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Impact of everywhere HMI

March 8, 2024
Context is critical for process information, so mobile displays must handle the job

Look around. How many people do you see staring at either their phones or tablet PCs? One reason they do—beyond applications to “keep you connected"—is because mobile devices provide people with everything, all in one place.

Despite regulations in some jurisdictions—where work stays within working hours—the expectation for individuals to at least be able to connect from anywhere, at anytime, now extends to information from the real-time control realm. The thin edge of this wedge is remote access to diagnostic information on complex equipment with high impacts in the event of failure, such as compressors. However, once the infrastructure for making this happen is in place, the barrier to entry is significantly lower, and we can do the same thing for motors, process analyzers, etc.

Of course, this information needs to support different form factors to satisfy our curiosity about how things are going. The same platforms allow us to reach out from wherever we are, provided we don’t require a full-size, 1,920 x 1,080 pixel display to get the level of detail required to understand the situation—or satisfy our curiosity.

Unfortunately, a cell phone isn’t the same size as an HMI. It can be used to display specific information remotely, but most HMIs are now web-based, and it’s unlikely mobile displays can present the information in context, at least not all at once. Understanding the context of information is critical, particularly for process operations. For example, even “accidentally” affecting a variable while viewing diagnostic information (versus process information/accessing setpoints remotely which isn’t a good idea) can have unintended and potentially catastrophic consequences.

One possible solution is putting more effort into developing HMIs based on human factors. The design principles may have new schematic types with better KPIs to provide what users need. Similar to the “map app,” they can intelligently zoom in or out to the level of detail needed to make correct decisions.

Having information with context is consistent with another expectation of always-connected devices—the ability to have or find context on the same platform either through a search engine or intelligent links between different data points. To achieve this capability, an HMI is no longer a series of static displays of process information, but a view to equipment health status, manuals, performance metrics and statistics. Making something available, doesn’t mean the user (person or machine) should have access to it, especially as awareness of OT systems as the “easy” back door increases n the hacker community.

Fortunately, as we learned during the COVID-19 pandemic and the work from home requirements that ensued, adding more remotely connected “bring your own devices” is simply another permutation of work-from-home concept that was already in progress in part due to demographics prior to the pandemic. The ability to manage increased surface area by implementing practices like zero-trust is better understood now with the tools in place to implement and support it.

Just as with any technology transition, the adoption curve also needs to be considered. One factor in adoption is the expectations of the audience. Newer workers entering the workforce, who have always had context-sensitive interactive displays available, are more likely to accept and, arguably, expect similar (interactive) capabilities from their HMI devices. Meanwhile, workers at the other end of the work spectrum, though familiar with new display technologies, are often happier leaving well enough alone and avoiding the risks associated with change and new technologies.

The dichotomy of generational expectations, included potentially in future immersive environments, and added guidance from artificial intelligence to capture and incorporate not only procedures but also knowledge of experienced workers, will certainly impact future HMIs. One thing is certain, being tethered to a single location by a cable to access process information is no longer necessary, and for many technologies, it’s not even feasible.