Challenges & Chances for Industrial Equipment HMI Design

Engineer manager checking and controling automation robot arms machine in intelligent factory industrial on real time monitoring system software. Welding robotics and digital manufacturing operation.

Challenges & Chances for Industrial Equipment HMI Design

  • Johannes Huber
    Johannes Huber Associate Director Usability & Competence Lead Usability, designaffairs
  • Tobias Nagel
    Tobias Nagel Executive Director & Innovation Incubator Lead, designaffairs
Spotlight: Human Factors as Key Drivers for HMI Innovation

Design is becoming a success-defining characteristic of modern industrial machinery. It is clear the HMI (Human-Machine Interface) is starting to take center stage, it is key to operational efficiency, workplace safety and the orchestration of increasingly complex functionalities, extending the value chain within the bigger picture of ever-accelerating industrial digitization. Today’s industrial machinery HMI ultimately needs to be customizable, contextually responsive, scalable for future applications and – last (but not least) – user friendly. On top of that, the interfaces of future industrial machinery will also be the face of the brand and a ‘phygital’ manifestation of brand values.

As Subject Matter Experts on Industrial Machinery, we have led various Industrial HMI Innovation and Implementation projects over the past few years. We will share with you our insights on the challenges and opportunities we face today when consulting clients on future Industrial HMI. We have approached the topic from two perspectives: Human Factors and Enabling Technologies. To keep the tension high, we’ll share the Human Factors part today and surprise you with the second part on Enabling Technologies later on. Enjoy!

Human Factor Key Drivers for Industry Transformation and HMI Innovation.

‘One Size Fits All’ Is A Thing of The Past

Exploring the dependencies of user types and operational complexity.

As global industries transform digitally, as well as operationally, at an unprecedented pace, production lines are being run and serviced by a rapidly diversifying workforce. Hence, the HMI of industrial equipment needs to cater to the demands and capabilities of a surprisingly wide range of user types and competences. From an HMI User Experience perspective, there are two extremes in terms of skills and expertise in the industrial production context:

On one end, there are rather low-skilled ‘observing’ users who just check if machines are running, or not. As soon as a problem occurs, they notify an expert but do not actively interfere. Their task is to observe the machine park inside their factory. They know how long each machine is running for, and which production job is in progress.

On the other end of the scale, we have extremely competent, “master-operator users”, who are experts on the functionality of specific machines. They know how to configure them by setting up jobs, and how to select machine values and parameters.

A key challenge for modern day Industrial HMI systems is to cater for the contrasting capabilities and requirements of highly diverse user groups.

Opportunity

Create UX concepts and visual design expressions which allow for prioritization of information, with responsiveness to different workflows and use-cases.

Exemplary Solution Idea

Build a screensaver function which displays only the most important information for the ‘observing’ users. Extra-large font sizes allow recognition of the machine status (okay/not okay/duration of job) from far meters away, saving thousands of steps over the course of a year.

Expert User operating a complex human-machine interface in the industrial context. | Photo by Gorodenkoff on Shutterstock
Expert User operating a complex human-machine interface in the industrial context. | Photo by Gorodenkoff on Shutterstock

Design Around Joy and Ease of Use

Start from scratch and leverage the full potential of AI and service-enabled production ecosystems.

Industrial machine line-ups have relatively long development cycles and many HMIs today have been operational for 10-15 years since their development. Unsurprisingly, many HMIs therefore often have cluttered, table- and value-based interfaces, and are almost entirely lacking elements of graphical visualization.

From a usability and design perspective, these old-school interfaces are not just a pain to use and prone to maloperation, but also require time-consuming training, facilitated by expert users.

Redesigning a machine HMI is rarely just a cosmetic affair, but often requires a complete rethinking of all operational and visual principles.

Once starting from scratch, it makes sense to adopt work-flows that users are familiar with, like in up-to-date In-Vehicle HMI systems or in consumer electronics. An industrial HMI inspired by Apple’s ‘lightweight’ user experience would surely not just benefit operational efficiency but also boost the joy of use in general, elevating employee satisfaction and possibly health conditions overall.

Opportunity

Develop HMIs in a more user-centric and design-driven way. Seen long term, investments in fantastic user experiences will always pay back in the form of increased efficiency, cost savings, workplace safety and, in the end, stronger brand differentiation in a highly competitive market.

UX Design Examples

Machine in focus (e.g. zoom-in zoom-out world): The HMI is all about the machine and its operation. As a logical design response, the Home Screen could be dominated by a graphic visualization of the entire machine and its most important values. Zooming in and out enables you to see more details of specific machine parts, or errors which are graphically indicated, just like we are used to on a printer, for example.

Use-case driven and responsive interfaces: A lot of “to dos” in the industrial HMI world are very use-case driven: setting up a new job, exchanging a machine part, resolving an error, copying an existing job and modifying it… the list can be endless. Here, step-by-step user guidance and assistance from a ‘leading’ user interface can optimize the experience significantly.

Use known widgets (e.g. notification bars): Every user knows the standard user interface widgets from his/her smartphone: notification bars (dragged from top), home screens with apps and “badges”, edit settings, error popups, etc. Try to stick to known widgets and workflows for similar use-cases!

State of the art UX, mobile solutions, touch – industrial HMIs must catch up. | Towfiqu Photography / Moment / Getty Images
State of the art UX, mobile solutions, touch – industrial HMIs must catch up. | Towfiqu Photography / Moment / Getty Images

Dealing with very specific contexts of use – a feast for every User Researcher!

Industrial HMIs must stand up to the job in even the most challenging environmental conditions.

Factory floors are fascinating and challenging places when it comes to the conception of a good HMI. Solutions for these environments must stand up to high noise levels. Ear protection makes alarms hard to hear, and voice control a less than ideal option for interaction. Dust and dirt, and extreme brightness or darkness, require special attention to sufficient graphical contrast and modes for adjustability. Wearing gloves makes traditional touch operation sometimes impossible and requires alternative input principles.

Moreover, users in this environment are constantly on the move from one point of action to another. There is not time to read – one look at the interface must suffice to get the information needed.

Solutions to all these challenges are often found in hybrid interactive principles. A rugged and waterproof keyboard might need to coexist with a high-res touch enabled display. A combination of hardware levers and buttons might be the best solution for use-cases where blind operation is necessary (e.g. when the user’s eyes are on the machine’s reactions while the hands operate the interface). For the same machine, one user type might require an embedded display with a keyboard to quickly input hundreds of values, while another user might be best served with a mobile solution to retrieve data on the go (HMI To Go).

Industrial environments make it very hard to please everyone!

This highlights the value in on-site and in-depth user research and interview sessions with a broad range of stakeholders, as a starting point to development. Contextual Insights and a deep understanding of all workflows around the machines are the foundation for every HMI innovation process.

Opportunity

Do on-site user research, interviews and analyze the special contexts of use to develop perfectly tailored HMI solutions that consider all important contextual problems.

Usability Trend

Focus on mobile workflows, teleoperation and dedicated monitoring applications as a way to distance users from the potential hazards of industrial machinery. Mobile workflows and teleoperation not only enable healthier working, but facilitate inclusivity and remote forms of working in production – something unthinkable until today!

HMIs in industrial environments should strongly adapt to the user’s requirements and context. | Photo by Poobest on Adobe Stock
HMIs in industrial environments should strongly adapt to the user’s requirements and context. | Photo by Poobest on Adobe Stock

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