The Modern HMI: From Science Fiction to Science Fact

Rok Skutnik, Global Product Manager – Embedded at Densitron, looks at the latest trends in the modern HMI and the challenges that these changes present the engineers, software developers and product designers working to deliver the next generation platforms.

In this modern age of technological innovation, it doesn’t take long for tomorrow’s world to become today’s reality and where science fiction rapidly evolves into science fact. Nowhere is this more evident than in the way we communicate and interact with people, products and machines - the Human Machine Interface (HMI). You only have to look at how mobile telecommunications have changed with their advanced, high-resolution colour displays and instant-touch functionality to see how this online digital world has ignited a seismic shift in our culture, our expectations and the way in which we go about our everyday lives.

Today, the touchscreen gadgetry that once graced the television and cinema screens in the latest sci-fi movie is an everyday reality and now making a rapid transition from its dominance in the mobile and consumer sectors into a wide range of industrial solutions and applications. This transition, fueled by growing interconnectivity and the B2B community’s desire for greater operational efficiencies, has seen a significant increase in the predominance of the HMI. This trend is backed by the latest forecasts for the global HMI market, which predict an annual growth rate of just over 8.8%, taking its total worth from $3.43 billion in 2016 to reach a value of $5.7 billion by 2022.

Simply speaking, an HMI is a way in which operators interact with a device or machine and generally involves the integration of three key elements: a user interface, hardware and software, providing a vital ‘shop window’ into the capabilities, status and functionality of that product. Perhaps the most visible aspect of the HMI is the user interface itself, which has moved on significantly from outmoded push buttons, switches and panel meters to feature-rich high-resolution colour graphical displays with the latest interactive touchscreen technology.

Today, the modern HMI has to satisfy a multitude of needs. Operators are looking to the HMI to provide an intelligent, intuitive, and familiar user experience. Manufacturers demand more real-time data and diagnostics to minimise downtime, maximise production and deliver greater profit margins. While the product suppliers are looking to offer attractive, functional and, above all, saleable solutions.

HMI is the way in which operators interact with a device or machine.

The HMI, therefore, has a vital part to play in the overall solution, process and application. And given the technical complexity of bringing together the latest interactive displays, hardware and software technologies, its importance should not be underestimated - it is what the purchaser sees, what the operator uses and what the manufacturers depend on to increase operational efficiencies.

Given the diversity of these demands and the scope of functionality that the modern HMI has to deliver, it is no wonder that engineers and developers are facing considerable challenges in the race to present the very best, market-leading solutions in the shortest possible timeframe. They face the task of creating solutions that have to integrate across multiple platforms, use a range of software and ensure that each component interacts seamlessly to deliver the perfect user experience while optimising output. However, this is an area of development that can make or break the success of already tight launch timelines. With so much at stake to gain competitive advantage in the marketplace, one mistake within the HMI can impair user experience and affect overall functionality, further increasing development time, resources and costs and potentially leading to a loss of market share.

Engineers and developers are facing considerable challenges in the race to present the very best.

Integrating displays with electronics and maintaining stable functionality is not easy. With so many disciplines involved, these engineers have to have the right knowledge and expertise in every aspect of hardware, software and display technology. As a result, it can take a considerable amount of time and resources to get up to speed with the latest proprietary technology and to get all components of the HMI just right.

While outsourcing can help to alleviate these pressures on the developers, this too can create bottlenecks in the development lifecycle if the appropriate skills in all the different aspects of HMI technology are not available under one roof, which, in turn, can further increase costs. Yet another challenge that has to be managed.

The rate of innovation in hardware and software is staggering, and while this presents endless choices and opportunities for design and software engineers to unleash their creativity to develop the perfect solution, the reality of today’s competitive society doesn’t afford them the time and resources they would ideally like.
Working with total solutions providers with a wide range of knowledge, expertise, development products, and tools covering all the core elements of an HMI can, however, have a significant impact - by reducing development time and speeding up the delivery of the final product.

Engaging with such partners that can deliver time-saving solutions and ready-to-go HMI development environments suitable for a variety of applications, frees up time for software engineers to focus on developing the perfect application itself, as well as other value-added processes that will deliver a competitive edge, while more easily and quickly coordinating with UX and UI designers.

This understanding and partnership approach of providing developers with the latest ready-to-go HMI development tools combined with expert industry insight lies at the heart of our work ethic at Densitron. It also ensures we provide our customers with stable, tried and tested plug-and-play embedded platforms, whatever their application performance level requirements, all at the right price. This allows a development team to focus their time and skills on other areas of their project that will add value, gain competitive advantage and speed up time to market.

The latest ready-to-go HMI development tools combined with expert industry insight is at the heart of our work.

The key to success is therefore being able to offer customers a complete HMI solution containing stable BSPs (Board Support Packages on Linux and Android), running on proven and scalable hardware, and then further enhance it with plug-and-play integration of various displays. The inclusion of a user-friendly development environment offering cross-compiling capability (like Qt®) and all the required tools is a significant element to success, enabling quick setup and development kick-off. Such a concept presents engineers with a ready-made embedded ecosystem that offers the flexibility to select from, and deploy, a range of electronics, displays and a choice of a software platform to more easily and quickly develop the HMI they need for their specific application.

The face of the industrial HMI has changed considerably in recent years and will only continue to advance and evolve further, whereby touch technology will be joined by voice and visual recognition and ever more complex multi-screen and multi-task functionality. Keeping up to speed, staying in touch, and being ahead of the vast array of technologies needed to construct the perfect HMI, will always be a challenge for product designers and may be best left to the experts to come up with solutions to aid development.

However, what we do know with some certainty about the HMI of the future is that whatever we think is science fiction today will undoubtedly be our reality tomorrow.

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