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Why it's Time to Upgrade Your Old Human Machine Interface (HMI)

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Since the 1970’s, Human Machine Interfaces, HMI’s, have been further and further digitized and modernized. What started as simple grayscale text commands has evolved to graphical representations and animations of complex systems. Therein lies a problem; things quickly became too complicated. HMI’s started to display too much information about too many different variables or functions. Operators can’t process all of the data, which can turn into a sensory overload. The countless alarms going off don’t help either. Who is it benefiting when there are so many alarms going off that you can’t tell which is most important? What was intended to create safety and efficiency has created roadblocks. However, strides have been taken to improve HMI’s and to make them more user-friendly.

 When a system is able to report hundreds of graphs and dozens of screens of data, it complicates what the operator is seeing, and as a result, human error becomes more of a possibility. Engineers designed the HMI’s, not the operators. But in recent years, HMI’s have been readdressed and revamped. Today, it is easier to find solely the needed information, and this makes decision making less complicated and helps to scale back human error again.

Of course accidents caused by confusion are damaging to profits, but they are dangerous for the operators as well. Upgrading to a new, simplified HMI can increase efficiency and profitability, but it can also prevent hazardous situations. HMI upgrades can limit alarms to those that require operators to perform an action. With fewer alarms, it is easier to tell where the problem originates from, making it easier to fix the problem.

A change in graphics is also helping to improve HMI’s. A plethora of colors is replacing grayscale. This makes the colors of alerts more prominent and helps to point out where attention needs to be paid most urgently.

Old HMI’s have become an unaffordable risk. Upgrading your HMI to a simplified, user-friendly design is in the best interest for any company. Losses can be minimized and the safety of the operators can be improved. Take Siemens HMI Comfort Panel Series for example, it has a significant number of great overall features. The system is built on a Microsoft Windows compact platform and includes Microsoft Excel, has built in E-Mail, and even drag and drop functionality is available between devices so tag referencing is easy.  These are just a small sample of the ways HMI’s have evolved over the years to add functionality and provide a more user-friendly experience.

More recently, manufacturers have even started to make products that are combining an HMI with a PLC as a single product, and offering a comprehensive solution to panel builders and system integrators. 

Programming language and communication protocols are two additional considerations to make when exploring an upgrade of your HMI.  Some programming languages may not be compatible with older programs and need to be revamped to function on a more modern HMI.  Similarly, existing communication protocols need to be evaluated for compatibility.  What was once only communicated over RS232 or RS485 may find quicker and more flexible communication over Ethernet.

The bottom line is in any upgrade situation, there are many factors to consider.  While some negatives may exist in an upgrade, the overall gains and positives will always outweigh them in regards to productivity, flexibility, safety, and user-friendliness.      

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