HMI: New Ways to Chat with Your Machines

Enhancements in screen technology, connectivity and durability are helping Human Machine Interface (HMI) systems evolve. The prospect of an Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) means tomorrow’s systems may require a new way of communicating with machines.

Connecting People With Machines

Things have come a long way from electrically wired buttons and pressure dials on factory floor machinery. Human Machine Interfaces now incorporate the latest in computer and screen technology.

David Martorana is Marketing Director at American Industrial Systems (AIS). The company provides a range of open architecture, modular HMI systems for a host of applications and industrial environments. He says:

“An HMI is a gateway for an operator to control, monitor and communicate with devices and equipment.”

According to Martorana, rugged modern HMI systems are far different from earlier systems, which were often manufactured with trusted military grade components. While tough, they lacked computing and processing power.

“Modern systems are taking advantage of all the latest advancements in wireless, internet technology, processors, solid state drives, and open architecture design. We were also one of the first to pioneer multi-touch technology with screens similar to those used on smartphones. Quite simply, multi-touch input expands the range of functionality these devices can support, allowing users, for example, to zoom in and out or rescale the display.”



Courtesy of AIS

Multi-Touch and Screen Control

New screen technology is also being developed to not only detect multi-touch input but also different levels of finger pressure, which could add another dimension to screen control. Ulrich Trog, head of Innovation Management at the Austrian organization Joanneum Research, stated:

“You can calibrate the pressure, helping you to distinguish between accidental and deliberate interactions or you can use it as a form of control.”

He says the technology uses a durable printed foil, PyzoFlex, which can be applied to all sorts of surfaces, not just screens, and also produces its own energy.

“The nice thing is this sensor works without electricity. It’s an energy harvester.”

The company is working closely with Microsoft in developing FlexSense, a flexible, deformable input device.


Beyond Steel

Steel has traditionally been the material of choice for enclosing panel PCs and screens on the factory floor, but some companies are now producing HMIs from other metals. Like AIS, Red Lion Controls produces a range of rugged IP66 HMI panels. Roger Gadding, the company’s Internal Sales Specialist noted:

“Early models were mild steel, but the latest Graphite [series] is an all cast-aluminum construction. Aluminum makes it both very light and robust and enables us to go for higher specifications with vibrations, etc.”

He says the Graphite is proving popular, especially in the oil and gas industry, thanks mainly to its ATEX rating.

Remote Connectivity

Of course, enabling an operator to communicate with a machine remotely removes the need for especially sturdy screens and input devices. Gadding says they began providing a fully customizable communications gateway for use over the internet.

“You get a mock-up of the GUI [graphical user interface] and you can read data or control the device remotely.”

All this is only possible due to the growing trend of open system software that is independent of manufacturer’s standards.

“HMI systems used to mean a proprietary box that connects with a manufacturer’s PLC. Ours is more like a communications gateway; it can connect and communicate to different PLCs. Everybody now wants their plant information on the cloud, but with plant machines this is difficult because of differing devices, older equipment, and the use of both new and legacy devices. But we are working to offer a gateway specifically to upload from numerous different plants, making the Internet of Industrial Things a reality.”



Courtesy of AIS

Cognitive Computing

However, the traditional way of communicating with machines may have to change in the future to cope with the amount of data on the IIoT. Made famous by the American TV show Jeopardy, IBM’s Watson is more than just a game show gimmick. Duncan Anderson, European Chief Technology Officer for IBM Watson.

“It’s a conversational interface between man and machine. Imagine where you no longer need to learn how to program a computer, but have a computer that you can simply teach.”

For him, Watson is a form of “cognitive computer,” a type of artificial intelligence that can make sense of unstructured data.

“You could have a system where all readouts and sensors from machines are fed into a Watson system. Watson could analyze all this data and you could simply ask it questions to find out what is happening on the factory floor. It’s a step change. The Internet of Things is a large focus for us now because we see it as the only way to make sense of the sheer amount of data that will result.”

About the Author

Richard Williams is a UK-based journalist with years of experience in innovations and new technologies for publications including the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph…

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