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Looking at the Future of Industrial IT Through a Single Pane of Glass

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It’s easy to imagine the future of human-machine interfaces (HMIs) in industry, since we all look at that future every day, and carry it around in our pockets. The touchscreen, glass face of the smart phone offers such an array of capabilities that we accept we only use a fraction of its potential. Almost endless flexibility and functionality from a single pane of glass. But what we access and how we interact with smart phones and tablet computers is a long way ahead of the capabilities of most screens in the industrial environment.

Industry has some catching up to do to meet the expectation of consumer technology users – which all industrial employees are.

This raises two immediate questions:

1.     Why can’t a screen in an industrial environment do everything our phones or tablet devices are capable of?

2.     Why can’t we use our own devices on machines that are in an industrial setting?

The answers to these questions require some unravelling of what lies behind the single pane of glass, and some deconstruction of the data thread in the pre-digital transformation (pre-DX) industrial environment. I use the phrase “pre-DX” because for companies that are advanced in this process, the reality of smart-phone-like capabilities in industry is much, much closer.


What’s Stopping Us?

It would take some time to discuss the many and various IT architectures that lie behind the industrial screen and the comparative advantages of each, by industry and application. Similarly, the software environments and requirements are manifold and should be employed in such a way that they support and enable the specific needs of the application. Suffice to say, for our purposes here, that the digital infrastructure behind the HMI in an industrial environment is hugely varied – but why does this limit the capabilities so much?

The answer to this question might be best evidenced by the smart phone, again. The capability of the computer in our pocket depends fundamentally on two things – the computing power of the device, and its connectivity to other devices with computing power. Back in the industrial environment, the question of how capable the HMI is can be approached in the same way – does the device itself have computing power? Is it connected to other devices, networks (or cloud environments) that have computing capability?

At present, in most industrial settings, there are limitations on both considerations. Perhaps the computing capability of the HMI is limited because it is operating in a harsh environment. It could be too hot, or in too tight a form factor to allow for fan cooling of computing. It might be harsh because of liquids, dust or vibration. Or perhaps the connectivity is limited by the security implications. Is the system air gapped from useful contextual information such as business software and IT? Is it accessible remotely, could it be? Should it be?

Or perhaps the application needs to operate in an environment that simply cannot accept traditional IT levels of availability. If the computing capability went down, for a few seconds, minutes or hours, what are the implications for the business?


The Future, Today

These considerations, and many more besides, including sunk cost and investment cycles, means that, in most instances, the HMI in the plant is less flexible, convenient and powerful than the phones in the workers’ pockets. But that will not always be the case, and the future, where we expect similar levels of flexibility from any screen we interact with, is very close.

In fact, from an operational point of view, the technology to overcome the challenges I’ve mentioned already exists. In some cases, it is already in use. For a glimpse into industrial computing products that can support the very latest software that enables remote operation, take a look at the VersaView® 6300 range. This range offers industrial computing products that can perform AI, real-time analytics, Historian, Digital Twin, design software, and much more besides. It provides compute capability where it is needed, in harsh environments (or benign ones), and almost complete control of the specifications required for almost any architecture that can be imagined.

As with many aspects of Industry 4.0, the future is already here, but it is not universally applied or evenly distributed. And it is DX that lies at the heart of revealing the future in the industrial setting. It falls upon the people who operate the technology, those who design the systems, and the ingenuity of those who apply the solutions to bring forward the flexible, data-driven functionality we have come to expect in the consumer environment. Without a DX approach, a strategy to upgrade systems and business models, the future will remain out of reach for most industrial processes – despite the fact every worker carries the future around in their pocket.


A Flexible, Smart and Enabled Future

For any industrial enterprise to remain competitive and to thrive into the future, digital transformation is vital and inevitable. This is not a new observation, and it is clear that the required DX in industry is happening now. Analysts IDC forecast spending on DX to reach $2.3Tn in 2023 and that “discrete and process manufacturing will deliver the largest DX spending amounts throughout the forecast, accounting for nearly 30% of the worldwide total”. The same report suggests that in discrete and process manufacturing, “the leading DX use cases – discretely funded efforts that support a program objective – are autonomic operations, robotic manufacturing, and root cause”.

The future then – seen through a single pane of glass – is already available, and is rapidly coming within reach for industrial applications. Check that your DX strategy includes making the HMI as useful as your smartphone, it’s a core competency to unlock a flexible, smart and enabled future.

If you want to know more about the future of HMI in the workplace, take a look at the VersaView® 6300 range and see how you could revolutionise the way your work.

Bart Nieuwborg
Product Manager, Visualisation, Rockwell Automation EMEA

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