In the last few years, a huge amount of effort has gone into expanding the digital machine shop through the functionality of Human-Machine Interfaces (HMIs). There’s been a big push to make them easier to use, too. 

In this post, we’ll show you how IoT, applications, and user-centric design are making the future of HMIs brighter than ever. 

What is a Human Machine Interface (HMI)?

Human-machine interfaces (HMIs) are terminals that let a worker connect to industrial systems. Most commonly, HMIs are touch-screen displays mounted on machines or positioned as stand-alone terminals. 

HMIs make it possible to visualize, monitor, and control industrial processes from a single interface. 

Why Revisit HMIs in the Digital Era?

Answering the question “Why revisit HMIs?” requires outlining a small bit of manufacturing history. 

At the core is a deceptively simple question: What were HMIs designed to do? 

HMIs were designed to make complex industrial processes legible and actionable to operators. 

HMIs did this extremely well, but there was a tradeoff. HMI operator terminals themselves became extremely complex. 

Modeling industrial processes is hard–an art, even. Designing user interfaces isn’t the same thing as modeling industrial systems. Writing in 2012, one control engineer with experience designing HMIs summarized this problem well: 

“Now, tens of thousands of operators throughout the world are controlling multi-billion dollar processes by looking at primitive cartoons designed at a time when we really did not know what we were doing.”

He might be overstating the situation for rhetorical effect (and it may be more true in process than discrete industries), but the point remains. HMI terminals weren’t optimized for user experience.

This situation is changing. And rapidly. Here are the leading factors. 

  • Research shows that poor HMI design is directly correlated with increased risk. Interface design is crucial for protecting workers and assets. 
  • The last decade saw a consumer interface revolution. Smartphone use in everyday life has demonstrated the power of simple interfaces. Workers want industrial systems that follow the same principles. 
  • The digital revolution in manufacturing has opened up new ways to connect, monitor, and interact with industrial processes. It’s natural that HMIs will incorporate these advances. 

Given these advances, what does the future of HMIs look like? 

The Future of HMIs

The future of HMIs unfolds in four key directions: 

  1. Intuitive control panels
  2. On-machine applications 
  3. IIoT connectivity
  4. Mobile HMIs

Each is mutually reinforcing, so let’s look at them in turn. 

Intuitive control panel 

We all use a perfectly designed HMI in our daily life without even realizing it: the smart phone. 

Think of how smartphones organize information. 

You’re presented with a neat, gridlike arrangement of icons. Accessing the information you need is as simple as pressing the touchscreen. When you need to get information or perform an action, you simply touch into an application. 

Order food, pay a bill, hail a cab–whatever you need is right there. And it’s never hard to find. 

But bringing manufacturing up to speed isn’t just about modeling machine HMIs after smartphones. It’s about modeling the principle behind smartphone design. 

What HMIs really need is a way of modularizing applications and information. An operator should be able to immediately understand the screen in front of them, know what options they have, and be able to act accordingly. Truly intuitive control comes from organizing functions into discrete, easy to use applications. 

On-machine applications

This point follows naturally from the last. Applications are increasingly a core part of manufacturing processes. 

So it makes sense that HMIs would run applications. 

For many manufacturers, HMIs need to enable operators to access information about machine performance and configuration. On modern HMI’s, operators can access machine monitoring applications directly on the machine. 

With on-machine machine monitoring, operators can instantly access information about machine performance, condition, state, and more holistic measures like OEE and OPE. 

But machine applications aren’t limited to machine monitoring. 

Modern HMIs can also host machine operations apps. Without leaving the machine operators and technicians can access work instructions for machine setups, maintenance SOPs, changeover information, troubleshooting documents, and reporting forms. 

There are also tool management applications (see where tools are, when, and how much time they have on them), and higher-level fleet performance information. 

With modern HMIs, each of these applications are accessible from a single point. 

IIoT Connected HMI

The last 10 years have seen the emergence of new methods of communicating in the factory. 

With the maturation of cloud, smart devices, and open communication protocols, it’s easier than ever to network processes. 

As a result, manufacturers expect HMIs to connect to a greater variety of devices. They expect to be able to communicate with devices and machines from anywhere, not just at the terminal. 

In many ways, IIoT connected HMIs are a natural extension of an intuitive, application driven model. 

Mobile HMI

Ultimately, the future of HMIs includes a much wider range of interfaces than currently come to mind. 

Today, tablets and mobile phones are already doing much of the work that on-machine and standalone terminal used to perform. 

Whether these interfaces will evolve into watches, wearables, or other kinds of emerging control devices remains unclear.

The trajectory, however, is clear. Manufacturers want to be able to monitor and control their operations from anywhere. 

And digital manufacturing technology is poised to make this a reality. 

Conclusion: A Close Connection Between Humans and Machines

Human machine interfaces have been, and will remain, a critical part of manufacturing. 

Their functionality, however, is rapidly expanding. 

There are more options than ever for simplifying operator experience, improving control, and running applications.