In the earlier chapter of this guide, we explored the software tools that allow developers to enhance the visual aspects and user experience (UX) of Human-Machine Interfaces (HMIs). Now, we’re going to look at how how machines communicate with each other and integrate with broader company systems, highlighting the pivotal role of HMI networking and connectivity in facilitating these interactions through advanced software and specialized equipment.

This talking happens in a few key ways. Firstly, there’s the direct communication between machine-level devices and the supervisory HMI systems that oversee them. Secondly, there’s the integration of these operations with enterprise-level strategies and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) through cloud connectivity.

At this point, it’s helpful to revisit the traditional model of organizing computer systems in factories. It’s usually set up like a hierarchy where each level has a distinct role. However, the rise of cloud computing (storing and processing data over the internet) and fog computing (processing data right in the factory) is making it harder to draw clear lines between these roles.

Traditionally, the setup of computer systems in factories was quite linear, like following a clear set of steps. But with the introduction of new technologies, these steps are no longer isolated; they’re interconnected. This means that operations can be more dynamic and efficient, as the system itself can decide the best way to handle tasks, blending old boundaries in the process. This approach is equally accessible to experts and beginners, offering a straightforward explanation of complex technological advancements.

At the top of this hierarchical structure, we find enterprise-level systems that encompass business management tasks. These systems are tasked with overseeing various functions such as budgeting, inventory management, order tracking, personnel scheduling, production monitoring, quality control, and logistics. Key to these functions are Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems, Advanced Planning Systems (APSs), and Manufacturing Resource Planning (MRP) systems.

Software plays a crucial role in supporting these systems, managing customer orders, material procurement, and production schedules. Unlike the traditional model where ERP-logged information was utilized at the day’s end or after order-lot completions, the new dynamic framework allows for real-time data usage and decision-making.

In the complex ecosystem of modern manufacturing, HMI networking and connectivity enhance the pivotal role of HMIs, especially in their integration with Manufacturing Execution Systems (MESs) and Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems. These connections are needed for enhancing operational efficiency and leveraging real-time data for strategic decision-making.

At the core of enterprise operations, Manufacturing Execution Systems (MESs) provide detailed monitoring and control over the manufacturing process. They enable the tracking and management of materials from the moment they’re processed until they become part of finished products. This includes everything from dispensing and sorting to assembly and packaging. MESs are designed for precision, offering second-by-second tracking capabilities that keep plant managers informed about inventory levels, product genealogy, scheduling, and other operational details.

Additionally, MESs not only monitor ongoing processes but also initiate necessary adjustments to address maintenance needs, quality control issues, and production priorities. While some of their functions may overlap with those of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) or Manufacturing Resource Planning (MRP) systems, MESs offer a more detailed view that meets the demand for granular data on the plant floor. This is particularly evident in scenarios requiring machine changeovers for new product production.

Today’s Maple Systems HMIs and Industrial PCs, equipped with advanced HMI networking and connectivity, introduce Internet of Things (IIoT) capabilities to MESs and SCADA systems, revolutionizing how production parts are tracked and how production processes are overseen in real-time. This enhancement is particularly beneficial in automated environments where the goals are to:

  • Minimize reliance on manual processes and expertise for daily operations.
  • Integrate various software and control systems that were previously separate.
  • Increase the utilization of data from plants and machinery for more automated or remote operations.

The role of HMIs in global manufacturing operations intersects significantly with SCADA functionalities, including both local and remote machine control, high-level monitoring, and instant data collection and logging. Essentially, this integration transforms the connected machines into sources of IIoT data, leveraging real-time insights for improved operational efficiency and decision-making.

Maple System’s HMIs support increased IIoT interoperability of manufacturing execution systems with other operational systems through:

  • Supplier-agnostic and open-standard hardware connectivity — including copious use of Ethernet-based connectivity.
  • Support Cloud-based web services/Component-supplier development and operating software ecosystems like Microsoft Azure, AWS, Google Cloud, and more.
  • Connections with or integration of gateways — the passthroughs that bridge networks and interpret differing languages.
  • IIoT protocols like MQTT, OPC UA, SQL Database, Ignition, Sparkplug B, and more.
  • Support for over 300 PLCs and controllers like Allen-Bradley, Omron, Schneider, Idec, and many more.

For new installations, especially in the packaging and printing industries, the versatility of IoT edge devices and gateways, enhanced by HMI networking and connectivity, proves invaluable. These devices can seamlessly integrate with a wide range of equipment and enterprise systems, including multiple PLCs simultaneously. This adaptability enables automated facilities to access real-time production data more easily. As a result, it can lead to improved process optimization and the creation of innovative features for future machine upgrades.

Gateways play a crucial role in retrofitting IIoT capabilities into older equipment, streamlining data collection and preprocessing before transmitting it to the Manufacturing Execution System (MES). This enhanced connectivity greatly benefits legacy systems by facilitating smarter feedback utilization, edge computing, and the integration of disparate systems.

No wonder the integration of gateway functions into HMIs is becoming increasingly common among different industries. Such integration offers advanced connectivity that supports complex motion control for various automation tasks and seamless integration with enterprise and cloud systems.

In factory automation, HMIs with built-in gateway functions streamline communication for MES and SCADA operations, including materials management, contextualized visualizations, and remote connectivity to machines. These HMIs also provide remote access to connected PLCs, whether they are standalone units from different manufacturers or built-in soft PLCs. The most effective of these systems are those that can be configured using a single software platform, supporting multiple programming languages and communication drivers, ensuring seamless IIoT operations.

In machine automation, certain HMIs serve as gateways and can execute macros for control and data transfer functions. Some even support edge computing, also known as fog computing. This distributed intelligence enables data processing at the device level, facilitating control, HMI, SCADA, and MES operations. With increased computing power, these devices enable:

  • Enhanced data preprocessing to support control, HMI, SCADA, and MES functions
  • Utilization of wirelessly connected smart field devices for predictive maintenance
  • Multiple system monitoring modes
  • Data backup in case of temporary cloud link loss
  • Improved end-effector performance

Overall, the integration of gateway functions into HMIs enhances connectivity, streamlines operations, and supports advanced automation capabilities in both new installations and legacy systems.

Edge computing, enhanced by HMI networking and connectivity, offers specialized solutions across industries, standing out in applications that demand high precision and adaptability. For instance, tools used in assembly operations, such as those driven by pneumatics and motors, often incorporate feedback mechanisms for precise fastening. 

Similarly, an adaptive-resistance weld controller can adjust to changes in real-time, ensuring consistent quality in welding spots across different material types and thicknesses. In these scenarios, gateway HMIs play a pivotal role by efficiently managing and prioritizing commands from both the machine’s edge and its central control system.

It’s important to understand the differences between edge devices and gateway functions in the context of industrial automation. In a hierarchical structure of automated systems, devices like motors, drives, linear actuators, and feedback mechanisms (e.g., encoders and sensors) form the base layer. Traditionally, these machines lacked “smart” capabilities at their periphery, operating without any embedded intelligence.

In contrast, smart edge devices incorporate sensors and electronics, enabling them to process and distill data right where it’s collected. This means that these devices can perform initial data processing, making decisions or evaluations before sending the data further along to central controls, cloud-based systems, on-site servers, or other IT infrastructures. This capability is a key feature of edge computing, distinguishing it from traditional methods where data might be simply collected and transmitted without any preprocessing.

On the other hand, some IoT gateways function primarily as conduits, forwarding data from the machinery to other systems without engaging in any form of data processing. This distinction highlights the advanced capabilities of edge computing devices, which not only transmit but also intelligently process data, thereby enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of automated industrial operations.

In recent years, many suppliers, particularly those specializing in motion components, have enhanced their products with advanced logic and analytics capabilities. This augmentation enables decentralized control, scalability in design, and the development of modular machines. Gateway HMIs and controls serve as integral components within these systems, often facilitating the emergence of entirely new automation paradigms.

For example, HMIs and smart devices can enable the reconfigurability of automated facilities. Imagine a factory equipped with movable plug-and-run machines capable of interoperability. When connected, these machines automatically identify parallel equipment, upstream connections, and resident software.

The modular approach is further supported by coding practices that embrace open standards, incorporating pre-designed kinematics and function libraries. This setup is perfect for factories that need to switch between products quickly, like those packaging different types of detergents. This modularity allows for swift product changeovers, an invaluable feature for meeting the demands of small batch production without the need for extensive reprogramming.

The process doesn’t require reprogramming. Instead, engineers input configuration values into a master HMI. The HMI then guides the engineer on assembling the appropriate machine modules for the next production run. These configuration values primarily dictate adjustment actions and their sequence, such as conveyor belt height adjustments, delivery positions for workpieces, and processing speeds. Once all physical interfaces are configured, production can commence seamlessly.

HMIs serve as a versatile, scalable, and logical focal point for integrating communications across various automation systems. Given their existing connectivity with numerous devices and controls, HMIs naturally assume this role. Often, this integration involves accommodating field components connected via both serial and Ethernet links.

For instance, an HMI may incorporate gateway functions to connect linear actuators and other devices to a CC-Link network within an installation. It can also convert data from the host CC-Link communications protocol to devices’ RS-232 or RS-485 protocols for outbound control. Another scenario involves multi-network communications through ControlNet and DeviceNet, each serving distinct purposes. ControlNet facilitates high-speed transmission of time-critical messaging and I/O data, while DeviceNet manages industrial devices and connections to PCs and PLCs. HMIs capable of handling multiple communication protocols enhance accessibility to machine data.

A Modbus gateway function in Maple Systems HMIs can pass information from the plant floor to remote SCADA systems by translating data from several PLC protocols out of hundreds from various manufacturers via a default Modbus TCP/IP industrial standard protocol.

The integration of HMIs for communication unification becomes particularly valuable in systems heavily reliant on Ethernet. Ethernet’s widespread industrial adoption for both data and control communications underscores its significance. Leading the Ethernet standards is 802.3 (1 Gbit/sec or GbE), notably utilized with CAT5e and CAT6 Ethernet cables, including those supporting power over Ethernet (PoE). Reflecting this trend, Ethernet ports are now commonplace even on basic HMIs.

Many HMIs, through the use of HMI networking and connectivity, leverage a single Ethernet network to facilitate communication with multiple Ethernet-connected PLCs, supporting a variety of protocols like Modbus TCP/IP, EtherNet/IP, and Profinet. For example, controller HMIs with Modbus gateway functionality can translate data from various PLC protocols into the Modbus TCP/IP industrial standard protocol, enabling seamless communication with remote SCADA systems.

Moreover, protocols such as EtherCAT, CC-Link, EtherNet/IP, PROFINET, and SERCOS III enhance the synergy between HMI and Ethernet. They use Ethernet for real-time, reliable networking. This aspect is important for the development of automation technologies.

Microsoft products and standards play a crucial role in advancing HMI interoperability and IIoT functions within the automation sector.

A key example of this influence is the OPC Unified Architecture (OPC UA), a networking standard pivotal for HMI interoperability, which originated from Microsoft’s Windows operating system. The OPC UA standard, developed by the OPC Foundation, initially focused on linking and embedding processes for control systems directly tied to Windows. 

Now representing Open Platform Communication, OPC UA is fundamental to countless manufacturing and automation operations, ensuring seamless data integration across various platforms, supported by a wide range of SCADA, MES, and ERP systems.

Microsoft’s Windows 10 IoT Enterprise edition acts as an operating system for controller HMIs in some contexts, enabling the use of open-platform software to manage and distribute data efficiently. This is particularly beneficial for applications involving networking, data computing, remote monitoring, and the integration of both hardware and software solutions. Industrial PCs often utilize Windows 10 IoT, highlighting its suitability for industrial applications.

Integration with Microsoft Azure IoT Edge showcases another layer of Microsoft’s involvement in automation technology. Azure IoT Edge offers a comprehensive cloud software and services package, enhancing the connectivity and functionality of motion and automation controllers. These systems are designed to be compatible with Microsoft Azure services, facilitating the use of secure protocols like MQTT, AMQP, and OPC-UA. This integration enables comprehensive data analytics, machine learning applications, and the display of HMI dashboards globally.

Microsoft Office Excel is another tool frequently used alongside IIoT functionalities in smart HMIs. It allows for seamless data management and integration with SQL databases, enabling plant managers to efficiently handle events, alarms, and logged data. This integration ensures that data can be directly channeled into corporate systems through Excel, streamlining the data management process.

Lastly, Microsoft Visual Studio significantly contributes to HMI and SCADA software development. It provides a versatile platform for engineers to develop applications across a wide range of devices and platforms, including Android, iOS, Mac, Windows, as well as web and cloud applications. Visual Studio’s compatibility with integrated development environments allows for the creation of adaptable HMI applications, particularly utilizing HTML5 for cross-platform HMI screens, regardless of the device’s operating system specifications.

Microsoft’s array of products and standards not only fosters HMI interoperability but also propels the integration and efficiency of IIoT functionalities in the automation industry.

The integration of remote access and cloud services into modern HMI systems is impacting how businesses operate and manage machinery. This approach not only streamlines troubleshooting and maintenance processes but also unlocks the extensive potential of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) in machine automation.

Today’s mobile devices, with their wireless communications, vivid displays, and robust portable processing capabilities, are increasingly being recognized as suitable for both auxiliary and primary roles in HMI systems. These advancements have opened up new avenues for leveraging such devices in real-world industrial applications.

Imagine a scenario where an Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) engineer faces the challenge of addressing a malfunctioning machine at a crucial client’s facility. Traditionally, the engineer might have had to travel by air to the plant to rectify the issue in person. However, with advancements in technology and the availability of more cost-effective solutions, OEMs can now utilize remote access capabilities. 

Authorized devices, equipped with robust 256-bit AES-encrypted VPN security, enable engineers to promptly access the system. They can then either resolve the issue remotely or guide onsite personnel through the troubleshooting and servicing process, effectively addressing the problem with the downed machine.

A significant trend in industrial automation is the widespread adoption of IIoT infrastructure, platform, and software as a service (IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS respectively), commonly referred to as cloud services. Major players in this arena include Alibaba Cloud, Tencent Cloud, Google Cloud, IBM Cloud, and Oracle Cloud. In the United States, the leading public cloud service providers for machine automation, seamlessly integrated with Maple HMIs, are Amazon Web Services Inc. (AWS) and Microsoft’s Azure IoT Edge.

These cloud platforms offer a robust suite of services that cater to the needs of IIoT applications, including database management through Amazon S3 buckets and DynamoDB, application hosting, and on-demand computational power. AWS Lambda services, for example, enable programming in languages such as Python, Node.js, Java, and C#, directly on AWS servers. This functionality allows HMIs to tap into advanced IIoT features effectively.

Building IIoT with Cloud Platforms

Beyond basic services, cloud platforms like AWS and Azure allow engineers to construct their own IIoT infrastructures. This shift is largely due to the ease with which engineers can deploy cloud-based data services, eliminating the need for extensive hardware and software design efforts. These platforms offer tools that abstract complex data flows and communications, simplifying the engineering process with user-friendly development environments and graphical interfaces.

Cloud services also offer virtual machine capabilities, allowing engineers to run various operating systems and applications while maintaining full control over their environments. They support diverse communication protocols based on publish-subscribe models, streamlining system setup and eliminating the need for intricate addressing processes.

Advancing Automation through Cloud Computing

A key advantage of cloud services is their ability to facilitate advanced machine learning applications. These applications can analyze, categorize, and distill data to make predictive adjustments to machines and production processes. Additionally, the growing trend of using pre-curated cloud portals simplifies the initial steps for engineers venturing into IIoT. These portals offer straightforward ways to connect controllers and HMIs to the cloud, enabling customization of screens, dashboards, and notifications through cloud-managed rule engines.

Certified touchscreen HMIs and controllers for AWS and Azure leverage cloud capabilities to process data locally on edge devices, such as sensors and actuators, while utilizing the cloud for data management, storage, and analytics. This integration ensures that any HMI connected to the cloud contributes to corporate analytics and ongoing operational improvements, regardless of the scale of the automated system.

In summary, cloud services have a positive impact on IIoT in machine automation. They offer scalable, flexible, and powerful tools for data management, computational tasks, and advanced analytics, driving efficiency and innovation across industries.

Maple Systems’ HMIs are making it easier to control machines. A key part of this improvement is the use of IIoT protocols. These protocols make sure that HMIs can communicate smoothly and connect with edge devices. Three of these protocols stand out as especially important:

  • OPC UA (Open Platform Communication Unified Architecture) – This protocol is vital for secure and reliable data exchange across various platforms in industrial settings.
  • REST (Representational State Transfer) and its APIs – Known for its simplicity and effectiveness in web services, REST facilitates the manipulation and retrieval of data.
  • MQTT (Message Queuing Telemetry Transport) – Central to IoT connectivity, MQTT excels in scalable communications, connecting sensors and mobile devices efficiently.

MQTT (Message Queuing Telemetry Transport)

MQTT stands out as a simple, lightweight messaging protocol. It targets constrained devices and networks that are low-bandwidth, high-latency, or unreliable. The protocol organizes data into topics, which can range from single data points to groups of related data. These topics serve as labels or addresses, making it easier to manage and publish data to the intended recipients or brokers.

Maple Systems equips all its HMI products with MQTT, enabling them to convert data from over 300+ PLC and controller protocols into the widely accepted MQTT format. This data then gets sent to a broker, hosted either locally or in the cloud, making it accessible for IIoT applications. Thus, Maple Systems HMIs serve as an effective gateway to the IIoT, enhancing data transmission efficiency and minimizing the bandwidth needed for connections. They can automatically transmit data from chosen topics in response to changes or according to a fixed schedule.

OPC UA (Open Platform Communication Unified Architecture)

OPC UA operates on a client-server model where the client requests information, and the server responds with it. However, OPC UA’s capabilities surpass those of EtherNet/IP, Modbus TCP, or PROFINET IO servers, making it ideal for connecting the manufacturing floor with enterprise systems. It supports various transport protocols used in traditional IT applications and can connect to these applications using SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) or HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol).

Maple Systems allows its IIoT-ready HMIs to function as OPC UA servers or clients, easily set up through its free EBPro configuration software. OPC UA licenses are purchased through Maple Systems.

Many IIoT installations use SQL, a programming language that helps sync and access data and event logs on MySQL and Microsoft SQL (MSSQL) servers. This relational database management system is free, open source, and includes broad support. It’s also secure, making it a reliable choice for integration into controller HMIs and panel PCs.

SQL offers a significant advantage by providing IT personnel with easier access compared to other methods that often require extra hardware and software. This is true whether you’re working with simple systems like Raspberry Pis or more complex setups like PACs with IoT database interfaces.

Additionally, SQL is particularly useful for controller HMIs designed to gather and show machine data, simplifying monitoring and analytics. By connecting HMIs to a MySQL database, it facilitates data collection, organization, and storage in versatile and secure databases, ensuring easy access and improved business processes.

Maple Systems’ HMI configuration software simplifies use of MySQL on their Smart HMIs. A Database Server object in EBPro lets users employ the Smart HMI to access and put data in Excel spreadsheets (and tabular data in the files of other common software) to:

  • Display information on the HMI screen
  • Synchronize data and event logs to a remote MySQL server on the local network
  • Manage that data on the server

With just a few steps, engineers can leverage MySQL and MS Excel to collect, analyze, and act on data, leading to better-informed decisions and more efficient operations.

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