What is it?

Human-machine interface (HMI) is a component of certain devices that are capable of handling human-machine interactions. The interface consists of hardware and software that allow user inputs to be translated as signals for machines that, in turn, provide the required result to the user. Human-machine interface technology has been used in different industries like electronics, entertainment, military, medical, etc. Human-machine interfaces help in integrating humans into complex technological systems.

Human-machine interface is also known as man-machine interface (MMI), computer-human interface or human-computer interface.

In HMI, the interactions are basically of two types, i.e., human to machine and machine to human. Since HMI technology is ubiquitous, the interfaces involved can include motion sensors, keyboards and similar peripheral devices, speech-recognition interfaces and any other interaction in which information is exchanged using sight, sound, heat, and other cognitive and physical modes are considered part of HMIs.

Although considered as a standalone technological area, HMI technology can be used as an adapter for other technologies. The basis of building HMIs largely depends on the understanding of human physical, behavioral and mental capabilities. In other words, ergonomics forms the principles behind HMIs. Apart from enhancing the user experience and efficiency, HMIs can provide unique opportunities for applications, learning and recreation. In fact, HMI helps in the rapid acquisition of skills for users. A good HMI can provide realistic and natural interactions with external devices.

The advantages provided by incorporating HMIs include error reduction, increased system and user efficiency, improved reliability and maintainability, increased user acceptance and user comfort, reduction in training and skill requirements, reduction in physical or mental stress for users, reduction in task saturation, increased economy of production and productivity, etc.

Touchscreens and membrane switches can be considered as examples of HMIs. HMI technology is also widely used in virtual and flat displays, pattern recognition, Internet and personal computer access, data input for electronic devices, and information fusion.

New types of human-machine interface

As smart CPSs are transforming the human-machine communication process, they require new types of interfaces to ensure smooth interaction. New HMIs need to be more sophisticated for enhanced efficiency and remote service operations, especially when workers are interacting with technologies in dusty, humid, or dark environments. Since operators become involved in the manufacturing process for critical decision-making, the HMI system should allow commands that are easily and rapidly entered to increase the accuracy, safety and speed of problem-solving.

With these requirements in mind, new types of HMIs are being implemented now by Industry 4.0 and IoT developers: enhanced touch interfaces, voice interfaces, gesture interfaces, and AR/VR tools.

Enhanced touch interfaces
Touch-screen displays have developed significantly since their introduction around 20 years ago, becoming more user-friendly and powerful in terms of visual data representation. Industrial interfaces enable IoT and M2M connectivity, so manufacturing companies can monitor and control on-site industrial operations both locally and remotely. Modern touch interfaces are sensitive and allow managing machines even in gloves, which brings additional comfort and safety to the operator.

Voice interfaces
Voice interfaces typically do not have a screen to display information but facilitate data access through hands-free, intuitive and efficient interactions. In Industry 4.0, voice-activated interfaces become indispensable, especially in the conditions where remote operation of machines is needed.

Makino, one of the companies that pioneers industrial voice-activated HMI, has developed Athena, which uses basic voice commands to control production equipment on the shop floor. Athena’s operators can now not only remotely issue commands but also ask questions regarding machines’ critical metrics.

Gesture interfaces
Like voice interfaces, gesture control allows for touchless manipulation of industrial machines or computer systems. They recognize an operator’s hand or head movements and use special mathematical algorithms to control or interact with devices. Enabled through a variety of methods—wired gloves, depth-aware and stereo cameras, or hand-tracking controllers—gesture interfaces provide more accurate and faster human-machine interaction.

VR and AR tools
Currently, augmented, and virtual reality are among the most prominent technologies for increasing efficiency, reducing operational costs, and making production more flexible across many manufacturing processes, from inventory management to employee training.

When it comes to assembly line tasks, operators often need to be extremely focused in order to precisely put a plethora of components together. AR tools break down these components by superimposing key information, which significantly eases an assembly operator’s job and reduces the risk of mistakes.

Now employees do not need to check assembly manuals and can always be sure about their next move, which dramatically improves performance. For example, Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defense contractor, has integrated AR for spacecraft assembly. Given that there is no repair shop in space, the company puts extra effort in ensuring accuracy and precision. In this case, some crucial parts like fasteners have to be placed with a 0.5’ tolerance and employees equipped with AR glasses can now reliably align those components. Lockheed reports saving $38 in touch labor for every fastener, which are ordered in millions every year.

Another scope of the AR and VR impact in manufacturing is workforce training. When a new employee is onboarding, many challenges arise, including equipment and coach availability. Moreover, it’s often costly to replicate some on-site scenarios, especially the ones concerning safety. Lockheed Martin has also implemented AR to provide its employees with animated manuals for assembling spacecraft components. The company reports a jaw-dropping 95% decrease in time needed for workers to interpret assembly instructions. At the end of the day, these technologies simply provide a more immersive on-the-job training, sufficiently enhancing employee satisfaction.

Lastly, AR and VR can also dramatically decrease maintenance and error detection times. For example, ThyssenKrupp, a large elevator manufacturer, has provided its technicians with AR tools for repairing operations. Now service technicians can more reliably identify problems and receive a real-time superimposed guidance. The company claims technicians can now finish a repair about four times faster than before.

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