HMI/SCADA Software-More than Pretty Pictures

Information and integration. These two "i" words sum up what is happening in the realm of software for human-machine interface (HMI) and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) applications. Customers have said to their suppliers, "Now that we have accumulated all this factory floor and process data, we want methods to present these pieces of information in a way that assists my decisi...

By Gary A. Mintchell December 1, 2002


Human-machine interface

Operator interface


Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA)

Sidebars: Suppliers

Make an intellectual investment in personnel selection, training

Multi-display systems seem likely to extend into more applications

Exclusive online extra: Special HMI/SCADA product information section

Information and integration. These two ”i” words sum up what is happening in the realm of software for human-machine interface (HMI) and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) applications. Customers have said to their suppliers, ”Now that we have accumulated all this factory floor and process data, we want methods to present these pieces of information in a way that assists my decision-making process. Give me information that I want, in a form I can understand, in a convenient device, anywhere I may be.”

Sounds like some of the marketing messages are turning around to bite the purveyors of those messages? Well, suppliers, not being stupid people, are responding with all the latest resources. While many features from various suppliers may look the same, each is striving to find unique value for its software to survive in today’s competitive climate.

Part of this value-add, touted by hardware and software suppliers alike, is integration. Suppliers tightly control and integrate all databases, from controller to SCADA, and also incorporate a common programming environment, saving customers time and money. Meanwhile, independent software suppliers point to their unique values along with ability to work with control and HMI platforms from a number of vendors, thus providing a unifying theme for a factory, or group of factories.

Information integrator

Taking a stab at identifying the genre, Roy Kok, director, HMI/SCADA product marketing for GE Fanuc’s Intellution product group (Foxborough, MA), states, ”We are an information integrator.” Examples include embedding the technology for U.S. FDA 21 CFR Part 11 and electronic signature into the core of the application so that every industry segment can benefit from it.

How does Intellution help turn data into useable information? Mr. Kok responds, ”We make it easy for people to build their own HTML pages that are filled with data from the process so that they can have just the information they need, in the format they wish, deliverable to the device they have.”

This idea contains the kernel of a ”portal” paradigm. Made popular by Web services like Yahoo or MSN, portals are like a view into the Internet. Users configure a page most useful to them, with information or links. Included can be ”at a glance” graphics or tables plus links enabling them to drill down to ever more finite numbers or data.

Tom Muth, FactorySuite product marketing manager for Invensys/Wonderware (Lake Forest, CA), says, ”Portals are a glimpse of the future for personalized delivery of content. Production information, machine and process histories, and so on, are compiled into a database. From there, users configure a portal to personalize the information to just what each needs to do the job. Customers are using this not just for information on one machine, but to gain perspective on an entire manufacturing organization.”

How does this information get into the database? Web-based standards for information exchange is the answer. Marcos Taccolini, Indusoft (Hilton Head, SC) engineering vp, explains, ”Anyone in a corporation has access to real-time information if they are using technologies such as Extensible Markup Language (XML), Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), Wireless Markup Language (WML), and Extensible Stylesheet Language (XSL).

”XML provides standardized structured format for data interchange. SOAP provides standardized communications between applications. XSL provides ability to format XML to display format for HTML for normal Web pages and WML for wireless devices.”

If data from controllers and other control devices can be sucked into a database either through native drivers or XML, and HMI applications build these databases and expose the information through XML and SOAP technologies, is an embedded HTML Web page in a controller really necessary?

XML replaces HTML server

Opto 22 (Temecula, CA) has partnered with Nokia (Irving, TX) to use cellular telephone technology to allow machines to communicate machines. Opto 22 vp, Bob Sheffres, says, ”This combination of companies allows systems integraters to have a single solution for remote information integration.”

Opto 22 itself is keeping pace with the latest technology trends with a partnership with Nokia (Irving, TX) cellular technology. Called M2M, the system uses cellular telephone technology to permit machines to communicate directly with machines. Opto 22’s Mr. Sheffres, says, ”Cell phone applications have been difficult to piece together for system integrators. With this combination of companies-Nokia’s cell phone technology and our Snap I/O platform-integrators have a single solution for remote information integration directly from machine to enterprise software applications.”

Tapping the power of field devices to communicate freely to higher-end applications, adds Paul Henderson, Axeda (Mansfield, MA) marketing vp, is ”HMI growing up. Just like control has spread out to a distributed architecture, so automation information is now distributed and can be communicated to a data concentrator.”

Rich Carpenter, CPM business leader for GE Fanuc Automation (Charlottesville, VA), says ”The benefit of embedded Web pages in a controller is somewhat overblown. This type of case is best handled by an application on a Web server which collects and concentrates data from many devices and shares this data in the form of Web pages to the user community.”

Showing the diversity of approaches available to control system designers, George Caudle, HMI product manager for Schneider Electric (Raleigh, NC), argues for an HMI architecture where Web servers are embedded in not just PLCs, but also variable-frequency drives, motion controllers, power monitors, and other automation equipment. ”An architecture with embedded Web servers and thin-client terminals simplifies training and lowers maintenance costs.”

Ann Arbor Technologies’ (Ann Arbor, MI) vp, Dan Benson, reports, ”Over the past eight months we have steadily seen an increase in thin-client applications. The majority has involved interest in using Microsoft’s Terminal Services Client on Windows CE. We have converted our WebLink series of computers to single-board ITX computers with a variety of displays for this purpose.”

Clyde Thomas, Eaton Cutler-Hammer (Milwaukee, WI) product line manager, states, ”Early adopters are looking at a ‘thick client’ approach where the primary operator-interface function runs on the local device but it can support Terminal Services for other applications from a host.”

Build a distributed system

Building a distributed control and HMI system takes some thought. National Instruments’ (Austin, TX) LabView DSC product manager, Katie Shiels, notes, ”When thinking about a distributed system, it is a good idea to look at the entire system first. At the top level is the backbone, the main computer and network. Software running on this backbone must handle networking, data management, data visualization, alarms and events, security, and integration for the rest of the system. It must be able to communicate with many different industry standards.”

Meanwhile, Jerry Koch, CTC Parker Automation (Milford, OH) software product manager, points to communication with maintenance as important for an OEM who ships a machine to an end-user. ”Customers of many machine builders have trouble handling high-end operating systems,” he continues. ”We allow download of project information in document and pdf formats so that the end-user has ready access, not to mention the value to OEM technicians on site for commissioning of the machine.”

GE Fanuc’s Mr. Carpenter touches on two other trends popping up in HMI/SCADA software. ”We will have hosted applications with remote technicians available around the clock to provide diagnostics and are using data-mining techniques for predictive analysis.”

There is even a company with data mining in its name-Advanced Data Mining (Greenville, SC). Its SCADA add-on tool shows 3D trend graphics for variables of interest to the operator. The operator can thus see not only three variables and their interaction, but also how the interaction is changing over time. If one variable is controlled, then the effects of changing that variable on the process can be modeled.

Further evidence of a growing hosted solution comes from Brett Smith, ceo of ei3 (Montvale, NJ). ”We see customers splitting tasks traditionally deployed as SCADA/HMI into a simpler thin-client HMI with higher-level functions passed to central servers either on-site or at remote data centers.

Open or tightly coupled

Joe Bartolomeo, Rockwell Software visualization business unit lead for Rockwell Automation (Milwaukee, WI), suggests, ”We have seen a migration from independent suppliers partly because we have caught up to, or even passed, others, with RSView by offering tight integration with the rest of the control system. Since companies have reduced engineering resources such that control engineers must do both PLC and HMI development, an integrated solution reduces time to develop a complete system.”

Counters Mitch Vaughn, USDATA (Richardson, TX) cto, ”I’d liken the current situation in automation to the PC business. IBM was a hardware provider, tried to do both hardware and software, and in the end couldn’t even hold on to the PC hardware market. With open communication standards like OPC and XML, software companies can communicate to a variety of controllers and maintain excellence in what we do because we emphasize just software. Our goal is to leverage external, horizontal standards to stay current and produce applications to remain useful to the automation market.”

Sounds like the real benefits to users and the market as a whole come when strongly competitive companies continually improve and innovate to get the best solutions to customers.

Comments? E-mail

Make an intellectual investment in personnel selection, training

In a global market, manufacturing must unceasingly devise ever more efficient methods of production to stay competitive. There is a direct link between desired production improvements and a relative degree of automation, from the simplistic, such as conveyance integration, to the complex, such as plant-wide DCS (distributed control systems).

As a result of these demands for efficiency, there are ever-increasing levels of sophistication of common automation systems. More intelligent and capable products are now commonly equipped to be integrated into networks and SCADA systems via various network protocols. Implementation of such networks in turn requires investment in control software packages (along with their constant revisions and upgrades).

Unfortunately, advancements in sophistication often demand an increase in the knowledge and ability of the user to implement such products. This has led to the trend of ‘user-friendly’ software and interface products complete with ‘commissioning wizards’ to attempt to close the gap between abilities of the technician and sophistication of the automation. The erroneous belief has surfaced that these advancements in automation require less skill on the part of technicians. This error in turn leads to the disastrous conclusion that one can calculate savings on personnel qualifications and training versus the increased costs in the advanced automation.

No investment in new technology should be contemplated without first assuring the ability of personnel to perform maintenance and provide troubleshooting demands on all inherent elements of the system at a minimum.

Proper training and familiarization classes are needed for the products designed, integrated, and installed. The groups who invest in such training are time and again the ones requiring the fewest hours of tech support and on-site troubleshooting. Others who opt out invariably need countless hours of consultation on basic control principles such as PID loops and variable-speed drive tuning.

This ‘intellectual investment’ is best begun during the hiring process. In the long run, the ROI (return on investment) on a highly qualified and trained technician will eclipse that of the less expensive individual lacking the basic skills and knowledge which can be an inhibitor to future product training.

While there are many areas to improve production by investing in more sophisticated automation, end-user companies should not shortchange technicians by neglecting to invest in their training to support these new technologies.

-David Groce, vp, Kraftronics Inc.,

Multi-display systems seem likely to extend into more applications

Multi-display systems (MDS)-where the image or work area extends across multiple monitors-are used frequently in the process industry and financial sector, but they have not enjoyed wide-spread adoption in general HMI applications and industrial automation. Mainstream video card vendors offer solutions for two, three, and four monitor systems at little premium over single display adapters. Some vendors even offer longer product lifetimes to match the longer system lifetimes of industrial systems. The price of monitors has also significantly dropped over the past few years. Since cost of upgrading to an MDS is minimal, what type of advantages can users obtain from such systems?

Modern video technology progressed rapidly in the past few years thanks to increased competition and shorter (six month) product release cycles. Benefiting from this faster development cycle is software that takes advantage of MDS. Microsoft includes native support for MDS in its operating systems and many video card vendors have enhanced their drivers to offer even more options.

Segmented single screen is the equivalent of stretching one screen across multiple monitors-two screens side by side or four screens in a two by two array. Many HMI packages can take advantage of this type of arrangement to display highly detailed screens in one large view. Operators can access more information and switch screens less often. Information, such as plant layouts, that would appear crowded on a single display, appear clearly on a MDS.

Multiple desktops is like having multiple computers for the price of one. Each desktop can have a different application running on it. For example, a development system could be on one screen, a runtime display on another and a Web browser on the third. With the enhanced speed of today’s CPUs and low-cost memory, modern systems can easily update multiple applications. Wasting time by flipping through applications can easily be avoided using this configuration.

Combination display combines segmented single screen and multiple desktops. A use for this could be a large HMI runtime screen, supplemented by desktops running analysis and office applications. Another use could be an expanded trend page and an extended alarm page displayed simultaneously.

As companies look to stretch budgets and increase productivity, MDS should be considered in system architectures. A system that may have required multiple computers in the past might be better served by a MDS.

-Andrew Brodie, Product Manager, HMI Software Planning,