Information systems: The exploding power of HMI software

Once a hardware-driven technology, HMI systems now depend on the power of software to control operations and applications. Led by advancements in programming languages and innovations in interfaces and mobility, these workhorses of manufacturing are playing expanded roles throughout the enterprise—and with the influence of a new-age workforce are looking to add greater functionality in the future.

By Jeanine Katzel March 28, 2013

The modern HMI joins the human element with a device or system in ways un-thought-of only a short time ago. Continually advancing technology enables disparate elements to talk the same language, to communicate, and to interact. HMIs today are intuitive, functional, and easy to use. They have become the interface that gives operators and managers alike the tools they need to ask an automation and control system to perform just about any task, and enable the system to understand what is being asked of it and perform that task.

In the past, discussions about HMIs centered on metal control boxes and the physical devices installed on and in them. Today, however, software is the heart of these systems, connecting graphical user interfaces (GUI), PC workspaces, and PLCs, and performing on the computer screen the functions of physical devices. Thanks to increasingly powerful programs, changes can be made simply and easily by reconfiguring the HMI for new functionality instead of physically rebuilding something new.

Software-driven HMIs have made ease-of-use a given, providing operators and engineers with the ability to access sophisticated machine or process functions quickly. “A well-designed system provides control, automation, and decision-making capabilities, and has data acquisition/telemetry functionality built in,” said Richard Clark, product marketing manager at InduSoft. “It can store data, control where and how it is stored, and do something intelligent with it as needed for process control and operation. In addition, data can be fed to higher level systems, such as an MES or CRM, for just-in-time production, advance ordering, inventory control, process efficiency tuning, SPC, regulatory requirements, and other reporting and analysis tasks.”

Software, the great enabler

Powerful software has become the great enabler for the HMI. “We have seen minor evolutions in the short term, but the HMI space will be totally redefined in the long run,” observed John Krajewski, director of product management for HMI supervisory, Invensys.

“We’re moving toward a seamless relationship between the MES/ERP systems and process control/factory automation, tracking entire processes or operations from beginning to end,” added Lou Szabo, business development manager at Pepperl+Fuchs. “Technologies such as multi-touch enable personnel to go from system to system effortlessly and see the whole picture. Today’s younger worker goes to an HMI screen and the first thing he does is take two fingers and expand the screen. So much is built right into the software, bringing a new level of sophistication to the industrial operation.”

In a phrase, current HMI software is just plain better. It is able to minimize inadvertent human actions or computer system errors that can damage operations, noted Marcos Taccolini, CEO of Tatsoft LLC. “Modern HMIs promote safer operations through better error handling on protocols and procedures, enhanced encryption, and better version control and object modeling, making it less complex to formulate and operate automation systems. HMI software programs of just a few decades ago were written in assembly language,” he continued. “They were very complex and it was difficult to interact with them. Every new generation of software since has been about implementing more functionality within a better and easier-to-use interface and creating and running applications that run faster and safer. It is unquestionable that the latest software technologies, such as .Net C# for programming or WPF and XAML for creating user interfaces, result in safer solutions compared to systems created with legacy or older software tools.”

Because of these significant changes, most facilities using software products of the 1980s and 1990s will want to improve their systems in some way, added Dave Hellyer, Tatsoft’s senior vice president of sales and marketing. “New systems are the way to embrace new technologies. Companies that try to extend the lifecycle of software tools too much face increasing maintenance costs of legacy software applications,” warned Hellyer. “Worse, production facilities and management information flow may slow due to bottlenecks created by previous-generation tools. An austere economic environment is not the time to curb investment in tools that can promote efficiency. Rather, it is the time to do it. In a thriving economy, a company can more easily afford inefficiency. In difficult times, manufacturers need every benefit advanced technologies can give. Industrial automation systems are composed of many layers. It is not necessary to upgrade an entire installation at once.”

Integrated information portals: Doing more with less

Overall, the functionality of state-of-the-art HMIs is more sophisticated and complex, yet simpler and easier to use. Powerful software makes them more accurate, robust, and repeatable. “Virtualization is a good example of that power,” said Mike Mendicino, product manager, Pepperl+Fuchs. “If you’re buying one, fairly expensive system to run 20 processes as virtual machines instead of purchasing 20 separate physical units, you have important economies-of-scale there in what the software and the hardware can do.”

Alan Cone, product marketing manager, Siemens Industry, concurred. “Techniques such as virtualization enable end-users and OEMs alike to do a lot more. Virtualization allows a sharing of resources while enabling highly robust systems. It helps reduce hardware costs and promotes application portability. An OEM can build one virtual machine and deploy it multiple times faster than with traditional methods. It helps standardize products, facilitate maintenance, speed the production cycle, and reduce time to market. Users are asking for more intelligence in the HMI. As the result of more sophisticated software, HMIs are now integrated information portals able to promote better control, better quality, and more throughput.”

Increasingly sophisticated HMI programming languages optimize performance and allow facilities to construct visualization systems with advanced capabilities, added Tatsoft’s Taccolini. “As the earlier transition from DOS to Microsoft Windows revolutionized the way we work, so now a set of new technologies is creating new design. These range from the adoption of the .Net framework, hardware acceleration graphics, and multicore CPUs running 64 bits to exponential growth of communication bandwidth and remote and cloud applications.”

Software evolution is promoting increased integration, added InduSoft’s Clark. “Our software is built on integration. All our devices can talk to any other. This is what defines integration. Still, new types of devices can create integration or support issues. If a new device is popular, we will likely be incorporating the technology into a driver that will talk to our products at some point. If its application is narrow or limited, however, it will likely have a short run. Popular devices are built on common technologies.”

Converging systems, mobile benefits

Indeed, convergence of systems, promoted and accelerated by sophisticated software, is a major trend in the HMI world. “I often think of the HMI as the brains of a process,” said Pepperl+Fuchs’ Mendicino. “The DCS actually performs the control, but it is now hidden a level below the HMI. The interaction, the program, comes from the HMI and is downloaded to the DCS. Because it is less visible, it is less apparent.”

Systems are achieving higher interoperability, agreed Taccolini. “New languages such as C# and VB.Net from the Microsoft .Net framework offer many advantages, making it possible to create programs that use built-in features from the language itself and from the operating system,” he went on. “Much as an intrinsically safe instrument operates at levels too low to spark an explosion, advanced HMI software—because of the way it is designed and built—inherently enables designs that protect a system intrinsically should a failure occur.” (For more on HMI programming languages read, New-generation software technologies impact operational stability, safety below.)

Admittedly, hardware improvements have given HMIs a lot more capability, but it is the software that is allowing it to happen. “The trend,” said Siemens’ Cone, “is to embrace mobile devices, not for control, but certainly for informational purposes. They are not your traditional HMIs, but they do reflect the way the industry is moving. It lets a worker know what is happening in a system without having to walk all the way across the plant floor.”

Mobility in industrial automation is off the plant floor, noted Invensys’ Krajewski. “It allows remote drop-in to review a process. Technology today is impacting the user interface,” he continued. “We are seeing an explosion in the area of user interfaces, tablets, and smartphones; slide-and-swipe; and multi-touch. These are not toys; they are techniques—for real work, to solve real problems. And customers will demand them. HMI software is a rapidly changing technology, a moving target. These systems are an expectation of how things should work, and they will have a great impact on industrial automation.” 

The influence—and power–of a new-age workforce

Many factors affect the evolution and development of technological advancements. HMI software is no exception. Its capabilities are growing for many reasons, from innovations in software programming to the user demands for specific functionality. One significant but often overlooked dynamic is the influence of today’s changing workforce. HMI software must grow and change because the people inside the manufacturing facility demand it. 

More than just a workforce transition, this change involves an alteration of the way we work. Today’s workers are digital natives. Where industrial automation once employed long-standing practices and long-term, typically technology-resistant personnel, today’s worker embraces technology at home and looks for it in the control system and industrial automation technologies s/he encounters on the plant floor. “They query and collaborate more openly,” noted John Krajewski, director of product management for HMI supervisory, Invensys. “Their attitudes are driving change in automation. Virtualization is a good example. As little as three years ago, a customer using virtualization was rare. Now nearly everyone—or at least any operation of any size—is leveraging its benefits.” 

People today are more willing to take risks with technology, Krajewski continued. “IT embraced virtualization much earlier and faster than the plant control floor. Email servers have been virtualized for years. Office-level applications proved the viability and reliability of these technologies and showed the advantages. We manage systems while leveraging fewer computers, providing more resources, and reducing costs. Today, we know it is worth the risk.”

Employees who grew up on Google and Microsoft Windows are now at decision-making levels, and are influencing software development with their expectations about handling the problems they face. For instance, said Krajewski, “the amount of data obtained from a temperature or pressure transmitter used to be small. Now these devices generate lots of information. But traditional techniques were not made to handle large volumes of data. Such situations are forcing change in the marketplace. Systems are bigger, plants are more complex, and levels of automation are greater—and the operator is less engaged and only as good as the information delivered to him. In response, more sophisticated and elaborate HMI software programs are being developed and introduced to help operators be more proficient by putting collaboration tools and expert subject matter at their fingertips. Not a lot of this has occurred yet, but the process is definitely in motion."

Today’s workforce, for the most part, learned to use an Apple iPad before (or instead of) learning to write. As a result, workers expect to have simple yet powerful interfaces at their fingertips, virtually unlimited connectivity, and capability that is self-explanatory. Contrary to the prevailing view, technology is not always a barrier to interaction. “You can have a level of integration beyond the expectation of previous generations,” insisted Dave Hellyer, vice president, Tatsoft LLC. “Increasing social isolation resulting from complex and advanced technologies has been subject to considerable debate, but some studies show technology is actually enhancing social interaction because it increases communication and expands social circles. [More on social isolation and new technology issues may be found in the Pew Internet & American Life Project.] 

His colleague, Tatsoft CEO Marcos Taccolini, elaborated: “The higher level of integration facilitated by advanced HMI software offers access to distributed information and distributed applications,” he said. “It empowers users. The reality we are approaching now focuses on user interaction and seamless integration of information and activities. We are looking at a centralized interface that provides communications, command inputs, and access to information, all in one.” 

Mike Mendicino, product manager, Pepperl+Fuchs, offered a slightly different view. “I don’t think the issue surrounding the use of new technologies is necessarily an older/younger one,” he said. “Currently, you don’t see a lot of new and exotic features in industrial settings. But it is because no one has thought about developing software to bring that utility to this level. It takes someone at the software level to make those features happen for industry. The software comes first on your smart phone, and then someone at a DCS company sees it, or has a customer ask for it, and decides to execute that feature for the process. Most software developers see multi-touch features available in HMI products in two or three years,” he continued. “The hardware has to be enabled to accommodate these features as well. In the end, all of it will be transparent to the user.” 

End-users are and will continue to be the source of creative ways to use HMI software. Their ideas drive the innovation and functionalities of many new products. “For example, if it were not for sophisticated software and the ingenuity of control systems and process control engineers,” said Richard Clark, product marketing manager at InduSoft, “current regulatory record keeping would involve mountains of paperwork, a great deal of process inefficiency, extraordinarily high overhead costs in manufacturing, and a lot of errors and mistakes in the flow of the product manufacture process. Software and a properly designed application minimize these negatives and improve production efficiency greatly.” 

Perhaps Alan Cone, product marketing manager, Siemens Industry, summed it up best: “Today’s more technically savvy workers are saying ‘let’s do that in our factories.’ People like technology today. They have grown up with it. They want it…at home and at work.”

The power to surprise us all

How will powerful software shape HMIs in the manufacturing facility to come? A further merging of applications and devices is certain, nearly everyone agreed. In the early days of MMIs and HMIs, applications were separate and distinct. “One software package ran the displays, another the data collection, and yet another the reports,” said Taccolini. “Now, applications and interfaces are born integrated to address the bigger picture. Data flow and analysis, real-time calculations, multiple device outputs are programmed and deployed as one. Users interact with applications from a central point and access all kinds of data, from instrument readings for maintenance to SCADA displays to KPI analysis to messaging workers.”

HMI software of tomorrow needs to assume the role of guide, said Krajewski. “The content of an HMI screen display needs to help an operator make better decisions. Stress precipitates mistakes,” he pointed out. “Remember, today’s operators typically have less seniority, are less experienced than their predecessors. HMI software needs to facilitate decisions, enable operators to work better, and minimize mistakes. Software developers need to add content that helps ensure repeatable results. Operators, manufacturers, facilities don’t want to be software experts. They make food, generate power, or operate a facility. They’re looking for tools to help them facilitate the process.”

Automation and robotics are already a reality, added Clark. “Some facilities require only a minimum number of operators. Raw materials come in and completed products go out, all assembled by automated SCADA processes and robotics. The advantage of systems controlled by such sophisticated software is that every product is exactly the same as the previous one. I don’t think there now exists a level of sophistication to automate all processing in this way, but it certainly is a goal of many process control engineering teams around the world.”

And it is a goal that may be achieved one day. Such innovation depends on a wider availability of increasingly sophisticated tools and on the incorporation of HMIs into design, machine control, and manufacturing processes in ways not even thought of yet. “At some point,” said Clark, “younger workers who have grown up gaming in a 3D environment will work with control systems. 3D interfaces already exist in some military applications. They likely will appear in industrial control systems as well one day—and undoubtedly in ways that will surprise us all.”

Jeanine Katzel is a contributing editor to Control Engineering. Reach her at

Key concepts

  • New developments in HMI software have brought major advances in functionality.
  • HMIs are now applying concepts proven in consumer electronics.
  • More than just pretty lights, such functionality can support solid improvements in operator effectiveness.


For additional information about HMI software, products, and systems, visit the websites of the companies mentioned in this article:

For more on the changing world of HMI software read special sections below on multi-touch technology for SCADA, HMI programming languages, the impact of the new-age workforce, and building OS-neutral, mobile interfaces.