Technology driving Industrial Equipment HMI Design

Technology driving Industrial Equipment HMI Design

This Story is part of a series.

  • Johannes Huber
    Johannes Huber Associate Director Usability & Competence Lead Usability, designaffairs
  • Tobias Nagel
    Tobias Nagel Executive Director & Innovation Incubator Lead, designaffairs
  • Werner Spicka
    Werner Spicka Executive Director of Interaction Experience & Incubator Lead, designaffairs

Spotlight: Technology as a Key Driver for HMI Innovation

Design is becoming a success-defining characteristic of modern industrial machinery. In December we shared our insights on the Human Factors in HMI Development; the second part now focuses on Enabling Technologies. In terms of implementation and realization from a technical point of view, manufacturers today have three distinct options for HMI Platform development:

Option 1:  Integrate one of the commercial HMI solutions developed by specialized software companies like AVEVA (InTouch HMI) or ASEM (PREMIUM HMI). They work with automation equipment produced by different vendors, relying on open and standardized communication protocols.

Option 2:  Use commercial HMIs provided by automation manufacturers like Siemens (SIMATIC), Beckhoff (TwinCAT) or Rockwell Automation (FactoryTalk). These industrial automation companies are currently providing complete software solutions including HMI.

Option 3:  Develop a custom HMI. This solution can be fully tailored to specific use cases and requirements. A custom HMI potentially offers the greatest level of customizability and future scalability, depending on the requirements.

As a UX-focused innovation and design consultancy, designaffairs most often deals with custom HMI solutions, as they offer the greatest freedom of design in terms of human-centricity, and a tailored user experience.

Overcoming the Technology Lag

Applifying Industrial Machinery HMI Systems

The production cycles of industrial machinery, and the corresponding HMI solutions, are even longer than in the car industry – often 10-20 years. Enough time, however, to learn from the pitfalls the car industry ran into, by coupling hardware with software and interfaces. As an example:  Google and Apple’s apps for navigation will always be better, faster and more intuitive to use than in-house developed systems. By the time a newly launched vehicle has found its place on the market, its infotainment system is yesterday’s news.

That is a great opportunity for industrial equipment manufacturers: Next-Gen HMI systems should be scalable platforms which run applications rather than programs, helping to perform sets of coordinated tasks and enable ever-evolving functions and activities.


Think about independent HMI and interface solutions, decoupled to a certain extent from the development of machine line-up hardware. Think about developing apps which enable you to update the machines’ capabilities constantly, and therefore stay competitive.

Example of an industrial HMI system. | Photo by phonlamaiphoto on
Example of an industrial HMI system. | Photo by phonlamaiphoto on

Start Talking!

From isolated solutions to interconnected and shared platforms

One of the biggest challenges for the operational efficiency of large machine parks, is the limited ability of machines and interfaces from different manufacturers to communicate with each other.

We often see similar situations in hospitals, or other institutions, which are heavily dependent on a large variety of technical equipment from different suppliers. There is often little possibility to monitor, analyze and service this multitude of technical devices centrally.

It’s like a big team, handling important projects, but no one ever talks to each other! Not an ideal starting point for future success.

A solution to this is by no means a quick fix, as it requires manufacturers to agree on standards, collaborate and open up their systems, at least partially. But the benefits are huge for the clients: large machine parks can be analyzed in real time, maintained predictively, synchronized remotely and tuned for optimum co-operation.

The HMI to handle this connectivity is technically just the tip of the iceberg, but from a design perspective, a truly rewarding challenge with significant complexity.


Build technically open interface solutions (comparable to Android in the smartphone world) that can be interpreted by all other monitoring systems. Plus, build open and modular monitoring applications that can easily be adapted or extended with other, similar, machine types.

Overview and monitoring of all machines in the machine park is gold value. | Photo by Epstudio20 on
Overview and monitoring of all machines in the machine park is gold value. | Photo by Epstudio20 on

Factoring in the Technology Gap

Enable standalone operation despite connectivity

As important as end-to-end connectivity is in the context of Industry 4.0, we still need to develop Industrial Solutions with the option of standalone operation and limited integration into larger platforms and systems.

This is simply owing to the situation in less economically advanced countries, but also small factories with for example just 2-3 machines. There, manufacturing businesses may not always be able to work with the most up to date equipment and often rely on machine parks comprised of very old and very new equipment at the same time. Full connectivity is a goal that may lie 20 years ahead, or may not even be on the agenda yet. Therefore, standalone operation can be a driving argument for purchase.

In this context it is important to have full control over the machine without the aid of platform intelligence, and without the need to connect. This, of course, adds yet another context of operation and requires a twofold strategy when developing HMI systems. Take the example of predictive and remote maintenance vs. traditional scheduled on-site maintenance: two very different sets of workflows and necessary interactions need to be considered, involving very different user profiles and contextual parameters.


Go both ways, develop devices that can run standalone easily (they don’t have to be connected), but can also be integrated in monitoring solutions and even communicate with other machines in the factory.

Different interaction technologies should work together regarding industrial HMIs. | Photo by greenbutterfly on
Different interaction technologies should work together regarding industrial HMIs. | Photo by greenbutterfly on

Different interaction technologies

Technologies to build value

Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality: though expensive to develop and implement, AR could be a perfect solution to better train people on the machines, while being able to offer remote support if problems occur. Uninitiated operators could perform maintenance with the help of augmented guidance and reduce production interruptions, increasing efficiency.

Industry Value: Uninterrupted production processes and reduced costs of training and maintenance


Haptic HMI: ‘Blind’ operation is at times inevitable when working on industrial machinery. An operator might need to carefully watch a moving element on the machine while making `blind`adjustments through an interface. Haptic and physically responsive interactive elements are therefore a must-have, particularly when considering the fact that operators may wear gloves or handle tools at the same time. The challenge for the designer is to orchestrate the physical and virtual interactive elements, working in harmony.

Industry Value: Added safety and ease of operation, and immediacy of understanding


Touch Operation: Touch has its distinct limitations in an industrial context (gloves, dirt, etc). Still, it is the main mode of operation. The key is to backup touch input with a secondary set of physical input methods (switches, turn-push buttons, levers, etc). Touch is also ideal because of its “natural advantages” like edit-in-place, direct control, etc., and guarantees a futureproof possibility to incorporate mobile apps, tablet use and more.

Industry Value: State of the art and futureproof UX


Mobile Solutions: Operators in a factory context are always on the move, checking different machine parts, observing and handling multiple processes and machines at the same time. Mobile solutions are a perfect way to support this workflow, reducing steps and attention breaks at a significant level.

Industry Value: Increased speed of operation and improved ergonomics and comfort


Artificial Intelligence: take the aspect of ‘Machine Learning’ very literally here and you see the importance of AI in the context of future production facilities. AI will not only enable a rapid shift from one job to another (reduced set-up and learning times), it will also eventually reduce the need for human operators altogether.

Industry Value: Contextually responsive behavior of entire machine parks without expensive and time-consuming human interference.

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