensing fees.

“At a BOM and manufacturing cost of $287.15, and a retail price of $729, the 32Gbyte/3G version is expected to generate the highest profit of any member of the iPad line on a percentage basis,” said Dr. Jagdish Rebello, senior director and principal analyst for iSuppli. “The 32Gbyte versions of the iPad cost only $29.50 more to produce than the 16Gbyte versions, but their retail pricing is $100 higher. This shows that Apple believes the highest-volume opportunity for the iPad resides in the mid range of the product line.”The 32Gbytes of NAND flash in the mid-range iPad costs an estimated $59, compared to $29.50 for the 16Gbtyes in the low-end version, accounting for the cost differential. Touch and feel At a combined cost of $80 for all models, the iPad’s display and touch-screen interface represents the most expensive segment of the system, accounting for 29 percent of the BOM of the mid-range 3G model, according to Vinita Jakhanwal, principal analyst for iSuppli.The display employs In-Plane Switching (IPS) technology which supports a wider viewing angle and better picture quality in terms of presentation of color than conventional LCDs. While the iPad’s display probably is sourced from three suppliers, LG Display and Innolux are the two most likely suppliers of the iPad’s IPS LCD, Jakhanwal said. The touch-screen controller chip likely is supplied by Texas Instruments Inc., iSuppli believes. Precious memory The NAND flash memory is expected to be the second most expensive item in the iPad’s BOM, regardless of the model. In the mid-range 3G model, the 32Gbytes of NAND accounts for 21.4 percent of the total BOM.Based on previous iSuppli teardowns of Apple iPhone and iPod products, likely suppliers for the NAND flash are Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. and Toshiba Corp. PA inside The applications processor and DRAM are expected to carry a combined cost of $28.90, representing 10.5 percent of the mid-range 3G model’s total BOM, making them the third most expensive line item in the mid-range iPad.The A4 processor in the iPad is expected to carry a $17 cost. iSuppli believes the processor integrates an ARM RISC architecture microprocessor and a graphics processing unit. The part likely was designed by low-power processor specialist PA Semi, a fabless semiconductor company Apple acquired in 2008. However, the device most likely will be manufactured by Samsung.For memory support for the A4, the iPad is expected to include 512Mbytes of DRAM, costing $11.90. Apple in the past has sourced DRAM from a wide variety of suppliers in its other products, and is likely to do so with the iPad. However, iSuppli believes that Hynix Semiconductor Inc. is one of the DRAM suppliers for the iPad. Wireless expense For the 3G-enabled versions of the iPad, the cost of the wireless subsystem-comprising the baseband IC, the radio frequency components, the power amplifier and other parts-is estimated at $24.50, equal to 8.5 percent of the BOM of the mid-range version.iSuppli believes the wireless chipset in the iPad likely is supplied by Infineon, the same as the iPhone 3G S. Supply side Other notable components in the iPad include:• The user interface components-including an accelerometer, compass, audio codec and other components-are estimated at $10.20.• The wireless LAN, Bluetooth and FM functionality is likely supported by a Broadcom Corp. device also seen in the iPod Touch and the Google Nexus One. This Broadcom device probably is integrated into a module supplied by Murata, but there remains a possibility that Texas Instruments could supply this chip. iSuppli estimates the cost of this device at $8.05.• In line with previous Apple products, the GPS chip in the iPad probably is supplied by Infineon. iSuppli estimates the cost of the chip at $2.60. iSuppli Corp. is the global leader in technology value chain research and advisory services. Services afforded by iSuppli range from electronic component research to device-specific application market forecasts, from teardown analysis to consumer electronics and from display device and systems research to automotive telematics, navigation and safety systems research. More information is available by following the company at

iSuppli Table–Estimated iPad Costs