Multi-Touch Industrial HMIs

The industrial HMI is continuing to evolve with the addition of multi-touch capabilities that are now standard on smartphones and tablets. With multi-touch functionality, HMI operation is simplified and enhanced, but the biggest question is how quickly these more sophisticated interfaces may be adopted by machinery builders and users.

At the recent MD&M East show in Philadelphia, we visited with Marc Ostertag, president of B&R Industrial Automation . He showed us application examples of the new multi-touch HMIs. The demonstration was very impressive visually, and this technology definitely enables a user interface that is similar to tablets with touch-to-open menus and the ability to monitor key system parameters easily.

Multi-touch panels open up new dimensions for innovative HMI design. There are numerous gestures that might be used in an application: zooming in and out and rotating objects with two fingers, scrolling lists (panning), and switching to the next screen with a quick swipe (flick). A key main advantage of multi-touch technology is how it makes operation more intuitive. But it also provides an effective method of preventing operating errors by requiring two-hand gestures for critical or potentially dangerous operations.

To enhance the efficiency of processes, better and more effective use of information is a first requirement, which is the main reason the manufacturing management is emphasizing visualization tools. With its growing importance, more technologies are imported in HMI, and it's being applied, not only to the production process, but also to intelligent buildings, ships, and others significant applications.

Jonney Chang, a director in Advantech's Industrial Automation Group, wrote in a recent blog post that HMIs are moving toward computing, control, and communication. By integrating these three functions, the HMI is incorporating a new different look. In the past, HMIs only had simple keys. Today they provide more comprehensive screen visualizations. Chang wrote that HMI design will not only include hardware, but also will be integrated with software that will become a key concept in the next-generation HMI.

To envision the future development of HMIs separately from software and hardware, Chang wrote that the panel and sophisticated semiconductor technologies are facilitating the invention of thin HMI panels. Multi-touch technology and applications are becoming mature, and with these technologies, HMIs now appear to be an oversized smartphone. In the future, they will operate intuitively and easily by clicking and dragging. The HMI specification used to depend on screen frames; more frames meant more power and flexibility. But with multi-touch technology, users can tap options on the screen, shrink and enlarge, or even use more sophisticated 3D displays.

The ultimate promise of multi-touch technology is that it will make workers more productive. American Industrial Systems has a whitepaper that might be interesting if you want to learn more about the evolution of this technology and the specific advantages it offers for industrial control. A Beckhoff video might also be interesting as an introduction to the technology. It provides a visual demonstration of how multi-touch technology is being implemented for industrial control.

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