What is the future of operator terminals?

Fully integrated and highly functional operator terminals are enticing machine builders and end-user alike to migrate from more basic products.


The concept of humans interfacing with machines is hardly a new one; IHS itself has recently published the eighteenth edition of its operator terminal report. In a mature market like this, it isn't unusual for the resounding question to be: "What's next?" 

Industry 4.0 and industrial improvement

The buzzwords of a modern-day industrial revolution have been flying around for a while now. While previously hardware was the primary focus, attention has shifted to the idea of everything being integrated in terms of software and communication. Assimilation of elements such as instinctive software, durable hardware, cloud data storage, the internet of things, stable connectivity, and heightened security and safety, is regarded as the Holy Grail by many industrial vendors. To achieve and maintain this sought-after 'optimum efficiency,' the panel where human meets machine is of utmost importance. The aim of 'Industry 4.0' is for machinery to be more automated than ever before, but it is essential the operators are able to control and manipulate these machines with ease.

Already emphasis is being placed on the harmony between software and hardware with pragmatism, proficiency and simplicity being the goals of more automated machines. Alongside this, there is the hope that this initiative will provide a boost to the economy. 'Industry 4.0' started as a German government initiative, but there is a global effort towards this end, with organizations such as the SMLC (Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition) also pursing industrial excellence. While the will for industrial-cyber synchronization seems to be there, how this is to be achieved is another matter.

Low-end to high-end migration

Unsurprisingly, for total machine integration to occur the operator terminal itself must have the functionality and capacity to perform the necessary operations. It is for this reason perhaps, that revenues from text-based and basic graphical terminals are slowly declining. While these products still fill a gap in the market for end-users that require low-cost and in some cases, space-saving solutions, they go against the grain of the increasing demand for larger, attractive interfaces.

Revenues for high-end functionality features in operator terminals. Courtesy: IHS

Advanced graphical and portable operator terminals are two types at the forefront of operator terminal innovation, providing the basic platform necessary to make 'Industry 4.0' a reality, thanks to their high-end functionality. This is where most global revenue growth for operator terminals is expected to happen in the years to 2018 according to the latest report from IHS.

This trend is prevalent across all regions (EMEA, The Americas, Asia-Pacific and Japan), but while EMEA and Germany in particular, are usually seen as a hub of industrial automation and the home of major suppliers, it is in the Americas where migration to high-end terminals is fastest. Rapidly growing economies such as Mexico and strong growth, particularly in markets such as the automotive industry, are driving this trend.

Advanced graphical functionality

There is undoubtedly a feeling that while 'Industry 4.0' is a goal to strive towards, a great deal of innovation in operator terminals has been driven by the consumer market. Smart phones and devices boast functionality such as Wi-Fi networking, capacitive touchscreens and intuitive software. Many industrial vendors have stated that as people become accustomed to these features they are not only demanded, but simply expected to be seen on the factory floor.

In commercial and consumer displays, everything from a phone to a television implements a 16:9 aspect ratio; it therefore feels out dated to use a 4:3 ratio format in a factory where optimum functionality is technically much more important than for personal entertainment.

There are several technical features and improvements that come hand-in-hand. Alongside the trend to the 16:9 aspect ratio, there are trends towards high resolution and to capacitive touchscreen technology. As the market moves to adopt these technologies, 'sweet spots' are already becoming apparent.

During research for the latest IHS publication on operator terminals, increased demand for graphical terminals with a display size of 10.0"-14.9" was highlighted. Although the market is generally quite price-sensitive, there seems to be a feeling that these terminals provide good value for money, in terms of optimum color resolution (more than 256 colors), screen capacity and the space taken up on the machine itself. Bigger terminals are justifiable only in particular use-cases, otherwise the loss in space, due to a larger cut-out, and the higher price, could be a hindrance.

However, not all 'sweet spots' are apparent yet. Adoption of capacitive multi-touch technology is still somewhat of a 'hot topic' in the industrial operator terminal market, but there are currently very few use-cases to quantify its true benefit. This conjures yet another question: is this the future, or just another flashy hype?

For some vendors the implementation of capacitive touchscreen flouts the general maxim towards efficient software; instead they adopt it because the appeal lies in its durable glass hardware. Once benefits beyond zooming and swiping really become apparent, it is likely that demand for projected capacitive touchscreen, with its added physical robustness, will continue to rise. This particular trend towards advanced functionality is largely dependent upon the industry. Building Automation, for example, provides the perfect clean and stable environment for capacitive touch to come into its own, intuitive swipes to adjust temperature and air ventilation seem like a natural, progressive step.

Portable technology and mobility

Beyond touchscreen type and input method, advanced graphical and portable terminals also offer alternative connectivity methods. Unwavering connectivity is integral to 'Industry 4.0,' without secure communication between machinery components, the concept crumbles. Use of Ethernet networking technology is now growing faster than of more established fieldbus types. It is only in the last 14 years that the market has really begun to view it as a suitable replacement. The recurring objection that Ethernet often faces in this field is whether it is robust enough to function for an extended period of time. This is the largest objection against wireless technology penetrating the market. Against this, wireless technology is forecast to be the fastest growing networking type to 2018. It provides a flexibility that is not offered by Ethernet. Future implementation of wireless networking can be seen as linked to the projected revenue growth for portable terminals.

Although most attention is on the operator terminals themselves, the idea of operator terminal applications on mobile devices is now a discussion point across the market. This would truly bridge the gap between consumer device aesthetics and optimum factory floor functionality. Vendors such as Schneider are already producing offerings for this potentially lucrative market. It has been suggested that mobile applications are the next area for operator terminals to progress into, providing benefits such as close range and remote monitoring, at comparatively low cost compared with industrial-grade terminals.

In the near term, it is anticipated that purpose-built portable operator terminals will remain the go-to solution for end-users seeking mobile solutions. For future adoption, it is likely that operator terminal applications will be used in an add-on capacity to further enhance efficiency alongside a standard stationary panel.

Mobile applications create a new wealth of objections concerning cyber security. For initiatives like 'Industry 4.0,' it is important that malicious cyber-attack is avoided at all costs. Smart phones and devices are easily accessed and removed from the factory floor environment. While this extends the abilities of the operator terminal application itself, it also widens the opportunity for data disruption or hacking. Equally, durability and feasible usability are two further objections that need to be addressed before mobile applications become a more widely recognized part of the market.

2014 and beyond

It seems as though the consumer market for smart devices is influencing market vendors when it comes to the latest generation of operator terminals. It isn't quite as simple as saying "watch that space and this feature will follow," but there are important recurring themes to mobility, simplicity, and efficiency. On both sides there is a push towards intuitive use and wider screens with capacitive touchscreens.

As mentioned previously, the market for operator terminals is mature, and unlikely to surge in any one direction. For now at least, fully integrated and highly functional operator terminals are enticing machine builders and end-user alike to migrate from more basic products.

Alexandra Whiting is a research analyst in IHS Electronics and Media. She is part of the Industrial Automation group, focusing on operator terminal and industrial PC market research. Alexandra is also responsible for running a quarterly market tracker for the IPC market. Edited by Brittany Merchut, Project Manager, CFE Media, bmerchut(at)cfemedia.com 

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