Convergence at the Operator Panel

An important ongoing trend for automation and control over the past decade has been the convergence of machine control systems on fewer pieces of control hardware. As Moore's Law has continued to do its thing with processing power, and distributed network-based systems have emerged to link in processing power from intelligent devices, system architectures (in terms of hardware controllers) have been converging.

While the functionality of standalone motion and IO controllers has often been gobbled up, machine controllers have increasingly been converging on the operator panel. The lowly operator panel -- once a complex set of pushbuttons used as a dumb terminal -- has gone through many transformations. Now we're moving into a new era with touchscreen interfaces and operator panels that can serve as the main machine controller in some applications.

Along with the hardware shift and the centralization of processing power at the operator panel, we have the separate phenomenon of a changing role of the HMI. The operator interface is now often viewed as the dashboard for the machine, and the influence of consumer technology from smartphones and tablets is unleashing a new wave of software approaches.

At the Pack Expo to be held Sept. 25-26 in Las Vegas, B&R Automation is planning to highlight the Automation PC 910 , a new industrial PC that uses the latest third-generation Intel Core i technology. The device is a multi-touch panel with the form factor of an oversized iPad, as you can see in the photo above. These kinds of interfaces are bringing a different approach to operator interface panel design.

A General Electric whitepaper (registration required) offers an excellent discussion about how these technology shifts and advanced software solutions are also changing the operator's role. The way operators perform their work is evolving from a purely functional role to a more strategic, decision-making one that relies on more information about the manufacturing process.

The modern operator has evolved into a multi-faceted employee, which has drastically increased the role's responsibilities as a "generalist," solving problems in real time and not specifically being an expert in merely one section of the process. Today, the operator is one of the key members of the team, and enhancing the efficiency of this role through improved operator response provides a critical advantage.

Operators have always been experts in the operation of specific machinery because of their hands-on experience with the process accumulated over time. With some companies getting operators more experience on different machines within a plant, one goal has been to make them more generalists, so they can collectively share information with co-workers and automatically transform data into information.

With systems now being deployed with heavy input from the operator and evolving into intelligent, analytical systems, the whitepaper concludes there is also a need to provide value-added information to users and not just data for visibility. Going into the future, collaboration will be more important, and so will interoperability standards within software suites to achieve faster rollouts and more flexibility on module selection across vendors.

It will be interesting to see how quickly these

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