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Operator interfaces (OI)—more elaborate, more efficient, more powerful. Today's OI systems are more complex than ever before, bringing more precise monitoring and control to the processes they oversee. And thanks to technological advancements, applications are increasing in size and shape. While OIs are being built to meet more demands, users are continuing to demand still more.

By Jeanine Katzel, Control Engineering November 1, 2003

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Increased use

Improved readability

Wireless applications

Flat-panel displays

Operator interfaces (OI)—more elaborate, more efficient, more powerful. Today’s OI systems are more complex than ever before, bringing more precise monitoring and control to the processes they oversee. And thanks to technological advancements, applications are increasing in size and shape. While OIs are being built to meet more demands, users are continuing to demand still more.

A recent survey of Control Engineering readers by Reed Research Group supports observations by those in the know of strong growth and wider application of these products. Of the 246 who participated in the study, nearly all expect their need for operator interface terminals to increase (46%) or hold constant (49%) in the next 12 months. Only 5% anticipate a decrease in the need for OIs. Of those projecting an increase in their need for OIs, approximately three-fourths expect those needs to increase between 1 and 30%.

Developments in technology and progress in connectivity are among the reasons for increased application. Use of Ethernet, PC-based technologies in embedded form, and increased diagnostic capabilities are all trends driving market growth, says Clyde Thomas, product line manager for Eaton Electrical’s Operator Interface Business. The wide spread of Ethernet gives more opportunity to the OI application, concurs George Liao, product manager for Advantech. Beyond Ethernet-ready, trends in OI systems include customized platforms, remote monitoring, and lower costs, he notes. “All the major markets for these PC-based OI products are forecast to have double-digit growth rates through 2005,” he adds.

Stable patterns

According to the Reed survey, the way these devices are used appears to be holding constant, closely matching responses to last year’s survey. The largest segment of respondents (49%) use OIs for both continuous and batch manufacturing. Next largest application was continuous manufacturing only (16%), down 3% from last year and the only notable change from over the 12-month period. Following closely was discrete manufacturing at 15%. Batch manufacturing accounted for just 7% of the applications. A significant 13% checked “other” as their primary OI terminal use.

Purchasing patterns also reflect consistency. During the last 5 years, 94% of the respondents bought the same amount of or more personal computers. Looking ahead 5 years, a significant 90% of all respondents said they plan to purchase more or at least the same number of PCs as they have in the past. Perhaps among the most interesting findings occurred in the areas of thin client and wireless OIs. In both cases, 90% or more respondents said they expected to buy the same or more wireless and thin-client operator interface equipment in the next 5 years.

Got it? Get it!

OIs are admittedly feature-rich systems and growing ever more so. Respondents’ wish lists show that, while most already have systems with many options, they still want more. A few highlights: some 2/3 of all respondents have flat-panel displays, yet more than half want them in their next OIs. Also high on the wanted list are readability at a distance and bright, ambient-light readability, with around half of all respondents expressing an interest in these characteristics.

If projections are accurate, some of those desires, at least, will likely be fulfilled. According to Paul Daugherty, OI manager for GE Fanuc Automation, more and more, customers are using OI products in outdoor applications. “In the future,” he says, “products will be available with brighter sunlight readable displays approaching 900 NITS.”

In the area of networking, the Reed Research survey shows more than a third of those responding already have open networks, yet nearly half still want them. On the software/operating system front, nearly 2/3 use Microsoft Windows NT, while a third look to acquire it in their next purchases; approximately a fifth (19%) use Windows CE and 20% want it in their next OIs. NEMA ratings remain important. About half of all respondents have 4/4X- and 12-rated systems, with more than a third planning to add it.

Interest in hazardous location certifications continues to ride high. For Class I, Div. 1 certifications, 16% of all respondents already have them, but nearly 40% desire them. Similarly, for Class II, Div. 2 certifications, 18% have them and nearly 30% want them in their systems. UL certifications are commonplace, with 85% of the respondents already having them in their systems and 74% wanting them in future purchases. In the network battle, nearly 80% of the respondents said they used Ethernet TCP/IP and planned to continue to use it in the next 12 months. Also, many currently choose RS-232 (76%), RS-485 (71%) and 4-20 mA (63%).

Bright future?

What lies ahead for the OI market? All arrows point to bigger, better, and more. Says Eaton Electrical’s Thomas: “OI vendors will need to be more agile in supporting communication to third-party devices, which will mean faster adoption of more open communication standards like OPC….For users, there will be many potential benefits, but understanding some of the pitfalls and hurdles of these new OI platforms will require more training and knowledge.”

Rick Barnich, VP of engineering at Ann Arbor Technologies, sees a future that focuses on server-based technology and larger displays. Says Barnich, “We’re seeing applications going more server-centric due to lower cost in licensing, maintenance, and security. To fit into this architecture and keep costs under control, the operator interface product is now an embedded Linux or embedded XP client. Plus, because of the inherent size and complexities of these applications, the average operator interface display size is increasing…”

However it plays out, the importance of the operator interface to automation and controls seems undisputed. Whether it be complex control, wireless networks or larger and better displays, OI products of the future will definitely be in demand.

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Operator interface products

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Slim-line design

TPC-1260 touch-panel computer offers a powerful, cool-running processor in a fanless, slim-line design. Device features a 12.1-in. SVGA TFT LCD, resistive touchscreen, spindle-free storage and a Transmeta Crusoe 5400 processor. It provides 128 MB of DRAM on board and a compact flash drive. Unit supports Microsoft Windows XP/CE and is housed in an Al-Mg housing with a NEMA 4/IPC 65 compliant front panel to make it suitable for rugged environments. For applications where spindle-free storage is not critical, optional 2.5-in. slim-type hard drives can be used.

Advantech Automation

Multi-featured OIs

PanelMate ePro series of operator interfaces provides users solid-state technology, with Ethernet connectivity and OPC client/server support for various other protocols. ePro OIs are designed to communicate over high-speed networks allowing users to work on the network best suited for their application. Because it is configured with PanelMate Power Pro software, existing applications can be easily reused on any ePro OI. Operators can also use any of the editing features including tag name database, 3,000 customizable symbols, or ability to incorporate advanced math or Boolean expressions.


UXGA resolution display

webLink21 high-powered industrial computer is integrated with a large UXGA 21-in. display. Analog resistive touchscreen with NEMA 4 rated aluminum front bezel is standard. Features include a 1.7 GHz Pentium 4 processor and DDR RAM (upgradable to 1 GB), onboard 100/10 BaseT Ethernet port, CD-ROM, 4USB ports, and 6 open PCI slots. Increased RAM, DVD drive, additional USB ports, and NEMA 4X stainless-steel bezel are among options. Price is $6,995.

Ann Arbor Technologies

Bundled capabilities

QuickPanel Control and View visualization solutions combine the QuickPanel family of touchscreens with Cimplicity Machine Edition software and a Microsoft Windows CE operating system. Bundled capabilities on a single platform provide increased productivity and cost efficiency. Touchscreens deliver flexible, scalable performance on a rugged hardware platform in combination with automation software. Cimplicity Machine Edition—an open, integrated software package for machine-level programming—helps facilitate application development.

GE Fanuc

Transparent access

NS advanced operator interface accesses information from PLCs up to three networks away from a single screen. Information can be obtained from an Ethernet network, a ControllerLink network (Omron’s proprietary network), and up to two serial ports, simultaneously. HMI features a 4-channel video input module to display camera images from vision inspection sensors. Connectivity gives user network-wide access to data; ladder monitor tool lets a PLCs ladder program be monitored from a system menu without a laptop or PC.

Omron Electronics