No longer just an operator interface, HMIs enhance plant performance, regulatory compliance and product quality.

Human machine interface technology has become a human manufacturing interface technology, as it shifts to a focus on opperations. Source: Siemens

HMIs have evolved from a simple status display and operator interface to now presenting information at the right time, to the right person, in the right context. Source: Rockwell Automation.

Human Machine Interface (HMI) technology has become ubiquitous in food and beverage manufacturing operations. It is the vehicle for delivering and presenting both production and business operations information in the correct context, at the right time, to the correct person.  It enables everyone in the organization to make timely decisions that help improve plant performance, maintain regulatory compliance and ensure more consistent product quality.

Unlike in the past, operators and other staff do not remain in front of fixed HMIs. They have many functions to fulfill, and at the same time, customer orders and business performance information are being sent directly to plant floor operators.

Operational excellence is a journey of continuous improvement through basic information visualization and alarm management. HMI technology is more than an operator interface. It provides information to support business decisions.

HMI technology plays an important role in operational excellence by providing richer, more accurate and increased real-time performance information found in key performance indicator (KPI) dashboards in both factory and non-factory floor environments such as cafeterias and hallways.  HMIs increase the involvement of manufacturing personnel in the quest to improve plant performance. Increasingly they make use of wireless and automated e-mail notification because operators often run more than one line and don’t remain at a single station. This offers the added perk of reduced wiring for inter-machine communications on, for example, packaging lines.

The ability to securely connect to even the smallest operator panel over the Internet can significantly reduce maintenance, downtime and waste for any automation system. Source: Siemens.

The convergence of enterprise computing with the factory floor has helped HMI evolve from monitoring just the machine or process to viewing the enterprise as a whole. This requires bi-directional exchange of information and helps eliminate error-prone manual entry as well as reduce clerical needs. Further examples of control and HMI integration include live video, CAD technology and IP addresses. Other functions affected involve security, change management, maintenance, training and providing remote supplier, OEM and internal technical services. Many HMI suppliers are embedding industry standards into their products. These standards and de facto standards, such as ISA-88, ISA-95, OPC and OMAC PackML and PackTag guidelines, are playing an important role in providing common models and terminology, which simplifies data integration efforts.

HMI technology also uses video for security access, in which a trigger turns the video on and saves it to a file, as well as over an IP for training and maintenance. A growing need for logged and stored data for future use in enterprise computing systems makes integrating video especially useful for OEMs who want video training capability because operators often change and new staff require training as well as additional technical support.

Leading food manufacturers are driving decisions further down in the organization, such as operators performing autonomous maintenance. However, empowering operators to make decisions is not enough. They must be given a structure for decision making through training on machine and process operation so that they feel comfortable handling problems such as decreasing KPIs, packaging line blockages, machine stoppages or other adverse events.

Wonderware HMIs allow operators to control the process from one location at this Jim Beam plant, providing product consistency. Source: Wonderware

Multiple answers

Solutions that leverage HMI technology come from a variety of sources. Some companies purely focus on supplying either the software component or the HMI terminals, some supply both, and others focus exclusively on providing application-specific enclosures and housing. 

Wonderware continues to move from technology-driven to business-case-driven HMI solutions.  The focus is on vertical industry solutions and cross industry applications, including batch industry, packaging operations, mobile solutions, facilities management and water and wastewater solutions. Wonderware’s PackML-based packaging operations solution includes embedded CAD technology to assist operators with machine changeovers. With the purchase of SAT Corp., Wonderware added embedded wireless HMIs to its panel-based HMIs, which provides access to mobile workers and enables it to extend interfaces to the smallest and simplest levels. “By melding together ISA levels 2 and 3, we are reducing the number of application interfaces,” says Keith Jones, Wonderware manager for HMI, Supervisory, SCADA and platforms. “The HMI as an island in the manufacturing enterprise has followed in the footsteps of the dinosaurs. The HMI user of tomorrow is mobile and agile, and needs information in different forms from various devices.”  

New computing technology simplifies processes and makes them more cost-effective.  This screen capture shows a biscuit application in Scotland. Source: ICONICS.

Rockwell Automation also has made strategic acquisitions. It purchased Incuity to leverage its VantagePoint solution as part of its HMI technology offering, which ranges from PanelView HMI terminals to the FactoryTalkView HMI software suite. VantagePoint employs FactoryTalk service-oriented architecture and technology to deliver access to production information from both Rockwell Automation and third-party systems. Rockwell also acquired ProsCon to enhance its HMI application services, helping clients define and deploy optimum HMI solutions. Providing access to the right information on-demand in an easier-to-use format helps decision support in various aspects of the manufacturing environment such as inventory, maintenance, production, quality and enterprise and supply-chain planning. According to Scott Miller, business manager with Rockwell Automation, “The use of an HMI has evolved from a simple status display and operator interface. It’s now about presenting information at the right time, to the right person, and in the right context.”

HMI software provider ICONICS, an early adopter of the latest Microsoft technologies, is pursuing solutions based on Microsoft Silverlight technology. According to Russ Agrusa, president and CEO of ICONICS, “New computing technology will continue to be brought into the food and beverage industry to simplify processes and make them more cost-effective.  Microsoft Silverlight, for example, provides a cross-browser, cross-platform and cross-device capability delivering the next generation of .NET based media experiences and rich interactive applications for the Web.” 

Schneider Electric’s HMI technology offers users a single software tool to program its entire range of HMIs from embedded, proprietary terminals to open industrial PCs. This minimizes much of the complexity for machine builders by standardizing the core development work and eliminating the need to reinvent the wheel for each new machine. This is beneficial for industries such as packaging where machinery has become increasingly recipe driven. Linked with Schneider Electric’s ELAU packaging solutions, adjustments can be made from Magelis HMI touch screen hardware running Schneider Electric’s Vijeo Citect HMI/SCADA software. In addition, Schneider Electric recently introduced Web Gate technology, available with Vijeo Designer HMI programming software. It is based on Internet Explorer and utilizes IP addresses. “Web Gate decreases HMI maintenance costs by enabling panel operators to perform initial diagnostics on the HMI without having to be on-site. This increases efficiency, reduces downtime and decreases the cost to the OEM,” states Donna Smalls, HMI/SCADA product manager with Schneider Electric.

GE Fanuc Intelligent Platforms offers both Proficy HMI/SCADA iFix and Cimplicity HMI software products as part of a complete line of control and HMI solutions ranging from small machine mount embedded technology panels to plant-wide systems. GE Fanuc’s new iFIX WebSpace product is a full featured HMI/SCADA client delivered through a standard Web browser for any new or existing iFIX applications.  Manufacturing industries increasingly are integrating plant-floor automation and control into supervisory and enterprise-level systems through remote communications, which increases the need for security. GE Fanuc also provides secure access capability all the way down to the HMI object level.  “With manufacturing facilities already operating on a lean workforce, companies are expecting every person to operate with maximum efficiency,” says Prasad Pai, GE Fanuc Intelligent Platforms’ product manager for Proficy HMI/SCADA iFIX. “The key factor to maximum efficiency is access to information, and HMIs today are playing a big role. The ability to view information, correlate various factors and respond to exceptions from anywhere enhances the quality of decision making.”

Mitsubishi Electric’s primary HMI focus is on its GT16 Series Graphic Operation Terminal (GOT) platform, which offers a multimedia HMI Package in a model that includes integrated video and sound. The GT16 Series provides built-in functions targeted at OEMs, such as multimedia video and sound for enhanced diagnosis, and troubleshooting capabilities for operator training. Also included are a backup and restore function that requires connecting a standard USB flash drive or compact flash card and pushing a button.  According to Timothy Lomax, Mitsubishi Electric Automation’s product manager for HMI and visualization, “With processes and quality standards becoming increasingly complex, demanding and global, manufacturers, processors and OEM users are requiring industrial automation systems that are capable of providing much more detailed information on the control processes for plants and machinery.  The OEMs’ requirements of the HMI Platform are changing from providing components to providing solutions, as the OEMs’ growing need for touch screens and flat panel displays and the increasing requests for Internet and Ethernet capabilities are primary factors driving this demand change.” 

Siemens’ focus on HMI technology is based on its Totally Integrated Automation framework, equipped with Siemens’ Smart Access and Smart Service. Smart Access allows HMI panels to communicate peer- to-peer as well as across the Internet. This eliminates the traditional constraint on the number of devices that can access PAC and PLC controllers for information, usually a bottleneck to scalability. Smart Service allows the panels to send e-mails to appropriate staff by identifying the event or cause of such things as jams on a packaging line.

According to Paul Ruland, product manager, discrete automation at Siemens Energy and Automation, “OEMs, integrators and users will all continue to benefit from the advancing technologies for industrial HMI/SCADA systems. This is especially evident in wireless HMIs and HMI products with Web services included.  Siemens’ ability to securely connect to even the smallest operator panel over the Internet, and see the local screens, can significantly reduce maintenance, downtime and waste for any automation system.”

OEMs, integrators and users benefit from the advancing technologies for industrial HMI/SCADA systems.  This is especially evident in wireless HMIs and HMI products with Web services included. Source: Siemens.

Finding a niche

Niche HMI technology suppliers also provide critical solutions to manufacturers and OEMs.  According to Lawrence Liang, Advantech’s HMI product manager, “Advantech is introducing a new HMI platform with flat-sealed front panel design and a fully sealed 316L stainless steel enclosure that uses special tapered and food safe rubber seals between the bezel and the anti-corrosive touch screen with glass surface for harsh environments, including acids and detergents.  The HMI platform is a fully enclosed design without ventilation slots and external fans, making it completely protected against splashed water, achieving a NEMA4 (IP66) grade in an all around I/O protection housing, with multiple power-on and clean-mode functions in touch sensor and expanded stand, wall or desk-mounting.”

Rittal offers HMI enclosures in wall-mount, free standing, machine mount and pendent arm versions. Designed to industry standards such as NSF (National Sanitation Foundation), FAI (Food Allergy Institute), and 3A Sanitary Standard, many of Rittal’s enclosures are rated IP69K, which is more stringent than NEMA4x. The company recently introduced its Hygienic Design (HD) product line for open processes found in meat, poultry, fish, dairy and other food processes. This line complements Rittal’s standard sanitary HMI product line and includes many unique designs such as internal hinging, no crevice stainless steel locking system, 4A surface finish (40-24 micro ins.), and NEMA 4X  rating. “Being global in the food and beverage industry means having to know and understand the many national as well as international standards that help keep the product and the public safe,” says Troy Miesse, Rittal IE business development manager. “We not only help the engineer address product application and design concerns, but also help the end user reduce the wash down and maintenance time required to keep the process running smoothly.”

Modular Industrial Computers Inc.’s NEMA 4x HMI and labeler PowerStation enclosure with IP68 rated keyboard and mouse are designed for demanding high temperature wash down areas, which present unique challenges in that hot water causes increased pressure within the enclosure itself. The company also offers a water tight painted aluminum version for less harsh environments, such as receiving and shipping areas, and enclosures designed for standard desktop computers including Dell and HP.  “Many of our customers are IT managers who use information access on the plant floor to drive quality, productivity and profitability. They want business and product quality information such as customer orders, business KPIs and SQC data presented in real time directly to factory floor operators,” says John Kleber, vice president of sales at Modular Industrial Computers. “The simplest solution is an HMI directly connected to the business or quality system where this information resides. A ruggedized keyboard and mouse also are important because operators typically have to enter a certain amount of data manually, as not everything can be automated.”

Always changing

Human machine interface technology has become a human manufacturing interface technology, representing a change in the traditional meaning of the HMI acronym as it shifts to a focus on operations. As the technology continues to evolve, it will provide even more information and more effective visualization of information in many forms suitable for a production environment and for less cost. In addition, it will continue to deliver information in context to the right person at the right time. As manufacturers struggle to manage cost, reduced resources and limited skill sets, HMI technology is a key asset.

In the future, HMI technology visualization demand will be driven by manufacturers who want to access and aggregate all available real-time production process information to drive factory visibility and intelligence. The technology that utilizes flexible, multifunctional and interoperable platforms and provides thin-client interfaces with other platforms will continue to drive factory visibility and intelligence, and will play a major role in providing critical information for KPIs and plant-wide metrics. Food and beverage processors who best leverage the latest in HMI technology will be well suited to meet global competitive challenges.

Food & Beverage Industry HMI Suppliers

Advantech Automation
1-800-800-6889 Ext. 333


Beckhoff Automation

CAT Squared


Contec USA

Daisy Displays Inc.
ESE Inc.

GE Fanuc Intelligent Platforms

Hunter Lab



Maple Systems

Mitsubishi Electric Automation Inc.
Modular Industrial Computers

National Instruments

noax Technologies Corp.

Owl Software

Pro-face America


Red Lion Controls
Rittal Corp.

Rockwell Automation

Schneider Electric

Siemens Energy & Automation

Strongarm Designs



Multiple application interfaces

Based on its G3 line of touch-screen HMIs, Red Lion Controls’ G3 Kadet Operator Interface Series delivers an alternative solution for applications that don’t require FTP access, data logging and Web server capabilities. Featuring the essential interface and connectivity features of the G3 Series, as well as the same rugged construction, the G3 Kadet enables communication between multiple devices and protocols in a broad range of OEM and machine monitoring and control applications. Featuring color TFT displays, the G3 Kadet Series is available in three sizes: 4.3-in., 5.6-in. and 8-in.

Red Lion Controls Inc.; 717-767-6511;

Widescreen displays

Maple Systems Inc. released three Widescreen Graphic OITs. These HMIs feature enhanced graphic capability reinforced with a 400 MHz CPU and a memory boost with 128 MB of Flash and 64 MB DRAM. Maple Systems EZware configuration software lets users design and customize widescreen applications. The 7-in. widescreen (the HMI5070TH) allows the display of high definition graphics on an 800 x 480 TFT Touchscreen. The 10-in. Widescreen (800 x 480 pixel resolution) has a 400MHz processor. The 4.3-in. widescreen has a 480 x 272 pixel resolution TFT display.

Maple Systems Inc.; 425-745-3229 ext. 104;

Adjustable interface

The MiniStation from STRONGARM is an operator interface solution designed for adjustability and ergonomic repositioning. The MiniStation features STRONGARM’s industry-standard Vertica articulating arm, providing up to 30 ins. of counterbalanced vertical adjustability. The diverse selection of displays, keyboards, pointers and PCs allows the customer to specify the exact components needed. The MiniStation can be mounted to a wall, a machine top or a free-standing post, and a wide selection of extensions provides further mounting flexibility. It is available in NEMA 4X Stainless Steel for washdown and wipedown environments and NEMA 4/12 Painted Aluminum/Steel for general industrial use.

Strongarm Designs Inc.; 215.443.3400;

Software link

In order to promote flexible and cost-effective industrial display technologies, Beckhoff Automation has released CP-Link 3 for HMI installations. The new display and visualization concept for flexible connection of up to 255 Ethernet Panels or Panel PCs with one Industrial PC is based on standard hardware (Ethernet) and IP-based protocol for transfer of images. Networking can be done using standard Ethernet cables (CAT 5), which are suitable for drag chains. While the existing CP-Link 1 and CP-Link 2 solutions are based on special hardware components, CP-Link 3 is a pure software solution based  on standard technologies. The display contents are captured by a virtual graphic adapter in the host PC and sent using Ethernet to one or more Beckhoff Ethernet Panels with Windows operating systems (CE and XP Embedded, XP). 

Beckhoff Automation LLC; 952-890-0000;