The touch panel emerges as industry’s essential edge device

Dec. 7, 2022
A Control Amplified podcast with John Wozniak, Product Manager for Digital Automation Products, WAGO Corp.

The touch panel has a long and storied history in the industrial automation arena. To better understand the changing roles and capabilities of the not-so-humble touch panel in today's production environments, Keith Larson is joined by John Wozniak, product manager for digital automation projects with Wago.


Keith Larson: The touch panel has a long and storied history in the industrial automation arena. As digital technology first began to proliferate in the OT environment, users sought a more cost-effective means of local interaction with machines and processes than the hardwired analog switches and dials commonly used. On the visualization side of things, standalone gauges and counters were also expensive and inflexible, leading to the proliferating use of graphical displays to communicate production status and KPIs. These converging trends led to the earliest touch panels that really unified machine-mounted digital information displays with configurable, built-in push buttons, then touch-sensitive screens after that. These touch panels set the new standard for local human-machine interface, or HMI, as we've come to call it. But things have changed a lot for the touch panel since then.

Hello, my name is Keith Larson, publisher of Control magazine and, and you're listening to a Solution Spotlight edition of our Control Amplified podcast, sponsored this week by Wago Corporation. To better understand the changing roles and capabilities of the not-so-humble touch panel in today's production environments, joining me today is John Wozniak, product manager for digital automation projects with Wago.

Welcome, John, a real pleasure as always to chat with you today.

John Wozniak: Thanks, Keith.

It's a real honor to be asked by you on this podcast, especially on such an innovative and versatile product that we're discussing today. The humble HMI. I say humble because most operators take the HMI for granted. It's always there, ready at a moment's notice to provide operational detail, maybe to start or stop a process, to offer help, show diagnostic information or to inform the operator, well, anything they really ask. The touch panel is colorful, helpful and a window into the automation activity.

Larson: They've really changed a lot because I remember the early debates when I first was covering this industry is what touch technology you shouldn't be using. But that was a long time ago when we stopped comparing what kind of touch panels, what that actual touch technologies you use. But from a local HMI perspective, it seems that the touch panel has pretty much taken over all the functions of those discrete devices that used to be mounted on yesterday's control panels. From a lifecycle perspective, what advantages have touch panels brought, come to represent compared with the old way of doing things?

Wozniak: Oh, there's so many advantages, Keith. A touch panel can be reused for a completely new process. In fact, they can be reused in ways beyond a simple meter, reused as another meter in a different application. The meter on the first application HMI screen can now be replaced with another meter with maybe completely different range and color schemes or, you know, even a graph or a push button. That old meter is fixed and it can't be refigured with an updated range, much less reconfigured as a push button. Also, sometimes operators may not even think about it, but now these touch panels can contain the operation manuals right on HMI. No need to keep paper copies around, you know, because your coworker comes and grabs yours and just "I just gotta borrow it for a minute." So now, you don't have that along. So now, it's on the HMI.

Larson: And you'll never see it again, you'll never see it again.

Wozniak: You never see that again, right.

Space savings, I mean, that's another advantage. That meter would always take up that meter space. Now however, that meter space on the touch panel screen can be used for other functions just by simply changing screens. So many screens can be used and viewed by the operator on that same space that was previously used only by that meter. All those discrete devices and the space they consumed on that panel can now be used for something else or even better the entire panel can be reduced, saving space and panel costs. So many more advantages such as improved worker engagement because the HMI allows the operator to interact with the process not just getting dizzy, looking at these gauges and meters and lights and push buttons and ugh. Anyway, the HMI can actually help with the operation of the equipment as well, you know, displaying "hey, here's the next step mister operator or miss operator." Suggestions and process actions, these all can be added to the HMI. There are more, but like I said, Keith, so many advantages.

Larson: Yeah, that does make a lot of sense. But are there any particular HMI functions that necessarily remain independent of the touch panel, such as for emergency shutdowns and other things necessitated by safety and regulatory requirements?

Wozniak: Yeah, exactly. Safety. I mean, as always, safety should be and always is our No. 1 concern. Use the e-stop as an example. It must always be visible and accessible. As much as the bean counters and accounts and such would like to eliminate all external devices and mount them internal to the HMI, they can't be. You know, these things, the e-stops have to remain external to the HMI and on the panel for the simple reason it's more visible and always accessible. I mean, it's three dimensional. So, you're always going to see that sticking out. You also don't need to change screens on the HMI to get to that e-stop, right. So, regardless of what information is on the HMI screen, that e-stop is always going to be there, it's always going to be three dimensional. I should also mention when, you know, when people are hitting that stop, they're going to slam that thing shut, you know, and it's just going to activate or deactivate whatever you're looking at. But if the e-stop were the screen, you know, you're gonna have to press that button and you miss it, you don't stop it, you smash the screen, and then what happens, right? So but as for regulatory requirements, I'm not one of those regulatory expert guys, but I would think it's better to be able to look down that line and see that three-dimensional e-stop just sticking out, and seeing that that's not activated. I think that's a major advantage and improves safety.

Larson: That makes a lot of sense. But a lot of other things can be consolidated, that's for sure. And now, it seems that anything that isn't an application in the cloud or a device in the field is by definition is on the edge. What capabilities make today's touch panel qualifies as true edge devices in today's parlance?

Wozniak: A true edge device. Yeah, that's a really good question. What is an edge device? You know, what is that? What is an edge device? Well, one definition is any piece of hardware, a bridge, if you will, that controls flow at the boundary between two networks. Now, those networks may not necessarily be electronic networks. You know, the HMI, the touch panel, is already such a device, it's a bridge, a boundary, if you will, between two networks: between the actual automation operation and the operator. The operator may not think of it as a network, but it is a network.

Another way to look at it would be if you think about where these touch panels generally reside physically. It makes sense as an edge device, both literally and figuratively. The touch panel literally sits at the edge of the operation, at the last part of the automation and interacts with the operator, and so an edge device. Figuratively, the touch panel's at the edge of the automation, it starts, it stops the process, it displays information, again, the edge device. Yet another way to look at it, the touch panel collects data from the automation activity and displays it on the screen, and then uses that touch panel to collect data and input from the operator. Therefore, you could say the touch panel collects data, controls where that data flows, whether it's from an automation activity to the screen, or from the operator to the process, collecting data, then controlling the flow of data between those two networks is generally the definition that we started with.

Larson: So, that can sometimes be, it could be a cloud-based network that you're reaching up into wirelessly or the plant operational technology, the traditional network that we think of on the plant floor as well.

Wozniak: Right, that network, whether it's an edge network, a cloud network, it's still being controlled by that touch panel.

Larson: Right. So, how has the functionality of touch panels started to converge with that of traditional PLCs, automation controllers or even industrial PCs? That's getting to be a fuzzy line as well, right?

Wozniak: Yeah. Yeah, the evolution of the HMI, right? Well, you already kind of touched on the HMI, how it's evolved from a simple, visible only, non-interactive screen that just displayed information to the touch panels we use today, and now a complete operator interaction. Now, progressing to the next level, or the next generation if you will, combining the HMI with the controller, the touch panel has an integrated HMI. You mentioned started to converge, although that's already happening. Our Wago touch panels 600 line for example, the control panel has a fully functional, interactive touchscreen as well as a comprehensive programmable controller all in one package. So yeah, the standard touch panels have increased in power and upgraded their functionality to begin to converge with that of a traditional controller, be it a PLC, an industrial PLC or a programmable automation controller. But you might ask this is like, "well, I have all this I/O the rack with my PLC. What do I do about that? Because, you know, I don't see that rack. That touch panel doesn't have a rack to it." Well, a simple solution would be to use one of our Wago network couplers. It's way less expensive than a PLC or a controller, and with that, you add remote I/O, because I'm sure that that rack already has remote I/O. So, our Wago couplers would just change and use more remote I/O. And those couplers can communicate in a multitude of protocols, really any protocol that the user would prefer. So, any remote I/O that was already networked to your original controller can be renetworked directly into the TP 600. In addition, that coupler or remote I/O use to replace that in-rack I/O can be placed closer to where it's used for less point-to-point I/O wiring and better access.

Larson: Yeah, because it's just a continuing distribution of more and more control functionality out onto the machine. It might just be the e-stop and the touch panel that are left back in the cabinet, really.

Wozniak: Yeah, right.

Larson: I'd also imagine that some buyers might suffer sticker shock when they look at the price of a touch panel, not really appreciating that it comes integrated with a PLC in a single box. But doesn't that approach really pay off in the long run both in terms of an integrated development environment, which implies less development effort for logic and HMI, as well as the total system cost when they look at it from a lifecycle perspective?

Wozniak: Yeah, costs, you know, it's the first thing everybody looks at. You know and it's the first thing they ask, "well, what's this gonna cost me?" Well, you got to think that, that should be the last thing they ask instead of asking about the cost, they should be asking like I ask, what's this going to save me? How much am I going to save? Like your wife, "I saved so much money." Yeah, that old adage definitely applies here: you get what you pay for. But here it's even more. Let me explain. You already mentioned it in your point that this is both a touch panel and a controller. So, although the cost of the individual products should not be compared directly to the cost of the touch control panel, because like an another adage, and my apologies to Aristotle, the whole, i.e. the control panel HMI, is greater than the sum of its parts, a separate HMI and a PLC. Of course, you save with the integrated development environment, as you already mentioned, less development effort and logic for screens, because they're both integrated together. But also you have to think about the installation, including space, again, wiring, configuring. You don't have to configure two different things. Set up, you don't have to worry about "oh, how do I communicate between these two? Well, what's the IP address of this and what's the IP address of that one?" But wait, Keith, there is more. We also have the added ability to use this control panel HMI, the whole is greater than the sum of its part, and extending the HMI to be used as the edge device that we just talked about. So, now you're combining yet another device, the edge device into that same package. So the "what's this going to save me?" question becomes even larger when you have even bigger savings. In conclusion, like you already mentioned, savings for the total system cost and beyond.

Larson: Yeah, I definitely when I look at the the TP 600 series, which includes now IEC 61131 development tools, as well as now open Linux version that is prime for next-generation containerized applications, somehow this doesn't sound like we're talking about touch panel anymore. Can you talk a little bit more about the vision for how these new touch panel functions are being used now and what's the future vision for those?

Wozniak: Yeah, we're still talking touch panels, Keith, but I do understand your trepidation, since the Wago TP 600 products are not your run-of-the-mill touch panels. They're so beyond that. That vision you described both now and the future, that's what that TP 600 series touch panels were designed for: the future. Right now, most HMIs, even some of ours, are programmed using proprietary software, which works just fine--for now. But going forward using Linux and the containerized applications like a Docker type will give the programmer and the designer much more flexibility. The flexibility to reuse application, very much like our first topic of reusing that meter, now they're reusing applications. No need to keep designing that same application again and again. In fact, it may become even more important in the future, when the challenge to find qualified engineers and designers may get even more acute. This will provide the ability to reuse programs and features that have already been designed, but probably more important, already tested and used, so you know that they work. This will reduce the time to market for these applications and installations, as well as give those engineers and designers time to complete more projects and applications because you know they're gonna have a lot on their plate. Another advantage going into the future will be the use of these open platforms, like Linux. Right now, those other proprietary programming platforms require specialized training. You got to go to the actual manufacturer and say, "Okay, this is how you use this." But however, you can go to Linux, and you can learn Linux at a university engineering program or a standard computer science curriculum. Linux is a much more accepted programming environment in nonautomation solutions as well. This makes the availability of those who can program in Linux greater, and thus would provide a greater pool of people capable of designing and testing applications and using on the Wago TP 600 products.

Larson: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. It also would seem to open up that concept of a, maybe an online marketplace where people have been tested out a set of functionality for a particular application, whether it's a substation or a pumping station, or something like that, and just download that and they know it's ready to go. That makes a ton of sense.

Wozniak: Yeah, it's another business opportunity for individuals as well, you know, you got these independent contractors that, "hey, I can just start creating applications" and then just uploading them into Linux platform or online, kind of like an Apple iTunes Store, that iTunes you have for music. Maybe you could have an Apple iTunes Store for Linux applications and visualization software applications.

Larson: It makes a lot of sense. An all-in-one touch panel controller, like the TP 600, would seem an ideal sort of device. Really a standalone application where user interface control and analysis plus cloud connectivity are all necessary, where you're in an isolated environment where you need all of that functionality and if you can pack it all into one box, that's best. What sorts of applications do you see them being used for today?

Wozniak: Well, we hear at Wago see a plethora of applications where the TP 600 would be best suited. Not just the standalones, like you mentioned, but maybe railroad crossings, that's something you may not think about, remote energy monitoring control, a first step into the IIoT universe, a plethora of applications. You know, we were talking earlier, we just finished the gauntlet of trade shows in packaging, the chute machine tool to name a few. And when I was walking around those shows, I noticed that a good chunk, maybe not a majority by any means, but I saw a good chunk of touch panels, where they still had external hardwired analog switches, push buttons, dials. They also had separate controllers in the cabinets were sometimes huge. I could imagine where the TP 600 would be able to replace the majority of the external devices, obviously not the e-stops, along with the controller and then the cabinet size could be reduced. So, I could see the Wago TP 600 being used in the packaging and the machine tool industry real easy.

Then you mentioned those standalone applications. And yes, this is where the TP 600 would work real well. One that I just mentioned is the new expanding micro or nano energy grid industry with remote energy monitoring and control. I don't know about you, but my neighborhood and my neighbors have been adding those whole-house generators to provide power to themselves. You know, this extreme weather is just causing power outages. The same is true for businesses, I mean you got businesses right down the block. They're starting to add on these on-site generators to provide power in these emergency situations as well and not just the medical facilities or those long-term care facilities although those are businesses. But no, I'm thinking of one that comes to mind is grocery stores. They have a lot to lose if they lose power. No power to refrigerate their produce, the dairy, any other perishable items and then not to mention, well I'm gonna, but all those frozen foods. Grocery stores have a lot to lose if they lose power. These stores, and they're not necessarily remote, but they are standalone facilities, and they would require a complete control system to manage any power generation on site for that individual store. This is where that TP 600 could be used, providing power control, the integrated controller, showing the current conditions using that touch panel, and then communicating with the grocery HQ, maybe even the power company, or the even the generator company that wants to see the generator status and see what's going on, and then circumstances using the edge controller part to send the data back and forth.

And then I did briefly mention railroad crossing, you just think well, that's just, you know, a railroad crossing. But they're becoming more and more advanced. You may not think about it, but the TP 600 is being used to control and monitor railroad crossings. In addition to you know, watching those arms go up and down and turning the lights on and off, but the TP 600 also allows for remote monitoring of individual crossings and now that main control station that you see on television, and all that kind of stuff, has a precise and clear picture of the location and the train. How fast are they going?

You know, another marketplace to mention here would be marine applications. We know that space and weight are major issues on board marine vessels and stationary objects, like platforms. The TP 600 line works great in the arena, because it's plain and simple, it saves space. It's a combination of the controller, the HMI, and now the edge device. That TP 600 product line even has a specific marine subset of products, specifically designed for the marine space. With the required certifications and the power to complete the necessary functions, the Wago TP 600 line of touch panels is very well suited for applications out at sea or even on Lake Michigan. These are just a couple of the applications where the TP 600 would be best suited.

Of course, Keith, I could go on and on, but suffice to say, the Wago touch panel TP 600 series is a versatile and powerful visualization, utility and automation controller providing more information for better decisions.

Larson: Yeah, that's great. I mean, your discussion about, you know, adding backup generators to grocery stores makes me think of more and more businesses and even residences that are adding green resources, wind or photovoltaic, into the mix or their car batteries in their house, you need a device like this, perhaps to help manage the transitions between these different energy sources, and that seems like another very fertile area where even ones that aren't really looking at battery backup or diesel generators, but looking at the you know, switching over to their, to their truck batteries when they need them. So that's a really interesting application, too.

Wozniak: Yeah, and not only just monitoring, but you can remotely, like the company can remotely, upgrade your car. You know, "hey, we're charged and we're connected," and all of a sudden, you know, Elon Musk, all hail Elon, right, kind of thing, he's going to be sending new data to control your car. So it's not just one way, it's going to be that edge device to go both ways.

Larson: Well, finally, Elon Musk will have a use for Twitter.

Wozniak: Yeah, is completely redesigning that particular application, isn't he?

Larson: Yeah, even as we speak.

Well, thanks so much, John, for sharing your perspective with us today. It's been thought provoking and a real pleasure as always. For those of you listening, thanks for tuning in, and thanks also to Wago for sponsoring this episode. Again, my guest today has been John Wozniak, product manager for digital automation products. I'm Keith Larson, and you've been listening to a Control Amplified podcast, and if you've enjoyed this episode, you can subscribe the iTunes Store and Google podcasts. Thanks again so much, John. I really appreciate it.

Wozniak: Well, thank you, Keith, and it's been a real pleasure.

Larson: And if any of you listeners want to find more of our podcasts, you can find them all at Signing off until next time.

For more, tune into Control Amplified: The Process Automation Podcast.

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