iKey has combined the convenience of a touchpad keyboard with the strength of stainless steel in the DT-102-SS industrial keyboard.  Source: iKey.

Schnieder’s touchscreen HMI products are available with or without keys from 3.8” to 15”. Products shown can be configured to meet FDA 21 CFR Part 11 traceability data requirements.  Schneider Electric.

Human machine interface (HMI) technology has come a long way since the mid-‘80s. Back then, units that provided automated control of complex industrial lines consisted of bulky metal boxes fitted with hard keys, dedicated meters, excessive wiring, emergency stop buttons and other controls. At the time, graphics were extremely rudimentary.

Today, driven in part by stunning advancements in consumer HMIs (cell phones, iPads, iPods, home multi-system controls, etc.), industrial HMIs in food plants and facilities in other industries have become extremely compact and  sophisticated, while being easy to learn, program and use. Modern systems feature lightning fast, graphically advanced touchscreens with thousands of brilliant colors and multiple levels, plus every control, monitoring, accounting, reporting and other functionality a user would desire.

Many are custom designed; others are assembled from standard equipment that can be modified to meet specific plant requirements. As expected, units for the food industry are washdown- and hazard-rated. Based on the latest Windows, Linux and  MES operating platforms,  several  systems offer real-time video, and can even  allow an HMI program to be loaded into an iPhone, enabling the user both to control and track the performance of a food line at home or while vacationing on a beach in Hawaii. In fact, HMI technology is making industrial production and control just as ubiquitous, flexible and convenient as electronic communications is nowadays.

“It’s like having all of your plant operations in your hip pocket,” says Cliff Taylor, system integrator at Ambrose Packaging Systems in Everett, WA. Ambrose is an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) that makes filling equipment and palletizing units for the food industry.  

“The HMI APP for my Smartphone cost nothing to download and is completely secure. When I’m doing service on the back of one of our machines, rather than stepping around to the front all the time, I can just log in and make the machine adjustments without having to leave what I’m doing. I really like that feature.”

Taylor says Ambrose uses HMIs from Maple Systems, also in Everett, WA, because of their advanced functionality. Jeff Maki, marketing communications specialist at Maple Systems, says another feature of its HMIs and embedded software is their ability to network various PLCs from all the major companies. “Our programmers have written over 100 protocols for all the main PLCs,” he notes. 

“Our high-res widescreens have up to 65,000 colors and can be programmed to show any graphic an operator desires,” he adds. “If a winery owner, for instance, wants a graphic that looks like a switch on an old wine press to make the control and monitoring experience more real, this can be easily done.”

Maple’s Graphic HMI is available from 4.3” up to 15” in widescreen, high-speed or compact touchscreen models. Each contains a high-resolution display and an analog touchscreen with infinite touch-response points. Connectivity includes USB and serial ports on all models. Ethernet is included on the 4.3” to 15” models.

These Pepsi products are en route to case packer for distribution in Nampa, ID. Inset photos shows one of many panel displays used to control and monitor production. The screen shows FactoryWidget graphics that illustrate production data including the number of total bottles produced, the number of total boxes produced and temperature of ingredients. Source: Software Toolbox.

Production precision

Kontron is another producer of HMI systems. The company’s global headquarters are in Munich, Germany, and its US head office is in Poway, CA, near San Diego. Product Management Director Nancy Pantone sees the role of HMIs and the automation they control in the food industry as instruments to maximize productivity and safeguard human health. “Not just in terms of food safety for consumers,” she says, “but also to reduce mundane, repetitive tasks that robots guided by the right technology can do to replace workers on the line. This kind of technology essentially frees workers to do more value-added tasks.”

Kontron offers a range of modular, scalable systems for rugged industrial applications. Those for food plants are washdown-rated and meet shock-, vibration- and temperature-resistance requirements. They feature display dimensions from 10.4” and 15”. Other Kontron HMIs for use away from food washdown areas range from 7.0” to 19” in size.

CCS Inc. of Christiansburg, VA has had success with its Envirosealed thin client and panel PC enclosures in food manufacturing applications. The units are designed with smooth surfaces, no bezel and an optional tilting mount to prevent water from pooling during washdowns. “We also have an option to provide tool-less locks, so keys aren’t required, which enhances safety on the food line,” says CCS Marketing Manager Jennie Young.

Each HMI is connected to a switch (router) via Ether-net cable, and then to the PLC, providing full control over machinery points individually and as an entire line by networking them together. Source: Maple Systems.

Thin clients are essentially stripped-down versions of traditional computers usually with no moving parts or long-term storage drives. They are called “clients” because they rely on a central server or panel PC to handle data processing, and transfer keystrokes and mouse events via network connections. “Because they have minimal hardware and store little information locally, they are inherently secure devices,” adds Young. “A thin client has limited capability on its own, but when networked with a server, it becomes very powerful.”

Chicago-based Sara Lee Food & Beverage has a food production facility in Florence, AL that produces ready-to-eat breakfast sandwiches and sausage products it sells to retail and foodservice outlets. About 18 months ago, the facility purchased 16 HP thin clients in CCS Envirosealed enclosures. “Our previous enclosures were wearing out, and we needed a solution that would provide our thin clients and barcode printers with a robust enclosure and keyboard tray that could withstand wide temperature and humidity swings during high-pressure steam washdowns,” says Sara Lee Process Technology Specialist Daniel Ingram. “We chose one of CCS’s standard enclosures and modified it to suit our specific requirements. It worked out so well that we now have a program in place to install similar units in all our other plants across the country.”

Iconics Inc., of Foxboro, MA, recently added 64-bit platform technology to power its original 32-bit GraphWorX HMIs, according to Marketing Director Tim Donaldson. Part of the company’s Genesis 64 product suite, GraphWorX 64-bit HMIs provide additional speed and 3-D rendering capability, which the older 32-bit version did not. 

“Recently, our company upgraded its web HMIs to incorporate Microsoft Silverlight software. Silverlight opens doors for use on any number of browsers and web-enabled mobile devices, such Windows Phone 7, tablet devices and RF scanners for better and faster decision-making,” notes Donaldson.

The CCS TS1806 is a NEMA 4X stainless steel enclosure designed for use with thin clients and touchscreen monitors.  The TS1806 is ideal for applications where wash-downs are frequent.  Source: CCS Inc.

Speed for improved productivity

Beckhoff Industries of Verl, Germany has a large line of HMI products with screens ranging from 5.7” to 24” in size. Its US headquarters are located in Burnsville, MN. Senior Business Development Manager Christian Schulze says 85 percent of its panels are custom designed for clients and feature fingerprint reader and card reader options for state-of-the-art security plus other options.

Beckhoff’s approach is to integrate the HMI, panel PC and PLC in one unit which, according to Schulze, delivers cost savings and other benefits to customers. “Overall, we’re able to put systems together with fewer parts, which means fewer spares and less maintenance. Another important feature is speed.  Normal PLC programs run at up to 100 milliseconds; ours run at 100 microseconds-1,000 times faster.”  This means the “thinking time” between steps in the machine is faster, resulting in up to 20 percent increased production, and considerable savings over the year in raw materials because of more accurate process controls.

With a feature Beckhoff calls CP Links 3, the company can link one PC with an HMI and, in turn, up to 255 additional displays. This means a client can save the cost of up to 255 HMI licenses.  Beckhoff systems also carry a standard uninterrupted power supply (UPS) feature lasting one second in the case of a power failure. This function, which does not depend on batteries and their periodic need for replacement, is able to save all essential process and report data to hard memory in case of an outage. “A further savings is not having to buy external UPS systems, which can cost up to $350 dollars. Ours are included in the motherboard,” says Shulze.

At Frankfurt Airport, LSG Sky Chefs, the world’s largest supplier of on-board airline services, uses 40 Beckhoff CP72xx series Panel PCs to automate production of 93,000 meals each day. The units are designed for mounting arm installation; their waterproof, dustproof, slim-line 3.9” housing makes them suitable both for modern machine controllers and industrial IT applications. The integrated PC is equipped with an Intel Core Duo process as standard or with the optional Core 2 Duo.

“We mainly use the Beckhoff Panel PCs to visualize and control our processes,” explains Sky Chefs IT Group Leader Peter Salbreiter. (For more information about this installation, see page 95.)

Jacob Kimball, HMI product manager at Schneider Electric in Raleigh, NC, says his company has a keen interest in helping clients save energy through effective use of automation technology. “HMIs in and of themselves take relatively little power, but the biggest impact they have on energy consumption is indirect. If an HMI can help an engineer troubleshoot a machine from a distance, there’s a significant cost and energy savings from not having to travel there personally. If an HMI can make a process more efficient, energy input per unit of product is lowered.”

A new software product from Schneider Electric called Vijeo Designer IDS (Intelligent Data Service) manages data in HMIs to assist processors with FDA 21 CFR Part 11 compliance. “It’s designed to make sure that no one can tamper with data after the fact,” Kimball notes.  “Foods have to be cooked for a certain time and at a certain temperature to make them safe. If that didn’t happen, you don’t want someone to go back and manipulate the data. IDS collects that information in real time and puts it in a secure place for future reference. It’s also very useful in retrieving data to generate reports, both internally and externally, when requested by regulatory authorities.”

Based in Austin, TX, iKey has been manufacturing and selling ruggedized keyboards-the company’s main business-as well as pointing devices and flat screen monitors to a wide variety of industries since 1989.  Last year, the company introduced an all-stainless steel DT-102-SS industrial ruggedized keyboard with a touchpad. “Being NEMA 4X rated, they are designed not to clog or corrode, and feature easy washdowns,” according to Halley Cade, account manager at iKey. “These and many of our other models are designed to withstand extreme temperatures and can either be used on their own or easily integrated into an existing work station.”

As for pointing devices, the company’s rubberized “Hula Point” unit, which is available on its own or as an integral part of the keyboards, provides joy-stick functionality and full protection from moisture and food ingredients on the production floor. “Workers with gloves covered in cookie batter, for instance, have no problems in using our Hula Points,” notes Cade. The company’s flat panel monitors come both with and without touchscreen capability and are available in 15” and 17” standard display formats. “Touchscreen panels are great for many applications in the food industry,” says Cade, “but an external keyboard is very useful in cases where operators are required to input a lot of complex production data.”

Daisy Data Displays, Inc. (D3) has been in business since 1982 and is located near Harrisburg PA. Last year, the company introduced a new enclosure design with a sloped front panel for improved washdown performance. Its HMI screens are available in a variety of sizes up to a 22” widescreen format, which was recently added to comply with new widescreen industrial software. As a result, resolution is also enhanced.

D3 systems are long-time supportable-with at least a seven-year product cycle-to minimize upgrade costs over time for customers. Standard cables can put the computer as much as 1,000 feet away from the HMI; fiber optic cables can increase that to 33,000 feet.

The LabMate 2750KB/4750KB – NEMA 4X enclosure from Daisy D3 features an integrated PC or monitor with optional KVM extender. The unit features a 116-key keyboard with sealed optical trackball and is available in 15”, 19” and 22” displays with optional touch screens. Internal DC fans reduce heat build-up to prevent unit failure. Source: Daisy Data Displays (D3).

Computing in the clouds

Located in Charlotte, NC, Software Toolbox is a supplier of automation software that co-developed a number of products that complement traditional HMI systems to make them more powerful and affordable. One of them is the Industrial Falcon-a cloud computing-based solution that enables customers to view raw data from any OPC server via a web browser. OPC, originally known as “OLE for Process Control,” is a protocol developed by the OPC Foundation that enables different programs and clients from all manufacturers to communicate in a common language. Cloud computing is essentially an external database service, or “cloud,” that companies such as Software Toolbox provide to users so they can avoid the high cost of  constructing and maintaining their own internal IT infrastructure to collect and process raw production data.

“Think of it as your own virtual IT department, complete with servers and staff, but it’s all out there in cyberspace-in our secure servers-which we maintain for our clients. Through their OPC servers and PLCs, we gather their raw production data over the web, then serve it back to their HMIs and panel PCs in the formats they desire,” says Software Toolbox Product Support Engineer Win Worrall. “It’s pay-by-the-month so there’s little up-front risk, and if it’s not what you need, it’s easy and affordable to modify the system to a more suitable configuration.”

Another product from Software Toolbox is FactoryWidgets, software that enables users to place performance display objects tracking on selected parts of the production process on their desktop screens. If something changes in production, or a limit is exceeded, such as temperature or production yields, the object notifies the worker by changing color. The workers can then click on the object and launch any web page to retrieve more in-depth information before taking action.

“We’ve been using the FactoryWidgets, and they’ve been very well received by our people,” says Chris Bacon, production manager at Pepsi Bottling Ventures in Nampa, ID. “The widgets allow us to set up both primary and ancillary tasks to run in the background right on people’s computers. When they need to check that data, they now can do it right on their screens rather than having to go out to the physical equipment, which frees up personnel time for more value-added tasks rather than occupying them with documentation and recordkeeping.”

HMI technology’s development since the 1980s is remarkable. The incidence of “managing from the hip” through phones and other portable devices will surely become commonplace and only help food producers to become more efficient and profitable.

For more information:
Cliff Taylor, Jeff Maki, Nancy Pantone, Jenny Young, Tim Donaldson, Christian Schulze, Jacob Kimball, Halley Cade, Michael Hadaway, Win Worrall.