HMI: more than just the machine’s face

Watching me, watching you! With Omron’s new NA-series HMI, operators and their machines will soon have a closer working relationship - image courtesy of Omron.
Watching me, watching you! With Omron’s new NA-series HMI, operators and their machines will soon have a closer working relationship - image courtesy of Omron.

Traditionally, presentation and input of data and visualisation of a machine or process are likely to have been the prime reason for specifying the human machine interface (HMI) as part of a machine control system.

Over the years functional keypads, switches, indicator lamps and panel meters have become outmoded, superseded by sleek, intuitive, highly-graphical and user-friendly control interfaces. Barry Graham, product marketing manager of automation at Omron Electronics UK, explains why the HMI is far more than a window into the machine.

Today’s control interfaces, such as Omron’s new NA-series, are designed to bring the technology to life for operators, as well as providing a useful time-saving tool for diagnostics and maintenance.

In many cases, machine quality is judged by the presentation of the HMI. Even if the machine incorporates cutting-edge technology, with superlative design, performance and build quality, a poorly executed, counter-intuitive set of operator control screens, which lack ergonomics and aesthetics, can convey the impression of a poor quality machine. Worse still, a poorly-designed operator interface can actually hinder efficiency rather than boost productivity.

Being in the age of smartphones and tablets, screen size, number of colours, pixel count and graphical capability are important to users. Although the industrial market has never traditionally mirrored the fast-moving consumer market, attitudes are changing. These ‘bells and whistles’ are now expected, which is reflected in the marketing collateral and the amount of space dedicated to what many perceive to be the racier characteristics of automated machines.

As the perceived ‘quality’ of machine has come to be judged by this little coloured window, some OEMs are now employing ergonomics consultants and graphic designers. Guided by input from the machine’s users, these design specialists are developing the operator interface before even involving the engineers. The global nature of most OEM businesses has also resulted in a shift from text-led instructions to intuitive and instantly-recognisable graphics.

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Media-richness is the nexus of today’s machines

HMIs, such as Omron’s new NA-series, incorporate capabilities for rich media, including photos, videos and PDFs, giving operators increased clarity and control over machines. It’s fair to say that the HMI has become the nexus of the machine, simplifying even the most complex processes. These developments mean a simplistic graphical representation of an error could link to a video that walks operators through the recovery process or key component replacement. When in-depth troubleshooting is required, PDF manuals can be displayed, instead of using print outs, which simplifies maintenance, leading to shorter recovery times and, as a result, increased productivity.

Thanks to the use of industry standard platforms such as Windows Embedded Compact 7 (WEC7) deployed in Omron’s NA-series, these media resources can be easily and securely updated remotely, ensuring that the interface is constantly evolving to reflect the current operational requirements. An added benefit is that the operating system is closed to the user. Compared to traditional industrial panel PCs (IPC), this helps to eliminate the risk of viruses or other misuse that might result in the dreaded ‘blue screen of death’, while ensuring fast start-up and retained variables without the need for a UPS; all of the factors that users have come to expect from a modern-day HMI.

Assuming that the HMI is delivering crisp, clear, high-resolution graphical representations of just about any control element, coupled with functions like trending graphs and accurate metering, this frees machine builders to focus on how the other aspects of presentation and visualisation can add value to their machine designs.

Adopting a more holistic view of data processes

Although the primary connection between the HMI and the PLC is fundamental to the flow of data, if this data isn’t present in the PLC, then the HMI can’t visualise it. Ethernet-based industrial networks such as EtherCAT, which is the backbone for Omron’s Sysmac platform, connect all elements of the control system. In Omron’s case, this includes motion and robotics, vision systems, sensing and measurement devices, and safety systems. In theory, this holistic approach offers a significant competitive advantage, as every last parameter of each component of the system should be accessible. Throughout the machine, the production line and the wider enterprise, everyone has different data requirements. The HMI is merely the enabler, managing and transforming data so that it is usable by various groups of people, controllers and databases. The key to success is ensuring the HMI and all other components are truly integrated.

Omron’s NA HMI delivers just this. As part of the Sysmac family, the NA-series uses Sysmac Studio as the integrated development environment (IDE). Covering all aspects of automation, including logic, motion and robotics, vision and safety, the NA machine interface can be configured, programmed and tested. Being a single project reduces the complexity of programming and speeds up development. The NA HMI is instantly aware of the structures and data-types of each connected component within a system. This gives any user with security clearance access to any process parameter, eliminating programming effort.

As an example, the process for preventing a mechanical jam illustrates a classic case. Previously, users may have needed, for instance, to lengthen the acceleration time of a servo motor to overcome the problem. This might have involved halting the process, opening the control cabinet door to find the servo amplifier, firing-up the configuration software for the servo system, laying your hands on the correct programming cable, making the change, then restarting the process, only to discover you need to change it again! Hardly a productive use of time in fast-paced manufacturing environments. A modern-day HMI should overcome this headache,  without incurring additional overheads for operators, maintenance staff or software engineers.

For common applications, Omron also incorporates Intelligent Automation Gadgets (IAGs) into the NA-series HMI. The combination of graphical objects and VB.net code enable users to fully customise how the machine interface operates, once again simplifying and accelerating the project development process. From simple graphics to complex objects, just like a PLC Function Block, collections can also be reused and applied to other projects, meaning efforts are not duplicated.

Visualising the future of HMI

So, what’s next? Is it possible that future HMIs will be aware of the people operating them? Fact is, the technology that is found in many consumer cameras, smartphones and gaming consoles utilises Omron’s own OKAO ‘face vision’ technology, providing detection and recognition of faces, expressions and gestures, regardless of the direction a person is looking or facing.

Applying this technology to the machine’s HMI, in-built cameras could aid security by providing visual authentication of different levels of operator and maintenance personnel. The same cameras could also help to identify causes of machine errors by providing a visual audit trail of operator actions. They could recognise behaviour and intention, and consequently alert to problems before they even occur. Gesture recognition could be used without operators having to physically touch the HMI screen. This fundamentally alters the relationship between the machine and operators and this functionality is just around the corner for Omron’s NA-series HMI!

Built on a platform using standard Intel and Microsoft technologies, Omron’s new NA series is designed to facilitate steady product evolution. As with domestic technology, users can expect machine builders to continue to push the boundaries and apply the same ethos of remote access using portable devices. Take Omron’s HMI Remote Viewer app; this recognises the importance of having a physical HMI as a data hub, but equally respects that operators can be proactive without being tethered to the machine. Omron’s incorporation of internet-friendly VNC and FTP technologies for remote connectivity make this a reality, whilst the incorporation of two network ports, physically separating the factory network from the outside world ensures security and peace-of-mind.

The HMI has always been the face of the machine and will, without doubt, continue to provide the interface between user and machine for many years to come. For machine builders who want to add maximum value to their machines and enhance their own competitive advantage, there are already enormous benefits to be gained from a greater focus on the presentation, interpretation of data and usability of modern HMIs. The journey is far from complete. What were once deemed futuristic concepts are coming to fruition and will change the face of our machines.