HMI Software Blasting the Boundaries

Opportunities for manufacturing process improvement now come from beyond the boundaries of the machine line. Human-machine interface (HMI) packages that provide only a look inside the controller are quickly becoming inadequate. With Information Technology (IT) programmers and analysts looking for real-time information, HMI vendors are providing controls engineers with solutions.

By Gary A. Mintchell, CONTROL ENGINEERING March 1, 1999


Human-Machine Interface Software

Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES)

Information Systems

Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP)

Sidebars: Definitions

Opportunities for manufacturing process improvement now come from beyond the boundaries of the machine line. Human-machine interface (HMI) packages that provide only a look inside the controller are quickly becoming inadequate. With Information Technology (IT) programmers and analysts looking for real-time information, HMI vendors are providing controls engineers with solutions.

Some HMI packages actually incorporate many functions of manufacturing execution systems (MES). This reduction of layers is designed to speed data. In fact, MES and Enterprise resource planning (ERP) vendors are finding ways to reach out and grab data from controllers. Almost all HMI software has built-in communications designed to provide information to network servers. Microsoft Windows technologies abound, but other Internet technologies like Sun Microsystems’ Java-based programming and browsers are also found.

Mitchell Vaughn, manager of special projects for USDATA (Richardson, Tex.), traces the evolution of PC-based HMI leading, “In the early 1980’s, most design efforts went into proprietary hardware design. Then PCs took the industry by storm.”

“Design now focused on software,” Mr. Vaughn continues. “Graphics were hard to do under DOS, so proprietary software replaced proprietary hardware. Once Windows won the PC operating system war, graphics became easier. Now common technologies like Microsoft Windows DNA [Distributed interNet Architecture] permit relatively easy data exchange. ODBC [open database connectivity] now makes it possible to do MES functions.”

FactoryLink from USDATA has relational database support and multi-user capability to either blend with MES or execute those functions itself. Xfactory is an object-oriented database application that models how the product flows in manufacturing and ties data to product.

Software has DNA

Kevin Gordon, Dynapro (New Westminster, British Columbia, Canada) senior system architect, explains, “Windows DNA provides a unified architecture to integrate the Control Room to the Board Room. Dynapro’s Scalable Architecture incorporates COM, a component of DNA, throughout its HMI products. Microsoft Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) is the glue that holds the architecture together. The software is scalable to run on Windows CE and NT machines.”

“Changing to browser-type front ends will eliminate a lot of the integration that must be done today,” says Total Control Products’ (Melrose Park, Ill.) chief technology officer, Bernie Anger. “The focus is a tool that consolidates data and makes it available to whatever system needs it. The best metaphor is fingers reaching down into control data.”

Total Control’s FactoryWeb, introduced at ISA ’98, uses a model of each device in the factory publishing its relevant information. Any device, controller, or system that needs the information can subscribe to it. Protocols popularized by the Internet including Ethernet, TCP/IP, and HTTP.

The heart of Intellution’s (Norwood, Mass.) FIX Dynamics is a technology called i-Core. It is based on a combination of Microsoft DNA technologies like Windows NT, OLE, ActiveX, and OPC with some unique Intellution contributions. Embedded VBA gives customers a familiar environment for customization.

Adds value for users

Dale Hodgins, controls engineer and network administrator of Environmental Specialties Inc., says, “With FIX Dynamics, we are able to decrease our customer costs while providing more value.” Adds Dan Perrier, president of Automated Control Systems, “We are able to lower integration time and add functionality.”

Ralph Rio, GE Fanuc Automation (Charlottesville, Va.) manager of marketing for Cimplicity, points out, “There are essentially three layers of information in manufacturing: business planning (ERP), material planning (MES), and control. Both ERP and HMI vendors have been adding functionality to make the systems more compatible. For instance, ‘Tracker’ has been added to Cimplicity HMI to track material in manufacturing and add batch capabilities. This helps customers squeeze costs and move toward the ability to build to customer order.”

Saturn Corp. was experiencing low throughput in its painted panel operation at its Spring Hill, Tenn. plant. An investigation uncovered three factors: Excessive production downtime, manual rescheduling of scrapped sets, and low percentage of in-sequence inventory. Cimplicity Tracker provided the ability to track and route panel sets.

According to Saturn’s Mary Beth Ryan, senior systems project engineer, “The information provided by Tracker is not only used by Saturn’s custom applications, but it is also available to distributed applications.” Adds Randy Fowler, Saturn’s MIS operations leader, “Saturn has experienced a 30% improvement in usable inventory, significant reduction in overtime, and significant cost savings.”

Think & Do Software (Ann Arbor, Mich.), a member of the PLC Direct federation of companies, has added Object Linking and Embedding for Process Control (OPC) capability to its control and HMI software package. Product manager, Gary Marchuk, states, “OPC enhances communications performance and facilitates inter-program data exchange.”

General Dynamics recently integrated Think & Do software into an engine dynamometer test cell. The system controls 500 total I/O points with supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) software running concurrently. OPC client/server technology implements communications between them. Kurt Rose, electrical engineering specialist at General Dynamics comments, “The OPC tool was simple to implement, and it greatly improved our performance. We found standard DDE [dynamic data exchange] to be too slow. We are now updating nearly 400 I/O points in 20 ms.”

Look at results

Carl Henning, Wonderware’s (Irvine, Calif.) director of FactorySuite marketing, points out, “Customers are not as interested in features or technology as in results. For instance, a common theme in FactorySuite applications is putting process information in the context of product information. Rather than showing a trend of oven temperature over time, they show a trend of oven temperature while lot 17 was being annealed.”

For example, Delta Motor Corp. (Struandale, Republic of South Africa) with system integrator ISIS Ltd. implemented a manufacturing execution system using InTrack. The system receives work orders and returns production data to a mainframe with SAP R/2 business system in the headquarters 6 km away. It also communicates with the vehicle distribution system.

Merging dealer order information with a 12-month planning system, work orders are placed daily with the factory. InTrack accepts orders and plans daily production using a line-balancing algorithm. Planners scroll through the schedule making manual changes as necessary. This plant is now about 50% more productive than similar plants in South Africa.

Ci Technologies’ (Charlotte, N.C.; Pymble, New South Wales, Australia) Citect for Windows product supports ODBC, DDE, COM/DCOM, and OPC communications. One project for Western Mining in Australia is monitoring 450,000 variables. Citect has an interface to Microsoft SQL Server 7 and has been successfully used with SAP and Oracle. Reflecting an industry trend toward Internet technologies, Citect Internet Display Client allows a thin server with a web browser to connect to a server.

Joe Bartolomeo, Rockwell Software marketing lead, HMI, for Rockwell Automation (West Allis, Wis.), says, “Customers want to be able to access appropriate information when and how they need it.” For example, engineering and integration firm Coating Technologies Associates (CTA) wanted to develop an automated coating process running seamlessly with parts databases from different systems.

“We wanted to be able to quickly and easily create a customized product without writing our own custom software,” says Bryan Graves, CTA controls engineer. RSView32 HMI software with VBA enabled CTA to integrate with other database systems and third party applications. Users can access the main parts through the HMI making necessary changes that are saved in the main database. A VBA-developed form allows users to automatically generate reports about how the process ran and particular parts performed.

Melsoft Computer Control (MC2) from Mitsubishi Electric Automation (Vernon Hills, Ill.) includes options for close integration with several popular HMI/SCADA packages. MC2 handles control processing, while Windows NT handles HMI, SCADA, and enterprise data processing tasks. Some of the available connectivity technologies include DDE, Fast DDE, OLE 2.0, OPC server, and a dynamic link library (DLL) tool kit for custom applications.

According to Wolfgang Neitzke, HMI software marketing at Siemens Energy & Automation (Alpharetta, Ga.), “Open interfaces have driven major changes in HMI software over

just a few years. For instance, our WinCC uses OPC to communicate with ERP systems like SAP. We have assembled a

system that communicates from the

ERP layer through WinCC HMI, WinAC control software, an MP270 PC-based controller to remote I/O devices and then back.”

Honeywell’s (Phoenix, Ariz.) Phil Couling, Uniformance business development and desktop products manager, observes, ” Our customers provide decision support capabilities to a range of users throughout their organizations. The Uniformance product suite integrates and unifies data from the process with quality, production accounting, planning, and ERP systems. Moving from proprietary HMIs to familiar environments reduces learning time, number of installed products on computers, and IT administration costs.”

Enterprise connectivity

Of course, one can bypass HMI software altogether and pass data directly to an MES or ERP system from the controller. IOWorks from VMIC (Huntsville, Ala.) is a PC-based control platform that does just that using such technologies as OPC, ODBC, and OLE.

ASAP (Chagrin Falls, O.) builds HMI and data communications capability into its ASIC-300 PC-based control software. This integration provides one point of contact for seamless connectivity from the shop floor to the enterprise.

CTC Parker Automation (Milford, O.) builds DDE into its Interact HMI for communication of data to the enterprise.

Cutler-Hammer/Eaton (Westerville, O.) has introduced NetPoiNT for HMI. It is based upon Wizcon in a strategic partnership with PC Soft (Mansfield, Mass.; Petach-Tivka, Israel). These packages feature Java technology extending Internet functionality to HMI software. OPC client/server functions will be added by spring 1999.

Modicon FactoryLink ECS from Schneider Automation (N. Andover, Mass.) is scalable both in scope of hardware platforms supported and in the ability to grow with the application. Using Exception Based Processing and Open Software Bus, only changes in data points are processed improving overall system performance. This also permits users to deploy larger systems. While FactoryLink can be used as HMI, its connectivity to databases means it can be used in larger information-handling contexts.

Trihedral Engineering’s WEB HMI product builds a data logger in ODBC format for easy porting to enterprise systems.

Traditional MES

These changes have not frozen MES vendors like a rabbit surprised in the woods. As they see more capability in HMI software, they see opportunities to connect to more manufacturing processes than before.

For example, Camstar’s (Campbell, Calif.) InSite MES package now integrates to either Intellution’s Fix Dynamics or Rockwell Software’s RSView32. Said to be the “caretaker” of production, InSite models the production process and tracks products and work-in-process inventory. Using this information displayed through the HMI, planners can fine-tune process efficiency and optimize yields.

Bob Hill, president of Hilco Technologies (Earth City, Mo.), believes it’s unwieldy to build MES on top of a full HMI package that both processes and presents data. “A contemporary architecture called ‘model-view’ separates processing from presentation so that one application can have many views and a single view can span many applications. Different people should have different views depending on their role, but there should be only one application.” Hilco does reflect the movement to integrating with HMI. Its product “rtMP” can now collect data directly from Allen-Bradley PLCs through Rockwell’s RSLinx Gateway and support HMI through RSView32.

“Cube” from ORSI America (Milford, Mass.) is a three-tier approach. Based on Java and Microsoft DNA with its ActiveX and DCOM technologies, Cube can take advantage of Internet functionality. ORSI offers a fat client complete with all functions, lean client with just those modules necessary for the task, or a thin client which is just a standard browser. The modular approach allows the integrator to use existing HMI or databases integrating just those modules essential to the MES application.

Communications included

Everyone is building some level of communication and data compatibility into HMI software. The examples from GE Fanuc, Intellution, USDATA, and Wonderware show some packages can actually replace traditional MES. It is essential to study details and know project requirements before purchasing. The wrong package can mean additional purchases and delays in implementation.

How are you applying HMI software? Will you be integrating with enterprise systems more in the future? Is it becoming easier to work with IT departments? Contact Control Engineering at the e-mail address below and tell us what you’re thinking.


DNA: Distributed interNet Architecture, a set of common technologies built around Microsoft Windows designed to facilitate data communications in a distributed environment.

ERP: Enterprise Resource Planning, financial and planning software for an entire plant or business.

HMI: Human-machine interface, software that obtains data directly from a controller, displays machine information, and publishes information on an enterprise network.

MES: Manufacturing Execution System, planning and coordination software to increase manufacturing efficiency.

VBA: Visual Basic for Applications, a scripting language built upon Microsoft Visual Basic used to build software objects and customize applications.