HMIs are multiplying, diversifying, and gaining flexibility

What are the best ways for these interfaces, screens and displays to serve today's accelerating, Internet-based applications and settings?

By Jim Montague

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Big and bigger data is zipping from sensors, transmitters, processes and plants over Ethernet networks to control systems, enterprise levels, Internet servers and the cloud. However, because users still learn most of what they need to know through their peepers, human-machine interfaces (HMIs) remain crucial points for analysis and optimization—even as their workstations, consoles and laptops are joined by tablet PCs and smart phones.

Likewise, not only are the types and sizes of HMIs increasing, they're also gaining greater mobility, following their users and applications into settings where they haven't served before, and enabling the latest data-to-decision efforts. So, what are the best ways for these interfaces, screens and displays to serve today's accelerating, Internet-based applications and settings?  

Where interfaces fit in  

"We've heard so much talk about the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), big data and the cloud, but when we get down to brass tacks, you have to ask what can we actually do with it, and how can we implement it? HMIs pique our interest because we can do a lot with available technologies," says Will Aja, customer operations VP at Panacea Technologies Inc., a CSIA-member system integrator in Montgomeryville, Pa. "In addition, despite the talk about Ethernet and IIoT, there's not a lot of discussion about security, and how easy these new technologies can be to manipulate and change.

"As a system integrator that's responsible for deploying new solutions safely, we ask users to think about convenience and functionality versus safety, and only implement what's needed. Don't just put an Ethernet plug on a valve or make it Internet-capable without looking at what you're really going to get out of it. For example, life-science applications produce a lot of data, but it needs to be contextualized. Oftentimes, if legacy devices aren’t capable of generating the desired data and your infrastructure has to be modernized. HMIs are an example of a low hanging fruit for modernization because they can be designed to deliver data and allow interactions to different user groups in ways that make sense to each group. They can also have multi-layer security and audit trails as part of a larger enterprise network."

For instance, when Baze Chemical built its new ethyoxylation plant in Palestine, Texas, during 2013-2015, it worked with system integrator Coherent Technologies Inc. in Palestine to build a supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system that could meet the facility's evolving requirements. Ethoxylation is a chemical process that creates surfactant compounds to lower the surface tension of liquids, and Baze needed flexibility for devices, including its annunciator to alert operators about unusual conditions such high temperatures (Figure 1).

"We found it very difficult to figure out the design for the annunciator without having to expand it shortly after as the plant grew," says Timothy Triplett, founder and CEO of Coherent, which created a virtual annunciator by using Ignition SCADA software from Inductive Automation. Its screen hangs on a wall of the plant’s control room, visually and audibly alerts Baze's operators about the status of multiple devices, and lets them monitor alarms coming through the system without disrupting their normal screens.

"With the virtual annunciator, we created a flexible, independent Ignition system with its own server, PLC and display—all within the same budget as a hardware annunciator,” explains Triplett, who adds that a second annunciator was needed as soon as the first was finished, but it was easy to add because of Ignition's platform independence and unlimited client licenses.

Mobility unleashes capability

No doubt the most significant trend in HMIs is their move onto mobile devices and mobile apps. "While there’s still a need for a ruggedized industrial HMI to be physically located on the manufacturing line or a machine itself, there’s increasing adoption and use of commercially available, off-the-shelf tablets and smartphones in industrial applications," says Matt Newton, technical marketing director at Opto 22. "We’re starting to see overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) and KPI data pushed out to mobile devices via third-party apps, so operators have real-time access to how efficiently their machines and manufacturing lines are running. This move to mobile also frees up operators to move about the factory, so they’re not tied to a particular HMI screen or portion of the manufacturing line or process. Using mobile devices allows operators to effectively be in multiple places at the same time."  

For example, 30-year-old Natural Fruit Corp. in Hialeah, Florida, has a process automation system for manufacturing and storing its frozen fruit bars, but its refrigeration rooms and equipment must run 24/7/365, and until recently, its existing Mycom Refrigeration system still required staff to visit the plant on weekends to make sure it was running properly. To add remote monitoring, notification and control to Mycom's serial network and Modbus protocol, Natural Fruit project manager Jonathan Bravo initially found technologies that were cumbersome, difficult to integrate, and required lots of programming and development time, but then settled on Opto 22's groov Box appliance and Snap-PAC-R2 programmable automation controller (PAC) (Figure 2).

Bravo reports he quickly integrated several of Natural Fruit's systems into groov screens for mobile devices, and Snap-PAC-R2 pulled data point from several of its Modbus components. Once these points were in the controller, groov let Bravo build mobile screens for monitoring the plant's Freon detection sensors, cold room temperatures and condenser tower. Also, Snap-PAC's logging feature let him log compressor run-time data to the controller, and use FTP to move the log files to central data storage. He also implemented an alerting and notification system with groov’s Events and Messaging feature, so if the plant's Freon sensors detect it anywhere in the facility, they can trigger the controller to immediately notify the operators and quickly resolve any situations. 

“The drag-and-drop interface on groov was extremely easy to use,” says Bravo. “groov was the only solution we came across that offered such a quick way to get up and running with mobile devices connecting to our existing systems.” Bravo adds that Natural Fruit's production line is presently run by a Siemens S7 PLC, so his next automation project is to integrate its functions into the groov interface. This will allow operators to do remote production monitoring from anywhere in the facility.

"There are many benefits to moving to a mobile device for HMI use in process applications, but it’s important to choose the right type," adds Newton. "For most applications, an off-the-shelf tablet or smartphone is more than adequate, but for applications that require intrinsic safety, it’s important to consider C1D2/C1Z2 and ATEX-compliant tablets for hazardous locations (HazLoc). ATEX certification is based on the requirements of two European directives: Directive 99/92/EC (also known as ATEX Workplace Directive) and Directive 94/9/EC (ATEX Equipment Directive). Both C1D2 and ATEX standards are commonly recognized in most regions of the world, and both offer comparable levels of rugged mobile work protection in hazardous locations."

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