Multi-touch technology comes to HMI/SCADA systems


A safer, more efficient operation

As has been noted, a multi-touch screen user can complete an action much faster than with a keyboard and a pointing device. Industrial users often need to zoom in and out on a particular screen. With multi-touch, this can be accomplished with simple and quick pinch in and pinch out operations. With a keyboard and pointing device, a user needs to click on a zoom command from a toolbar, and then select a percent zoom in or out using a keyboard. After the percent zoom is selected, the user can then view the new screen, which may not be what was expected, forcing the user to repeat the zoom operations. 

Multi-touch technology offers a multitude of advantages 

  • User input three times faster than with a keyboard and pointing device
  • Longer life cycle as moving parts are eliminated
  • Lower costs and smaller footprint due to fewer components
  • Much more suited for use in hazardous areas
  • Familiar usability, similar to smartphones and tablets
  • Much quicker access to information
  • Reduced operator response time
  • Fewer screens minimizing “back-and-forth” actions that can result in human error
  • Improved safety from two-handed operation for certain procedures
  • Reduced training time and costs 

Additionally, simplified interfaces make it faster and easier for operators to view what they need to see by eliminating complex screen layers. Multi-touch enables menus and submenus to be replaced with symbols for key applications and screens. The ability to condense screen layers also helps reduce the need move between pages, decreasing the likelihood of error and speeding actions. For example, a user can obtain an overview of the entire command list by scrolling, which dramatically reduces required search times. Or s/he can also change pages faster and more intuitively by using swipe touches, instead of performing the sequential steps required by the traditional keystroke and pointing device commands. 

Safety is a priority for industrial facilities and automation suppliers. Therefore, multi-touch HMI must incorporate measures to reduce accidents, such as requiring a second button be pressed simultaneously with the command button for the command to be initiated. This button can either be an external hard-wired push button or an on-screen button. 

Two-handed operation for a multi-touch application is very helpful in industrial environments. By requiring the use of two hands for critical operations, an accidental touch won’t result in errors from changed values or parameters, or inadvertent activation of critical operations. This is particularly important with multi-touch because of its ease and speed of screen manipulation. If a machine command requires an operator have both hands away from the machine during a certain function, the multi-touch HMI screen for this application can be written to require buttons be pressed on both sides of the screen to ensure the operator can’t have hands near the machine during that particular function. 

Quick and simple training

A big problem facing today’s automated plants is the rate at which they are replacing large numbers of retiring workers. Not only do new skilled workers need to be found, but these workers must be trained to use the equipment and systems they will operate. 

The majority of the new users are already familiar with and adept at using industrial HMI multi-touch screens because most of them are using this technology in consumer devices. In fact, many younger workers are less savvy when it comes to keyboards and traditional pointing devices. With gestures, it is possible to define actions that are more intuitive and easier to execute. As a result, multi-touch HMI systems significantly reduce the time and cost involved in training. For more experienced personnel, multi-touch will also be a boon, as its speed and ease-of-use will simplify operator interaction.

Like many other devices and functionalities that originated in the consumer electronics world and have become standard in automation, multi-touch HMI technology offers distinct improvements in efficiency, safety, and training. Multi-touch HMI hardware and software systems are being designed specifically for the rigors of the industrial world. Their capabilities and functionality offer real benefits to automation, improving response times and ensuring certain operations are only possible after proscribed safety procedures are performed. Although we may never see a plant controlled solely by multi-touch devices, they are fast becoming an integral part of the industrial automation operator interface landscape. 

Lourenco Teodoro holds a B.S. degree in computer science from the University of Texas and has more than 15 years’ experience in industrial automation. He has been with InduSoft more than 10 years and has been vice president of engineering at the company since 2008. 

To view a short video that shows how multi-touch for SCADA works, click here.

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