HMI

HMI as gateway to data-driven operations

The human-machine interface as advanced, decision-making tool

By Scott Miller

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Are you playing Pong while the competition plays Halo 5? The human machine interface (HMI) system has evolved from push-button controls to the primary platform for operational decision-making. Just as today’s best video games offer up dramatic, new capabilities, today the HMI provides more impactful graphics, contextualized alerts and intuitively placed information that enables operators to make quick, in-process decisions.

Expectations for HMI software are progressing as original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and users seek to take advantage of new enabling technologies. Migrating to more advanced HMI software can help unlock new benefits by reducing design and commissioning time, as well as by boosting uptime and productivity. The drivers behind these benefits are improved visualization, more detailed and accurate alarm information, and anytime, anywhere access to information.

Behind the screen

Every day, control systems collect a swarm of unused operational data that could potentially help in plantwide, decision-making processes. Companies that are electing to converge their information technology (IT) and operations technology (OT) are now uncovering that once-ignored data from the controllers and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems.

Thanks to the confluence of IT and OT solutions, the HMI can take on producer and consumer roles in the system-wide data flow. In short, not only does it display all of the real-time information needed to control a system, but by accessing data from other sources, operators can visualize and contextualize a broader set of information. This results in making decisions and solving problems closer to where the data is created, when it’s created.

Reducing design time

The idea of HMI system migration can seem very daunting, but modern HMI software alleviates this with simplified design and commissioning processes.

By offering a common development tool, multiple users involved in a deployment can create machine- and site-level HMI applications in a single, scalable design environment. Developers, for instance, can create re-usable objects that ensure consistency, and manage entire object libraries to improve the overall productivity of the design process. Plus, entire machine-level applications or their individual components can be imported into supervisory-level applications.

For running systems, edits to applications are straightforward during commissioning. When changes are made, the system will update without costly redeployment or recompile cycles.

Advanced HMI software is also integrated with the control system instead of existing as a separate entity. The HMI can directly reference tags and alarms in the controller instead of using abstracted intermediate databases. This direct connection means reduced error rates in design and increased accuracy in state-tracking and time stamps.

Bringing data to light

You’ve integrated IT and OT systems. You’ve reduced design time. Now, an abundance of data is available at your fingertips. This quantity of information might seem overwhelming and in itself doesn’t monitor or control production. It requires presentation in a clear, concise and consistent view that enhances the operational role of a modern HMI solution.

Special Report: Trends, technology enabling decision support with HMI/SCADA Fancy graphics do make a contribution, but what users really need is a way to visualize complex information in an intuitive way. By leveraging industry standards for operator awareness, an HMI can present even that swarm of data on a physical screen without confusion. For example, Web-browser-style navigation buttons empower operators to quickly respond to problems or select specific screens from a list.

By supporting multiple platforms and form factors, the view from an operator terminal at one plant can be consistent with a PC-based system at another. Organizations with multiple plants can actually improve the efficiency of their workforce by supporting consistent, visualization standards across their enterprise.

Alarmingly detailed information

As the primary view into a production system, quickly alerting users to a current or potential issue is a critical task for any HMI system. An especially relevant component of a modern visualization system is comprehensive alarming.

Modern HMIs simplify alarming functions and tightly integrate them with the controller. Controllers hold alarm configurations and state conditions, displaying state changes and alarm triggers on the HMI without constantly polling for information. And if a network outage occurs, alarms are buffered in the controller and show on the display in the right order with accurate time stamps.

This advanced HMI solution is key to improving accuracy, productivity and effectiveness.

On the go? So is the HMI

The benefits do not stop at unprecedented access to easy-to-use information. Modern HMI also provides greater flexibility in where and how information is available.

Smartphones and tablets have put almost unlimited information in the palm of your hand. Blending advanced HMI software with mobile devices lets an organization extend the reach of their systems.

Modern HMI systems with responsive displays mean that operators, maintenance, quality, plant managers or other key users have instant access to their operations anywhere -- from the plant floor, to the couch at home, to seat 24B on an airplane.

The future is now

Data that was once untapped or lost in complexity can be brought to life through modern HMI software integrated with IT and OT systems. An HMI’s value doesn’t end at the operator interface. Rather, it can and should extend into your information architecture for easier and more robust information-sharing and decision-making.

When an HMI can directly integrate with plant-floor systems, you gain access to real-time information from a controller along with information stored on the plant floor. This data can be delivered as actionable information via the HMI software to help plant personnel better analyze production, optimize equipment performance, improve fault detection, track product quality and more.

Accessing and visualizing valuable data has never been easier. A modern HMI isn’t just fancy graphics. It can be the catalyst needed to push your production forward.