M2M: How Much Autonomy?

Integrated Panel PC Technologies Make Industrial HMIs Intuitively Easier to Use and More Cost-Effective

Advances in multi-touch screen technology and panel PCs are leading to human-machine interfaces that give a unified center of factory floor control along with full access to process data.


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Industrial automation has witnessed amazing advancements in the last decade due in large part to equipment integration that has brought new capabilities from computing performance, to sensor technology, to enhanced networking bandwidth. There is always room for improvement, and manufacturers are challenged by several key areas that are holding back factory floor processes from enabling even greater productivity. First is that the monitoring and control of the diverse list of equipment is in many cases performed manually, which makes doing tasks more difficult and time-consuming. Second, precise control of equipment speeds and settings with existing knobs and switches presents accuracy issues. Finally, many factory automation systems are in varying platforms that deliver fragmented information.

Helpful resources to these issues that plague manufacturers are human-machine interface (HMI) technologies and systems that provide increased access to essential factory and operational data. However, the tasks confronting HMIs are becoming increasingly more complex requiring large scale connectivity that connects every area of the organization to receive data that can facilitate improved factory line monitoring and control, and ultimately productivity. The implementation of shop floor analytics and smart manufacturing practices puts additional demands on HMIs to deliver greater transparency and enhanced efficiencies throughout the production process and into every part of the manufacturing operation.

Furthermore, there is a true need for factory automation solutions to evolve from fragmented information in different platforms to ones that offer a single access point that performs complex, real-time calculations. Having a single access point solves multiple factory floor issues and serves up needed line-level benefits such as enhanced control of production and adequate computing performance for production data analysis. Single access point HMIs also give workers the ability to thoroughly evaluate the entire production line to make any needed adjustments or develop productivity reports. A key technology in converging factory automation systems from a diverse set of platforms with multiple knobs and switches to a single access point is the integration of digital touch screen technology into next-generation Panel PCs with multi-touch digital screen technology. 

Breakthrough Multi-Touch Digital Screen Technology

Multi-touch digital screen technology is a breakthrough advancement for HMI applications, which provides the precision and accuracy needed for increased production line setting control. It is seen as one of the needed evolutionary advancements that make a single HMI ecosystem a reality. HMIs that feature screens with graphical user interfaces (GUI) and SCADA terminals enable consumer smart-device-like user interaction such as advancing display content by swiping fingers across the screen, zooming into content by spreading fingers or scrolling by using a downward finger stroke. 

Many next-generation HMI systems are incorporating integrated Panel PCs that feature projected capacitive (PCAP) touch panel technology that is typically made of glass or film material. It is the responsiveness due to PCAPs sensitive touchpoint density that enables true multi-touch functionality. This provides accurate and reliable operation even with work gloves, which is a necessity in many factory settings. Because of their scratch resistance and high durability, glass PCAPs are particularly well-suited for industrial automation environments. The zero-bezel design of PCAPs also makes for a more modern design and contributes to an enhanced user experience. For more robust operational demands, these glass touch panels can be ruggedized for additional shock and vibration and comprehensive protection against dust, humidity and water. A good method to accomplish this is to embed the touch panel glass display into an aluminum casing. Mounting equipment can also be integrated into the casing so that the front of the Panel PC is fixed and can be appropriately sealed, resulting in a rugged industrial solution that offers a completely flat glass front surface (Figure 1). 

Figure 1
New Panel PCS offer impressive capacitive multi-touch display panels in wide 16:9 formats and integrate a wide range of needed industrial interfaces.

The projective-capacitive glass touch displays are designed with a network of x- and y-electrodes, which run vertically and horizontally and project electrical fields over and beyond the glass surface, so that fingers can easily glide over the glass surface. Delivering an advanced level of ease-of-use, new projective-capacitive displays eliminate the need for active pressure compared to resistive displays.

Selecting the optimum touch screen technology for an HMI to suit a particular factory setting often comes down to whether workers are required to wear gloves. If thick work gloves are not required, then a projective-capacitive glass touch screen is typically viewed as the most optimal for the operator. It is especially touch-sensitive, providing a high level of operation precision through just a gentle touch of the glass surface. 

Resistive touch displays, on the other hand, offer completely different operating characteristics. This type of display requires stronger touch pressure on the screen and delivers significant advantages for applications that require thick gloves. In addition, 5-wire resistive touch technology provides a greater degree of touch accuracy for workers who wear gloves, and it is typically offered at a lower price and boasts a longer lifecycle compared to 8-wire technology.

Enabling Enhanced Control, Ease of Use

The integration of touch-sensitive glass into Panel PC displays employed by HMI systems makes them naturally easy to use while offering impressive multi-touch functionality to improve factory floor control. It is the advancements in multi-touch technologies that give operators enhanced control via support for hand gestures that allow workers to rotate or expand complex display images with two fingers, or with a swipe of a finger, the ability to scroll through lists of data.  Operations can use one hand to open a menu while the other controls equipment parameters, thus eliminating the need to jump back and forth between complex menu layers. It is even possible to implement two-hand operation in order to facilitate switching motors on or off, and even the mechanical “dead man’s switch” can be replaced with multi-touch displays. Almost universal in its appeal for intuitive and effective operation control, multi-touch displays are  giving workers greater ability to use their hands.  

Typing is also easier with multi-touch displays. For instance, the “shift” key can be operated with one finger. Plus, Panel PC displays that use an advanced widescreen format increase the size of the display by one-third, which gives operators a larger area to accommodate gesture control and visualization. Helping to save budget and valuable floor space, the widescreen format also permits display use in a portrait viewing angle so that the virtual keyboard can be displayed in the lower part of the screen, eliminating the need for a separate mechanical keyboard. 

To support the large range of interfaces found on the factory floor, Panel PCs must feature connectivity matched to industrial needs. Embedded computing integration provides diverse support for Gigabit Ethernet, USB 3.0/2.0 and RS-232, RS-485 and RS-422 communication ports. Panel PCs can also provide essential wireless communications with CAN, Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi with Bluetooth and RFID. Multi-screen technology also demands graphical support for DVI and Display Port. For designs that require application-specific expansions, a single mini PCI Express socket is also available in certain new Panel PCs. And, the latest Panel PCs also offer broad operating system choice, performance options, memory and storage support (Figure 2).

Figure 2
The Kontron OmniClient series is engineered to be an optimal HMI tool that enables the supervision and management of the entire manufacturing facility. Kontron’s OmniClient products provide the interface support needed for the intelligent production environment with eight GPIOs and optionally two RS-232 interfaces, one RS-232/485/422, four USB 3.0, one CAN port, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, audio, as well as digital I/Os.

The latest Panel PC designs can be configured to meet the varying industrial application requirements in terms of performance, the available display sizes and the range of interfaces. HMIs can also leverage the ability to scale Panel PC solutions to a variety of system needs such as those that require application-ready systems with full hardware and software compatibility. Rugged industrial requirements for extended shock, vibration and temperature resistance can also be met with today’s Panel PCs. These options also give developers a range of solutions that meet various budget parameters. Additional option choices allow more companies to adopt HMI applications that enable improved monitoring and control of factory floor data that helps achieve manufacturing productivity goals (Figure 3).

Figure 3
The Kontron Micro Client 3 family is completely fanless and is available with a 15.6-inch display with glass and projective-capacitive touch technology.

Evolving HMI Design

HMI solutions contribute to making the “factory of the future” possible. With all data included in a single ecosystem, HMIs can deliver on the promise of full factory control. The industrial automation market has realized milestone advancements due to the availability of highly integrated technologies for improved computing performance, graphics, interface support and communication bandwidth within HMI systems. HMI tools are seeing more widespread adoption as manufacturing organizations see the overall cost of ownership benefits from access to crucial data that allows them to efficiently run production lines while helping both equipment operators and management to make more informed decisions. Greater cost-effectiveness and continuous process improvements are also possible from access to data that contributes to informed analysis.  

The growing list of HMI requirements is well-served by the high level of integration found in the latest Panel PCs that ensures seamless and simplified interoperability with the other equipment on the factory floor and throughout the manufacturing organization. Panel PCs are key enablers in making new HMI applications into combined and connected solutions with industrial machinery for a diverse range of factory floor systems in the chemical, pharmaceutical, food and beverage, and energy and power industries. Single access points that feature multi-touch display technology in a modern ergonomic design further enhance usability and the user experience, making the latest Panel PCs destined to be used whenever machine and plant operators feel the need to have convenient HMI systems to improve monitoring and managing production processes.  

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