by Todd Bowolick
In recent years, human machine interfaces (HMIs) have made leaps and bounds in their sophistication and functionality. One of the many drivers behind the evolution is a technology that we use every day: mobile devices. The emergence of smartphones and tablets has made a dramatic impact on the HMI industry in two major areas: remote monitoring and touch screens.
Remote HMI monitoring on mobile devices
Mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets are now being used as remote monitoring devices for HMIs. In this case, mobile devices aren’t replacing HMIs, but are being used to monitor and support them.
This is part of an ongoing trend to allow mobile access to manufacturing and process equipment, including viewing machine status on a smartphone or tablet remotely. Wireless connectivity throughout industrial environments provides operators, engineers, and supervisors with the ability to view multiple HMI screens with a mobile device anywhere in the facility — or even from a remote location.
For example, a manufacturing supervisor who wants to monitor production by viewing the HMI may receive email alerts when a certain machine is down. Remote monitoring allows the supervisor to view the HMI screens remotely and immediately gain insight into issues, take corrective action through the mobile interface, or direct personnel on the floor to respond to the issue.
Touch screens for HMI interfaces
In this second piece of the evolution of HMIs, we are beginning to see the HMIs themselves actually take on the features of mobile device touch screens. While there are still significant benefits to using traditional industrial panels, many HMIs are shifting toward this trend.
Although HMIs must be specially designed to withstand the rugged conditions in industrial environments, the popularity of mobile devices influences the design and layout of the operator interface screens, putting an emphasis on touch-screen functionality, intuitive navigation, and usability.
The shift is especially beneficial for younger engineers and operators entering the workforce because they are accustomed to multi-touch features. Engineers can now view HMI screens that have graphic displays similar to web pages, touch the screen to navigate, “pinch” to zoom in on critical details, and swipe through control settings instead of hitting buttons and opening and closing various screens.
Wireless integration and flexibility
Modern HMIs offer a host of other benefits, including the ability to integrate with not just one machine, but an entire process. All the working parts of a process can be interconnected to allow operators to collect data for continuous monitoring and control. Sophisticated analytics display data in ways that allow for meaningful interpretation and continuous process improvement.
The flexibility afforded by today’s HMIs underscores the need to incorporate them into process designs early in the engineering process. For example, some HMI models allow users to create their own keypad, incorporate international symbols instead of letters and numbers, or customize objects in the interface itself. Machine builders can be more creative and include custom programming to enhance operations and even link multiple tasks together. In order to make the most of these customizations, HMI selection and integration can’t be an afterthought.
Throughout the years, HMIs have come a long way, making incredible advancements and improving automation and efficiency across industries. Integrating automation solutions like these into the initial process design saves time and money, both at the launch of the project and throughout the lifetime of the process.