Operator first – the human factor remains central to the success of an HMI

In a human-machine interface (HMI), it’s about human and machine working collaboratively to maximize efficiency without compromising on basics like safety

What defines a world-class HMI? Is it the ability to open unlimited windows on your screen? Is it the ability to plot thousands of points on the trend? Is it using 20 different colors in the same graphic? I would say none of the above.

The human plays a vital role in any human-machine interface. A recent ARC study estimates that 42% of all un-scheduled downtime in the process industry is due to operator error. An HMI which reduces the burden on the operator and empowers him or her to be more efficient is a key objective of any system. This same principle applies to the HMI of a home PC as much as to an automation system for a power plant. The best way to boost operational excellence is to provide the right tools with the right information to your operators and present it at the right time.

Another way to reduce operator burden is to use a simple design. Intuitive world-class HMI systems don’t require intensive training to get started. Here again, HMI command structures similar to those on a PC can be used for plant operation. This would include such basics as a right-click function to bring up a command menu, tabbed view for multiple windows or even the ability to simply set up a customized desktop layout suited to your day-to-day activities.

However, when talking specifically about industrial user interfaces, you have to go beyond the characteristics of a PC. A world-class HMI for plant control must be capable of adapting to different current and future levels of complexity within the plant it is monitoring, so as to preserve the investment over time. In addition to taking ergonomics into account, it must differentiate the distracting diagnostic signals from the really important ones through an effective integrated alarm management system, with solid embedded analytical capabilities for both real-time and historic data. The three aspects together will allow the human in front of the screen to stay focused on plant conditions, retrieve the information they will need with a few clicks and generate reports to take the next decision. Whatever the needs of the plant are, the focal point of the tool must be the user.

This may well be true now, but we are seeing a generational shift in the operator workforce. As veteran operators with decades of experience get ready to retire, more and more millennials are taking control of the plants. And these operators have grown up in the era of iTunes, Amazon, X-Box and tablets. So the challenge for HMI vendors is to provide a solution which stays true to the core values while providing intuitive and user-friendly interface functionalities, expected by these ‘next-gen’ operators. Will this then mean that the future of HMI lies in apps, virtual reality views, online stores and mobile devices? What will be will be, but the human will always remain a central element of any HMI.

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About the author

Chintan Shah

I am a product marketing specialist for ABB’s highly acclaimed Symphony Plus automation products. Based in Wickliffe, USA, I have been working with Symphony Plus and its predecessor systems since 2006 in the fields of proposals and bidding, lifecycle services and strategic product marketing. I am passionate about creating content that informs and educates. I love taking highly technical and complex products and creating simple and easy-to-understand messages. I call this linking the features to a functionality. I am proud to be part of ABB, where we know we can have a huge impact on the future of our world.
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