The evolution of operator interfaces has moved quite far beyond the pushbutton. Once, the intelligence resided in the operator’s brain, and considerable experience and training were required to operate any complex piece of machinery or process. The evolution of the operator panel is actually two parallel evolutionary tracks. First is the movement of that intelligence from the operator’s brain into the operator panel itself. So, we now refer to them as “smart operator panels.” The other track is how the evolution of the operator panel tracks Moore’s Law, making them more powerful and less expensive.

Figure 1. This 3.5” smart operator panel display is small enough to mount directly to a control pedestal or on a machine.
Smart operator panels permit the operator to have access to large amounts of information in one location, on one or just a few screens. This may include process data; quality data; performance of the cell, unit, or batch; or the controls for the system themselves.

Note the number of data types that can be displayed on the 3.5" operator panel shown in Figure 1; yet, it is small enough to mount directly to a control pedestal or on a machine. This versatility has helped to drive the adoption of smart operator panels in many industries and by many machine builders as well.

A smart operator panel is really a computer — an embedded computer complete with input/output, memory, a processor, and a display (usually a touchscreen) — in an enclosure that is suitable to the environment the panel will be used in, from rack-mount to enclosures that are waterproof or explosion-proof. Regardless of the size of the display, the panel is connected to a field controller, such as a programmable logic controller (PLC) or programmable automation controller (PAC), which controls the machine or process.

The operator panel serves many functions formerly handled by multiple devices. It is a control panel, with pushbutton analogs and displays. It also can be used as a datalogger, sometimes a sequence-of-events recorder, and can provide “help” functions that can assist operators with decision support.

Operator panels are supplied in a variety of enclosures, are often not fan-cooled, and have a variety of displays, mostly flat-panel. The enclosure design varies depending on what the actual inuse environment is for the panel. Panels that are installed in food processing plants or pharmaceutical plants may require waterproof electrical classification enclosures to withstand washdown operations. Panels that are installed in assembly line applications where grime and dirt are problems are usually built without fans for cooling, and are in - stalled in sealed enclosures.

Multiple Controllers

One of the great benefits of smart operator panels is the fact that they can be used to provide human machine interfaces (HMIs) with many controllers. As shown in Figure 2, the operator panel can be connected to PLCs and other operator panels in a variety of useful ways, including remotely over Ethernet, directly over RS-232, and other linkages. This makes communication with the smart operator panel simple and effective, and makes it possible to optimize the uses of smart operator panels without having to buy one for every controller or function in the plant.

Figure 2. The operator panel can be connected to PLCs and other panels in a variety of ways, including remotely over Ethernet, directly over RS-232, and other linkages.
There are a wide variety of applications for smart operator panels — many more than just serving as the HMI for a PLC. They can operate to be an HMI for a motion controller or an entire motion control system, even using PLCs or PACs made by different vendors.

They can be used to operate PID control loops and program in function blocks. Because of this, they can be thermal controllers and inverters. With an appropriate controller, they can replace the standard standalone loop controller, and provide benefits like data historian and data logging, multiple loop control capability, and even contextual help functions for operators. They can be used as the communications mechanism and the HMI for smart sensors, and they can act as a microprocessor-based proprietary controller.

The use of these smart operator panels reduces the complexity of wiring, programming, and operation because the panel’s versatility can be depended on to replace many formerly independent devices, like pushbuttons, controllers, data-loggers, and so forth.

Intelligence Made Easy

A smart operator panel needs programming software, and the utility of the hardware is well defined by the software. The programming software needs to be very simple to learn and to use. It doesn’t matter how powerful a software package is, if it takes far too long to learn it. A runtime HMI development software package should include the following features:

  • Allows users to manage multiple HMI applications in one project with a single database.
  • Allows users to switch multi-language UI dynamically, with Unicode and multilingual screen text supported.
  • Provides password protection of designs, macros, and upload/download operations.
  • Supports vertical or horizontal screen displays.
  • Enables one design to fit all HMI models.
  • Provides index registers for modifying device addresses at runtime.
  • Collects data from many devices with various methods.
  • Supports various data acquisition and trend presentation protocols.
  • Operation log helps the review and investigation of important events.
  • Allows downloading the runtime data using serial port, Ethernet port, USB client port at HMI, and Micro-SD.
  • Allows use of a USB memory stick for trouble-free updating of the application.
  • Supports all the major industrial communication protocols and PLC/PAC devices.

Any good development software package should have at least these features. And since automation systems are increasingly less “islanded,” a good development software package needs a robust utility to move data easily and quickly, even to remote sites outside the factory floor.

The programming software package and the graphical operator panel interface are taking over from the wired pushbutton panels of the past. The increase in capability coupled with the decrease in cost predicted by Moore’s Law means that smart operator panels will become smarter, more durable, more powerful, and simpler to use. New operating systems, new Web-based design, and new interface tools are changing the way we design the operation of systems.

This article was written by Chuck Harrell, Director of Marketing at Advantech in Cincinnati, OH. For more information, Click Here .


NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the December, 2011 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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