The Evolution of Human Machine Interfaces

The Evolution of Human Machine Interfaces

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We’ve all seen how the importance of touch has changed the face of devices. The mobile phone is a great example. In the past we used keyboard-based devices but today’s devices support multi-touch functionality including pan, rotate, and zoom in and out. Multi-touch makes controlling a device or system much easier.

With that said, systems must be designed with ease of control and touch in mind. To solve this need, human machine interfaces (HMI) were created. HMI allows users to interact entirely via touch. HMIs solutions consider various factors in their design including operator experience, innovative panel platforms, and graphical user interfaces.

What started as basic standalone units has evolved in HMI web server controls and high-tech system visualizations. Keep reading to learn about how HMIs have evolved and become even more convenient, even when controlling the most advanced systems.

Push Functionality

In the past machine operators had to use push buttons. With these buttons came lights and switches and eventually dial and panel gages as well as first-out annunciators came along. In the 1990s, HMIs were readily available but push buttons were seen as the more economical option. That is until it came time to replace those buttons. In the 1990s manufacturers quickly learned that push buttons were increasing in cost while electronic operator interfaces were doing just the opposite. This started the demand for HMI-like devices.

What started as a dedicated and rudimentary function has evolved, in just a few decades, into one of the biggest influencers in the manufacturing environment – HMI. With increased accessibility and bandwidth, HMI systems are used to control and interconnect millions of devices and pieces of data.

Paradigm Shifts in Control

Past HMI systems were hardwired and lacked flexibility. The screens were monochromatic and the text-displays left much to be desired. Interaction with the system occurred through the use of a keyboard, a mouse, or mechanical buttons. In early years these terminals were add-on components to a system, and while they improved how systems were operated and controlled, the devices themselves weren’t the most user-friendly. The text-based environment was a much-needed change but it simply lacked depth and any type of visualization functions.

PCs & the HMI Boost

Once the PC was created, the HMI world was turned on its head. Focus moved from hardware to software, devices turned into systems, and the role of HMI expanded exponentially. In the beginning HMI systems were run on proprietary equipment. This allowed for interoperability of a variety of systems. The late 1990s brought about even more changes with the introduction of:

  • Control software for PCs
  • LCDs
  • Open system (thin clients)
  • PLCs and DCS

With these new advances, the role of HMI changes from a device that looked at a machine and displayed information about it to a device that is able to look in all directions, gather information, and use that data to improve processes and system insight.

The change from hardwired devices to electric terminals was also a huge part in setting the stage for future advances. What started as CRTs to LCDs has evolved into LED backlit screens that offer aspect ratio changes. These screen developments have changed how HMI systems are able to display data.

The Introduction of the Internet

While the above technologies provided plenty of room for HMIs to grow and advance, what really drove the success of HMI was the widespread availability of the Internet and improved processor capability. The Internet has what has allowed HMI to become closely involved with plant operations. Today there are leading edge HMI systems that access data from several sources and reach out to remote systems to provide in-depth insight into the health of the system.  

The Internet has given HMI systems the flexibility needed to function almost anywhere while providing real time data. The Internet has provided connectivity options that has broken down walls and built bridges so that machine operators can better understand their system, even if those systems are located in some remote place. This connectivity has allowed companies to make smart business decisions and to provide cost-effective solutions for operators who can now see a complete picture of a system versus one machine.

Combined, these changes have allowed command centers to be located almost anywhere. Remote access capabilities have improved when and where system data can be viewed.

The Future

HMIs continue to evolve with new touchscreen options and data visualizations, but a key factor that will drive the success of these systems is security. The convenience of remote system access drives the need for increased security. It will be up to companies and HMI manufacturers to ensure that systems not only meet customer needs but also that these systems are properly hardened and protected. Big data systems not only meet customer needs but also that these systems are properly hardened and protected. Big data is only as good as the security behind it is only as good as the security behind it.

Donald Phillips

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