November Product Focus: operator interfacesMore capabilities meet more demands

By Jeanine Katzel November 6, 2003

This is an expanded version of November Product Focus

To Read the printed version click here .

FOCUS: operator interfaces
More capabilities meet more demands

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. Their function can range from a PLC terminal to a powerful processing platform. In its basic form, the interface does data processing and presents the information to an operator in any of a number of ways, from text to animated graphics. However, 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. He observes, “… [T]he continued adoption of Ethernet as a communication medium for automation continues. In fact, its use is being accelerated by more intelligent devices such as vision systems, sensors, drives, and power control structures that can communicate as peers to PLCs.”

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 control/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 application.

Purchasing patterns also reflect consistency. During the last 5 years, 94% of the respondents bought the same amount of or more personal computers. Similarly, a significant number of respondents bought more or the same volume of touchscreens (90%), added color capabilities (97%), added graphics (96%), or network enabled (93%) their systems.

Looking ahead 5 years, a significant 90% of all respondents said they plan to purchase more or at least the same number of personal computers as they have in the past. Ninety-three percent said they expect to add the same number or more touchscreens to their operation; 97% will add the same amount or more color; 96% will add the same level or more graphics capabilities; and 96% will buy more or at least the same amount of network-enabled OIs.

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. Some 82% said their purchases in these areas had stayed the same or increased in the past 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. Nearly 20% already use Web-browser based software, yet nearly a third hope to add that capability down the road. 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. Less than 20% have systems with no rating.

Underscoring these findings, GE Fanuc’s Daugherty adds, “Historically, the operator interface segment was made up of low-price, low-functionality pushbutton, pilot light replacers, and high-priced, high-functionality computer-based products. OI users wanted products that possessed the high functionality at the lower price, and less complex systems than a computer. With the coming of Windows CE-based OI products, this is now possible.”

Still a concern
Certifications and network preferences remain areas of concern, the survey shows. 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. The demand for CE Mark and Canadian Standards Association (CSA) certifications are not as strong. Some 43% have the CE Mark in their present systems; only 40% seek it in future systems. Similarly, 37% have systems with CSA designations, but only 36% indicate they want the certification in their next OIs.

In the network battle, the numbers overwhelming favor the tried-and-true options. 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%).

Other networks receiving attention by respondents include FOUNDATION Fieldbus, Profibus, ControlNet, DeviceNet, HART, and Modbus. More than half (53%) use or plan to use DeviceNet; 46% use or plan use ControlNet; 23% are choosing Fieldbus; 36% HART, 29% Profibus-DP; and approximately 40% use or plan to use Modbus or Modbus TCP/IP.
A third of the respondents currently use proprietary networks and plan to continue to use them in the next 12 months.
Bright future?

What lies ahead for the OI market? All arrows point to bigger, better, and more. Says Eaton Electrical’s Clyde 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. Balancing cost, performance, and ease of use will also require more embedded technologies. 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. His company, he points out, offers its newer systems in a smaller, embedded panel computer format as well as the standard industrial computer configuration.

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. Systems are being called upon to do more; and automation and controls engi-neers continue to require more. 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 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, ad 6 open PCI slots. Increased RAM, DVD drive, additional USB ports, and NEMA 4X stainless steel bezel are among the 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 operation 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, monitoring and data acquisition, and trouble-shooting—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 the need for a laptop or PC. The NS is rated NEMA 4.
Omron Electronics

Expanded touch panels

Expanded line of EXTouch touch panels includes 8, 10, and 15-in. slim bezel units. Slim bezel panels are constructed with FDA-compliant plastic and touchscreen overlay that includes a 1/4-in. FDA-compliant O-ring gasket. Certain models are available with built-in Data Highway Plus capability and Ethernet option cards. The 10 and 15-in. panels are available with Modbus Plus, DeviceNet, Profibus or Ethernet I/P capability. Prices start at $419; panels come in color or monochrome versions.

Upgraded operator interfaces

OperateIT Process Portal operator interfaces, part of the IndustrialIT System portfolio, facilitate monitoring, control, fault finding, and optimization of any industrial process. Version 2.0 features optional parallelism or redundancy in connectivity and aspect servers; National Language Support lets users translate system text into their local language; improved security; audit logging; dual-screen support based on Microsoft’s large screen concept; and increased system size. Up to 10 client nodes and 60,000 tags can now be included.

Expanded message displays

InView message display family now lets manufacturers transmit larger amounts of information to more employees more efficiently. InView P9x provides greater visibility of information from distances up to 450 ft away, while InView messaging software synchronizes and streamlines information from multiple sources. P9x is available in 36-in. or 72-in display lengths and provides a versatile means for transmitting critical plant floor information to large, disparate groups. Software simplifies message display management by providing functionality across multiple networks, enabling users to download message files to operators in different plant floor locations.
Allen-Bradley/Rockwell Automation

Programmable interfaces

GP2x01 Series touchscreen programmable operator interfaces perform in almost any environment. Devices feature aluminum housing construction, NEMA 4x ratings, Class 1, Div 2 hazardous location certifications, compact flash card for data logging and intuitive enhanced configuration software. Units support a wide range of popular serial communication drivers; optional communication expansion modules provide network interfacing to DeviceNet, Profibus, Modbus Plus, AB data highway plus, AB remote I/O in addition to standard RS-232/RS-485 networks.
Xycom Automation

Larger, faster interfaces

PowerStation operator interfaces and industrial PCs with 10-in. through 18-in. display options and 566 MHz to 1GHz CPU processors support a wide application range for InteractX Windows HMIs. PX Series provides a full range of Windows runtime choices. Created for mix-and-match flexibility, the systems let OEMs configure machine control to different price points, market segments and customer requirements. Features include displays of 10-in., 12-in., 15-in. and 18-in. with screen resolution to 1280 x 1024 for advanced 3D graphics and animations. The 1GHz procession meets the needs of high-end and networked control schemes. Parker Automation-CTC Multi-driver HMIs

Three additions to the E-Series line of operator terminals feature Ethernet/Internet connectivity, Web Server, email, and multi-brand controller connectivity. E150 2-line terminal has 6 function keys and numeric keyboard. E610 crystal clear black and white graphical touchscreen terminal has a 5.7-in. LCD for handling 16 shades of gray display at 320 x 240 pixels resolution. E615 has a 5.7-in. 256 color STN display at 320 x 240 pixel resolution. E Series terminals offer 55 drivers for various controller serial and networking architectures. They handle direct modem connection, support laserjet and inkjet printers, and meet NEMA 4/UL/CE standards.
Mitsubishi Electric Automation 384 Text-based HMI

Telemecanique Magelis XBT-N operator interface is designed for simple and repetitive machines. Rated NEMA 4X for outdoor use and UL Class 1, Div. 2 for hazardous locations, the line or small, text-based HMIs is easy to install and program. Four models deliver a high degree of functionality and feature fast response times. Operator action from a keypad or a request from a PLC takes less than 30 ms. Operator panel is customizable with software-configurable keys; open standards ensure compatibility with Schneider Electric and third-party components.
Square D/Schneider Electric

HMI touchscreen panels

PowerView/CE Family of Windows CE.NET-based HMI touchscreen panels for plant floor use come in four models with varying sizes and resolutions, and capabilities. All units feature a 200 MHz Intel Xscale processor with either 32 MB RAM and 16 MB Flash or 64 MB RAM and 32 MB Flash onboard. Features include built-in Ethernet communications, USB device ports, a real-time clock, and 16-bit sound. All units support 4,096 color graphics.

Flat-panel display

Integrated display platform provides low-profile, plug-and-play monitor solution. Rack-mounted unit features a 17-in. diagonal LCD; compact unit is 1.75-in. high, 19-in. wide and 24-in. deep and comes with or without a full keyboard and integrated trackball and mouse. System offers configuration control and is customizable for specific applications. Displays are suitable for situations requiring high image quality and minimal rack space, including process control, industrial automation, aerospace, medical diagnostics, and server-room applications.
Three-Five Systems, Inc.