• Alex Lev

TMI on HMI: An Introduction to Human-Machine Interface

Updated: May 27, 2020


It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of acronyms in common use in industry today. We have already discussed AI and IoT in earlier posts, but here we will discuss one called HMI. Short for Human-Machine Interface, HMI is revolutionizing industrial production, taking advantage of other developments to create incredible products to help industrial workers reach their dynamic operational targets more efficiently, safely, and sustainably than ever before.

Though it sounds complicated, the concept of HMI is actually a fairly simple one. To determine whether a given piece of technology falls under the HMI umbrella, you just need to ask yourself two simple questions:

  1. Am I communicating with this machine in some way?

  2. Is this machine communicating with me in some way?

If the answer to both questions is yes, then this is an example of HMI. While advanced applications of it are a bit more complex, HMI has been a part of our daily lives for many years at this point. To illustrate this point, look no further than the printer. First, you submit a document to be printed, at which point the machine asks how many copies you would like. In turn, you press a button to answer the question and the printer interprets and carries out your request.

Where things get more interesting is how HMI is used for industrial companies. With thousands of pieces of equipment running at once—many of which require advanced technical knowledge, it is important for them to be as user-friendly as possible and for those who interact with them to have a transparent view of what is occurring. HMI can be used to ensure both of these happen. For example, if a machine is experiencing some sort of blockage, it could include a screen that shows exactly where on the machine the blockage is occurring and asks the operator if it would like to alert a certain staff member.

The Industrial Internet of Things (IoT) plays a role here as well. Whereas in the past it was only possible for communication to be between a human and a single machine, the interconnectedness of machinery that is the norm today gives HMI many more capabilities. For example, in the event of a breakdown, a machine could ask the operator if he would like to activate a backup machine and then independently integrate it into the ongoing process. Alternatively, the machine could ask the operator if it would like to send the data to a remote expert for further feedback, allowing the operator to make a decision supported by the advice of someone with more experience.

Some of the benefits of HMI are very apparent: relative to how they were before, machines are more intuitive, feedback is easier to implement, and machines are capable of doing more with less strain on the operator’s end. However, there are other benefits that are less visible as well. Consider the following:

  • When machines are easier to use, they require less training. This makes it easier to adjust the workforce to demand quickly.

  • Because HMI makes machinery more intuitive, the likelihood of downtime and operator error decreases and equipment becomes safer to use.

  • HMI allows machines to perform complex tasks with minimal human interaction. This reduces time-to-decision and frees up time for employees to focus on other tasks.

All in all, HMI is not a particularly new or complicated technology. However, in conjunction with other innovations like AI knowledge and Industrial IoT, it is helping bring the world of industrial production to places nobody would have ever thought possible just a few years ago.

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