Simply virtualized HMI solution

Used in the IT world for many years, virtualized HMIs solved obsolescence problems and now feed productivity at Post Consumer Brands cereal plant in Battle Creek, Michigan.

By Dave Perkon, technical editor, Control Design

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Post Consumer Brands (PCB), one of the largest producers of ready-to-eat cereal, struggled to maintain uncoordinated and obsolete HMI platforms. Not only was the computer hardware failing and hard to replace, but the operating systems were obsolete and difficult to support. So in 2014, PCB began a much needed multi-year migration to replace a large number of aging HMI clients.

Key to the project's success was the use of modern, high-performance HMI architecture leveraging the power of virtualization, thin clients and FactoryTalk View SE, according to Bill Menser, PCB electrical engineering lead, who discussed the project at this week’s Rockwell Automation TechED event in Orlando. Virtualizing the servers and using thin-client HMIs simplified hardware, design and development time, and eliminated the obsolete operating systems.

HMI hardware and software woes

PCB’s manufacturing site in Battle Creek has operated since the late 18th century and now produces more than half a dozen cereal varieties on its 64 acres. Until recently, the lines were being operated on about a half-dozen different aged HMI platforms with obsolete operating systems.

"Before the migration, PCB had a large amount of legacy equipment that was difficult to support," said Menser. "The production lines consisted of approximately 175 HMI client computers, most running obsolete Windows XP. The desktop computers were starting to fail in the industrial environment due to years of exposure to dust, water and vibration.” The system also included about 20 HMI servers, also running on vintage hardware.

The HMI PCs were running a variety of HMI packages, including both standalone and Active Display System versions of RSView32, multiple versions of PanelView, and some installations of FactoryTalk View SE.

Virtualization and high performance architecture to the rescue

The solution uses a VMware platform for virtualization. This allows creation of many virtual machines (VM) – operating systems or application environments that reside in software and mimic actual hardware. The VMware basically allows creation of multiple hardware instances on a single server.

After the migration, there will still be 175 HMIs, but they are now becoming thin clients with no local operating systems to support. The new HMIs are also hardware-independent, simplifying future hardware upgrades.

"About one-third of the migration is complete and going well," said Menser. "The final installation will include six to eight physical HMI servers. The servers allow hardware consolidation, with approximately 50 virtual machines installed on them.” Each physical server can support multiple HMIs, as the VMWare allows multiple operating systems with HMI applications for each on a single piece of server hardware.

Hardware replacement is easy, and the new installation allows servers to be managed from a single location. "Since the servers can handle multiple HMIs, the total number of server/client operating systems was reduced from about 200 to 50," said Menser.

System architecture in detail

All the virtualized, thin-client HMIs use FactoryTalk View SE and Open Virtual Format (OVF) Templates. "Once I configured the HMI and the VM image was in the server, minimal work was needed," said Menser. In the field, the thin-client HMI is simply pointed to the VM image.

"We also installed the VMware vSphere Essentials Bundle, which allows support of up to six physical computer platforms, each capable of hosting multiple VM HMI projects," said Menser. “FactoryTalk View SE Redundancy, which we were already using, made the application support easier."

The ACP ThinManager is incredible, continued Menser. "It managed content delivery to the thin-client HMIs," he said. "It enabled selection of different HMI projects from the same thin-client HMI. I can pull content from all over the campus.” The menu system, through an optional login, controls the content viewed through the menu, such as selection of HMI project, IP camera view, or engineering software such as Studio 5000 Logix Designer.

During HMI development, FactoryTalk View SE Global Objects were used extensively due to many common, duplicate screens and devices. "There are a huge number of duplicated field devices,” said Menser. "I created a parameter list for global objects with parameter list references [#1, #2, #3, etc.]. This is similar to controller tag dot fields [Tagename.Out], and it’s an efficient way to program in FactoryTalk as you only need to create the object once, then simply substitute the tag."

The new system offers greater flexibility on the shop floor; tighter change management controls; the ability to develop and maintain HMI systems from a single portal; and significantly shorter time required to replace a failed client terminal. Once you have 10 to 12 or more HMIs, virtualization and thin clients are a good choice.