Effective Human-Machine Interfaces Earn Higher Efficiencies

by Justin Blair / July 9, 2024

Developing effective human-machine interfaces (HMIs) for manufacturing is complex, requiring a precise definition of user needs and an understanding of machine capabilities. With limited distractions, HMIs provide critical information to the operator, rendering them effective and efficient. Benchmark's manufacturing engineers collaborate closely with partners to create user-friendly HMIs with interactive controls, custom graphics, alarm management, and security for comprehensive command of automated systems. This article highlights the significance of HMIs and their role in successful automated manufacturing.

HMIs and their Many Benefits

Automation ecosystems have become critical for modern manufacturing efficiency, precision, and competitiveness. HMIs are the "critical" link between human operators and automated machinery, facilitating seamless communication, monitoring, and control. HMIs serve as intuitive control panels, allowing operators to monitor metrics, adjust settings, and troubleshoot operations in real-time. These specialized interfaces facilitate seamless communication, monitoring, and control within manufacturing environments. 

Microprocessors can be considered the brains of interconnected robotic and automated control systems. They enable robots to execute tasks with precision and control through faster processing power in complex operating environments, which is useful when sending large amounts of data in a short period of time between equipment. In larger operating systems with multiple robotic communication chains in an assembly line or cell, data processing speed can determine camera communication times or even PASS-FAIL information for serialized products as they make their way down an assembly line. User-friendly HMIs allow operators to monitor production metrics, adjust equipment settings, and troubleshoot manufacturing system operations in real time. 

Depending on how the systems are coded, the equipment control via the HMI can range from straightforward to highly complex, tailored to the operator's safety and skill level. For example, if the humidity level in an enclosed workstation exceeds the normal operating range, the programmable logic controller (PLC) will signal the HMI to halt operations until conditions are back within specification. The operator can verify this through a visual indicator on the HMI. The operator will then either override the control by touching the screen or wait for a timer to elapse before rechecking the internal environmental controls and resuming work. 

Effective HMIs also contribute to the highest product quality and consistency by providing real-time monitoring and feedback. Operators can accurately track parameters, such as temperature, pressure, and speed, making immediate adjustments to maintain product standards. By minimizing variations in manufacturing equipment performance, HMIs contribute to tighter tolerances, higher quality, and increased customer satisfaction.

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Key Requirements for Effective HMIs

Developing an effective HMI starts with understanding the operator's needs and the specific requirements of the manufacturing system. Think of a cell phone or gaming console. People prefer electronic brands based on ease of use and how the experience makes them feel as they navigate each window, screen, or dialogue box. As equipment complexity increases, so do the tasks and data to be managed. The accuracy and resolution of the data will depend on the process, with some functions requiring micrometer precision. For example, the performance of printed circuit boards (PCBs) assembled with surface mount technology (SMT) hinges on the precise placement of components, with automated inspection systems ensuring consistency and providing critical real-time data to operators for monitoring and improving the manufacturing process.

The complexity of the process determines the type of HMI required. Processes with minimal variations need less monitoring, while those with frequent changes require continuous monitoring. Real-time data and custom graphics provide immediate feedback, enabling quick change responses. Integrated alarms alert operators to product quality conditions, while security features limit system control to authorized users.

HMI design is a critical part of any new manufacturing process development. Manufacturing engineers evaluate many aspects of the process and detail the user’s requirements. They likely work with front-line workers to identify the specific working environment and the role of the step in the overall process. Localization matters as well. HMI developers need to adjust for operator language and date format. They may even consider user demographics. For example, if most of the operators are women with a smaller average hand size or reach, how can the interface be developed for optimal ergonomics? These types of considerations allow operators to be at ease in their space and focus on quality and execution.

An HMI capable of handling real-time data enables manufacturing equipment operators to react quickly to changes in a manufacturing operation. Often, custom graphics can be used within an HMI to provide instantaneous visual feedback on changes within a manufacturing process. Integrated alarms can alert operators to rapidly changing conditions affecting assembled product quality. For security, an HMI can be designed to control a manufacturing system to a limited number of users (e.g., by an authentication process) who have been trained in a specific aspect of production.

Streamlining Workflow Management

Efficient workflow management is essential for maintaining a smooth production cycle. Well-defined HMIs can provide equipment operators with insights into each stage of a manufacturing process (e.g., part availability for pick and place operations, camera system run errors due to lighting malfunction, or air flow loss due to a loose pneumatic fitting). Effective HMIs allow operators to track the process's state, identify bottlenecks, and allocate resources for the most efficient workflow possible. For example, if one piece of equipment experiences more downtime due to maintenance issues compared to others in an automated assembly, the HMI will relay the expected root cause or tool status failure. This information is predefined in a variable or parameter list within the machine coding. Also, if the incorrect materials are loaded into a part feeding system, the HMI will signal the operator to verify that the correct materials are available and then manually confirm system operations can continue.

Remote Monitoring and Diagnostics

Industry 4.0 integrates data, electronics, and AI for enhanced connectivity and remote access. Manufacturers can monitor operations, troubleshoot issues, and perform predictive maintenance from anywhere, reducing response times and unplanned downtime. Advanced HMIs support remote monitoring and diagnostics, accessible via smartphones, laptops, or personal computers (PCs), enhancing overall equipment effectiveness (OEE).

To take advantage of the manufacturing enhancements made possible with Industry 4.0, advanced manufacturing equipment HMIs support communication protocols for remote monitoring and diagnostics from anywhere that communication access is possible. Manufacturing equipment and data from those systems can be accessed with devices, including smartphones, laptop computers, or PCs.

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Enhancing Safety and Compliance

Safety is critical in automated manufacturing environments. HMIs include alarms, emergency stop buttons, and interlocks to protect operators and machinery. Visual cues and intuitive interfaces help prevent accidents and ensure compliance with regulations. HMIs can also simulate operational scenarios for training, fostering a safety culture. Benchmark's systems are interconnected with traceability solutions, ensuring your data is collected and stored securely based on industry standards and federal compliance regulations.

Integrating Security and Scalability

The security of a manufacturing process and its equipment can be guarded through an effectively designed HMI. Authorized users can be validated for a manufacturing process and equipment using any number of authorization schemes, while unauthorized users can be denied access to the equipment through the HMI. Some of the HMI security features Benchmark offers include:

  • Access Control-User Authentication
  • Mobile Security-View or Read-Only Access for PC Connections and Restrictions
  • Centralized Password Management Backup and Recovery-Version History Updates
  • Data Storage for Troubleshooting

In addition to security, the data behind HMIs can assist with a manufacturing system's scalability, enabling interoperability and communication between various components of the production line. Such communications support the interoperability of different manufacturing systems and equipment while helping maximize efficiency and agility. A connected factory enables disparate systems to communicate and interoperate seamlessly, including those driven by PLCs and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems. As automated manufacturing systems grow in complexity, such as with the addition of Internet of Things (IoT) data-gathering devices and sensors, well-designed HMIs are a critical portal to collect and display data generated in the synchronization of all devices.

Leveraging Benchmark’s Expertise in HMIs

HMIs are essential for efficient modern manufacturing. In addition to developing intuitive HMIs as part of our manufacturing process development, Benchmark supports our customers by merging user experience with hardware and software engineering to create innovative HMIs for their products. Our holistic approach—from concept to delivery—ensures solutions that resonate with end-users. Our award-winning team collaborates closely with customers, focusing on ease of use, functionality, and market appeal. We offer comprehensive services, from understanding user needs to designing for regulatory compliance and streamlining your product's journey to market while minimizing risk. 

Let's work together to develop HMIs that meet (and exceed) user expectations, using innovative touchscreen interfaces, sophisticated control panels, or groundbreaking augmented reality solutions. Contact Benchmark to develop HMIs that set new benchmarks in user satisfaction and operational efficiency.


1 The image highlights a Universal Robots platform (PolyScope) with user-friendly features perfect for team members with minimal training. These include: (A) Visual Guidance showing the robot's current position and movement, (B) Easy-to-use controls for adjusting the robot’s position and orientation, (C) Real-time feedback on the robot's position and orientation, (D) Customizable speed settings for optimal safety and precision, (E) Simplified setup and recalibration with Home and Align functions, (F) Clear Status Indicators for operational status, and (G) An Emergency Stop feature for immediate shutdown. These controls, along with additional customization options, are available in the Benchmark HMI setup.

2 The image showcases the integration of an HMI within equipment and a machine network, featuring: 1. A Vertical Factory Automation Network with EtherNet/IP & EtherCAT for real-time data exchange, IO-Link for sensor-actuator communication, and essentials like motion control (MX2 inverter), I/O modules (GX I/O), sensing devices, and vision systems (FH) linked to the HMI. A central Machine Controller manages data and operations, interfaced with the HMI. 2. Horizontal Integration includes a software ecosystem (Sysmac Studio) for programming, and facilitates machine-to-machine communication across production lines. 3. IT and Cloud Integration allows for the transmission of data from the machine controller and HMI to IT systems and the cloud, supporting broader data analysis and management.

Industrial Connected Devices Automation

about the author

Justin Blair

Justin Blair is the Manager of Automation for Benchmark in the Operations division with a strong background specialized in automation, lean manufacturing, and robotics system development. Justin continues to challenge the boundaries of automation solutions in the global organization and uses technology advancements to drive specialized systems for customer needs while also supporting our employees.

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