RIP, HMI: Everything now is an interface

Digital devices, apps have freed the once-anchored device. In cloud platforms for IIoT and Industrie 4.0, applications from developers are designed to help, and a robot collaborates to improve human performance, at ping pong, all at Hannover Messe 2017.

By Bob Vavra, CFE Media April 26, 2017

HANNOVER, GERMANY: Farewell, HMI, and thanks for everything.

The human-machine interface (HMI) has had a long and storied history in manufacturing, and its use as a simple way to manage and control machine operations at the machine has dramatically improved plant floor efficiency. But with the increasing digitization of manufacturing and the use of tablets, smartphones, and hand-held devices, every device is now an HMI, among trends related to Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and Industrie 4.0 observed at the 2017 Hannover Messe.

Once limited to the smarts inside the HMI box, the device driven displays can pull real-time data from the system analytics in the cloud computing world or via Wi-Fi and make everything about the machines-its health, maintenance record and full parts list-available at the tap of a button.

Another major trend at Hannover Messe 2017 has been the discussion of opening the digital plant to outside application developers. There already are downloadable apps for manufacturing, and more are coming. Whether it’s the Predix platform postured by GE or another approach (the OPC UA press conference Tuesday touted a number of collaborative efforts among OPC Foundation members to drive a more open platform among all users), the digital platform of sensors and controls feeding data to the cloud for analytics and returning the knowledge to a plant employee ready to act on that data has arrived.

In reality, (another word tossed around a lot at 2017 Hannover Messe) everything that will happen in manufacturing will require a human-machine interface. But the HMI as we know it will need to be reconsidered, both as a tool and as an offering from a supplier community firmly embracing a digital future. Maybe HMI will retire as a noun, and continue as a verb.

Talking about the future: Press conferences and interviews progressed Tuesday as the business of Hannover Messe picked up steam. Those also produced some comments worth considering as manufacturing continues toward a digital future.

ABB and IBM announced a partnership around IBM’s Watson cognitive computing and ABB’s Ability digital platform. During that event, Harriett Green, group general manager of IBM Watson, took a step beyond the idea of artificial intelligence. "We don’t talk about AI in this context," she said. "We’re talking about augmenting intelligence-enhancing intelligence."

Sanjay Ravi of Microsoft had a similar thought in discussing the future workforce. "We’ve moved past theory. We’re able to augment new employees doing machine learning modules." And there was this from Paul Brooks of Rockwell Automation: "The way people work needs to change. We have to make sure we are educating people for the jobs they are doing today, but they need to be not just good at the jobs they are doing today, but get them better for the jobs of tomorrow. We need to use these technologies to get those individual to work together as a team."

And a final thought from Rob McKeel, the vice president of automation at GE: "Let the data flow, and use technology to find the right answer," he said. "In the absence of data, everyone will keep doing it the way they’ve always done it."

A lot of back-and-forth: Among the stop-and-gawk booths at this year’s Hannover Messe is the Omron stand in Hall 9. That’s where a ping-pong-playing robot will engage any visitor in a match. The robotic arm is designed not to beat the opposing player, but to keep the ball in play to help the other player learn and get better at his game. It is the collaborative robot in a more entertaining format, and it has been one of the big draws so far.

Watch for continuing and prior Hannover Fair coverage on the Plant Engineering  and Control Engineering. For IIoT on both sites under the pull-down menu, upper left. For more on control systems, see seven specific pages on the Control Engineering website under the pulldown menu for "Control Systems."

Bob Vavra is content manager, Plant Engineering, CFE Media,; edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering,