The HMI of the future will look very familiar

HMI/SCADA applications enable companies to benefit from commercial off-the-shelf technologies adapted for industrial automation to lower costs and improve operations.

By Fabio Terezinho July 7, 2013

Ever since PC-based software was introduced to industrial automation, the once very separate worlds of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) and industrial technologies have become more aligned. Many readers will remember when PC-based software was first introduced for HMI/SCADA systems in the mid-1980s. At the time, there were concerns with reliability and speed of response, but PC-based software is now the de facto standard when it comes to HMI packages, both for operator interface and SCADA applications.

HMI applications now routinely run on both office-grade and industrial PCs, and the software used to program these applications is also PC-based. At the same time, SCADA technologies are advancing to enable manufacturers to reduce costs through the use of COTS applications (see Table 1).

The word “influence” is important because industrial automation devices are not and will not be duplicates of COTS devices. An industrial PC may have the look and feel as well as some of the underlying technology of a COTS PC, but it’s also designed to withstand the demands of harsh environments, and often also includes other features to increase reliability such as solid-state data storage.

Just as desktops were replaced with laptops in many instances, laptops are now being replaced by tablets and smartphones with multi-touch technologies. This trend is also moving into industrial settings. In addition to the way we access HMI systems, the way data is manipulated and stored is being transformed by SCADA technologies for devices first developed for personal use. 

Corporations are recognizing and reacting to these trends. A recent study by the Gartner research firm predicts that about half of the world’s companies will enact BYOD (bring your own device) programs by 2017 and will no longer provide computing devices to employees. 

The implication is clear: employees will be expected to use their own smartphones and tablets to access corporate computing systems, a move driven by both cost-saving potential for companies, and greater ease-of-use and mobility for their employees.

Faster, less expensive ways to access data

Smartphones and tablets are great products for today’s more mobile workforce as many employees are being asked to monitor and control multiple local and remote sites, often from home offices or while on the road. These workers need quick and easy remote access to HMI systems in order to make more informed decisions away from the control room, and what better way than to utilize devices that they are already intimately familiar with through everyday use.

One of the factors powering this movement is SCADA software that enables users to access automation systems as easily on their smartphones in the field as they do in the plant. Authorized users needing remote real-time access can be supplied with either read-only or two-way access, depending on their specific duties and responsibilities. From handheld devices, users typically access web-based HMI systems via a secure browser or an app. The server-browser option almost always comes standard with a web-based HMI package.

Many HMI/SCADA software packages also provide a type of server-mobile phone app for free or at a very low cost. As with SCADA server-browser platforms, remote users benefit from full-featured two-way communication. As compared to a browser, these SCADA apps connect more quickly to remote systems, load screens faster, and provide more rapid response times (see Figure 1).

Both browser and app access are much less expensive than providing access via a thin client or a PC connected to the corporate network, particularly if the company has adopted a BYOD policy. In addition, browser-based access doesn’t require any software to be loaded onto the mobile device, and app access only requires the user to load a simple app. This frees corporate IT from the task of supporting these devices, and further reductions in required support can be realized by adopting another COTS technology: cloud-based computing.

More affordable data storage

Once the domain of storing photos and music files, the cloud is now being employed as a repository for corporate data and software. But what exactly is the cloud?

Cloud computing provides 24/7 network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources: networks, servers, applications, services, and storage. These resources can be quickly deployed and accessed with minimal effort on the part of the user. Most current cloud-based SCADA systems are configured with a local SCADA application running on a PC installed at the site, and with this PC connected to the controllers. The local PC is then connected to the cloud, sending data to the cloud where it’s stored and distributed, and receiving commands from the cloud as required (see Figure 2).

HMI/SCADA systems inherently generate tremendous amounts of data, and this data must be available for access by many users located in disparate and often widely distributed locations. Many of these users also need to be able to issue commands to HMI systems. This requirement for reliable and high-speed two-way wire and wireless access is an area where the cloud shines, as it has been applied to commercial applications with these requirements for many years.

Moving to a cloud-based HMI can significantly lower costs and enhance functionality. Users can easily view data via smartphones and tablet computers. They also receive alerts via SMS text messages and e-mail. Cloud computing also basically eliminates the high cost and problems of the hardware layer of IT infrastructure.

This new paradigm offers dynamic and affordable scalability, with potentially huge savings. Companies don’t need to spend money on software licenses, redundant hardware, and disaster recovery sites that may never be used. The cloud also lets companies quickly add new resources on demand only when they are needed, instead of designing systems upfront with excess capacity.

Until recently, data storage was a large required corporate expense as data often needed to be saved on separate servers housed in different geographical locations to provide secure backup, and IT staff were required to maintain and help provide access to the data. By contrast, cloud-based computing provides easy data archiving on a pay-as-you-go model by which users usually only pay for the amount of storage needed, with the cloud company providing all required backups and maintenance.

Is the cloud safe?

When the Internet is mentioned in the context of an industrial automation application such as HMI/SCADA, one of the first concerns involves security. As with any system, there’s always some chance of a security breach, but cloud-based SCADA often provides better protection than similar systems managed internally.

In many companies, shrinking budgets have dramatically reduced IT staff and resources, and remaining IT personnel often don’t have the time or the expertise to keep current with constantly evolving potential threats. On the other hand, cloud providers specialize in providing secure access to applications along with carefully protected data storage. Their people are trained continually on how to protect their systems from internal and external security threats, and cloud providers can afford the required IT staff because they spread their costs among many customers.

Many companies rely on a single Internet provider, but this means that if Internet service goes down, then access to HMI control and monitoring functions is lost. The cloud instead uses multiple Internet providers to ensure uptime, with data stored on more servers in diverse locations to ensure secure backup in the event of a catastrophic event.

The latest SCADA applications are changing the way automation systems are deployed and accessed in industrial settings. Along with being able to access systems using COTS devices such as smartphones, tablets, and cloud-based computing, SCADA packages also provide users with the choice to use another popular COTS technology known as multi-touch.

Benefits of multi-touch

When COTS technologies migrate to industrial automation such as cloud computing, it’s typical to feel some skepticism as to whether the benefits will outweigh the possible drawbacks. Will the new technology be secure and reliable enough for industrial applications? Can it withstand the rigors of a dirty, noisy industrial manufacturing or distribution site? Will the cost-benefit ratio make sense, resulting in a positive ROI?

Combining SCADA for multi-touch applications along with the industrial hardware designed for harsh environments, users are now benefitting from these technical advances. Multi-touch HMI works through a system of touches and finger movements called gestures, very similar to the zoom, pan, and pinch gestures used to navigate smartphone and tablet screens (see Figure 3).

Gestures are very intuitive and enable much faster execution times. On average, a multi-touch command can be executed three times faster than the same command performed by keystrokes and mouse clicks. This allows operators to respond much faster to alarms and changes, and also frees up time to analyze and improve operations. Another advantage of multi-touch HMI is enhanced safety as advanced touchscreens enable operation by gloved hands. Multi-touch HMI can also be programmed so that critical safety-related actions require two-handed operation.

Multi-touch technology is usually a better choice for harsh environments than keyboards and pointing devices. No moving parts are exposed to dust, water, and other contaminates, prolonging the equipment’s life span. Protecting keyboards and pointing devices in hazardous areas, such as Zone 1 or 2, is possible, but typically very expensive. Multi-touch HMI screens can also be supplied with a protective overlay of glass or polycarbonate to safeguard them from splashes, dirt, and extreme temperatures.

Helping to fill a gap

One of the biggest issues for today’s manufacturers is the need to hire and train new automation professionals and operators as baby-boomer employees retire. Inevitably, most of these new workers will be from generations very familiar with smartphones, tablets, and multi-touch. In fact, asking these workers to use keyboards and pointing devices instead of multi-touch would be akin to asking them to operate a TV without a remote.

Multi-touch techniques for SCADA applications reduce the amount of training required to get these new automation professionals and operators up to speed. Moreover, since the method for accessing the system is so similar to the way they use their smartphones and tablets, more instruction can be focused on understanding and analyzing data, rather than how to access it.

Soon it will be difficult to train new operators who have only used multi-touch screens to use older keystrokes and pointing methods, resulting in increased training time and expense. In speaking with end users and system integrators, an interesting phenomenon is also occurring: mature workers in larger than expected numbers also prefer multi-touch technologies.

The same is often true for cloud-based access to HMI/SCADA systems through smartphones and tablets. Waiting for IT to load an application onto a desktop PC, and depending on IT to keep the network up and running, isn’t an attractive option for many. Much preferred is browser-based access via their own device or, better yet, app access which provides many advantages in both consumer and industrial applications.

The future is already here           

Most employees of manufacturing firms use their smartphones and tablets to access e-mail, the web, and key data sources such as their bank accounts from virtually anywhere via a few simple touch commands. Consequently, they will expect this type of functionality in their work lives. Companies that don’t update their systems with the software required for this type of access run the risk of looking antiquated to their employees, incurring high costs and foregoing important benefits.

The latest SCADA technologies don’t just satisfy employees’ desires; they also provide faster access to more data, which improves overall operations. For example, data mining has become very important in this information age, and cloud-based HMI systems are built to effectively manage large amounts of data.

The ability to access and respond to data in more intuitive ways is already improving the safety and efficiency of manufacturing operations. Graphical interfaces have made it easier to view and analyze data, and multi-touch SCADA technologies and access via handheld devices are increasing those capabilities.

Multi-touch and cloud computing for SCADA are the newest developments that enable COTS technologies to be used in industrial settings, but they won’t be the last. Computer, smartphone, and other consumer electronics manufacturers are continually developing more intuitive ways to use their products. Many are working on using eye movements and other revolutionary methods for navigation, as well as adding new functionalities such as wearable 3D viewing devices. HMI/SCADA applications will inevitably be at the forefront for allowing new technologies to be adapted for industrial environments.

While most manufacturers won’t immediately adopt all these new technologies—tablets, smartphones, multi-touch screens, and cloud computing—most are already using some, with more being adopted on a continuing basis. Now that SCADA packages offer an affordable and reliable way for industrial companies to use these devices for accessing automation systems, they will eventually become as common as desktops once were. Laggards will run the risk of being overshadowed by competitors who are increasing profits through efficiency gains and cost cutting provided by these technologies.

Fabio Terezinho is vice president of consulting services for InduSoft. 


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