How will the web influence the next generation of HMIs?

How will the web influence the next generation of HMIs?

 
By: Ron DeSerranno, President and CEO Mobiform Software Inc.
Nathan Pocock, Director of Compliance for the OPC Foundation
Manny Mandrusiak, VP of Marketing for the OPC Foundation
 
There have been many columns written over the last year regarding the World Wide Web and society’s ever growing reliance on the Internet as an information transfer mechanism. In every aspect of our lives, devices are being interconnected by the Internet and controlled by mobile HMIs (i.e. cell phones, iPhones, and PDAs). Home entertainment systems, security systems and even power systems are now being connected to laptops and mobile devices via the web. As our love for web services sweeps our personal lives, one must consider what impact the desire for web services may have in the automation arena.
 
From the OPC Foundation perspective, plants using OPC UA are now opening devices [on all levels of the enterprise] up to complete and secure interoperable data exchange. These plants are leveraging OPC UA’s power to not only access data at faster rates and more reliably than before, but now have the ability to do more with that data. Archiving and trending is no longer all that can be accomplished. Thanks to OPC UA’s built in web services, corporations can now share critical data securely over mobile devices and to multiple operators via the web. Imagine multiple operators having the ability to manipulate process data from multiple geographic locations in real-time.
 
To illustrate a case of how HMIs would behave when interfacing with the web (cloud), the OPC Foundation welcomes some insight from one of its member companies, MOBIFORM Software Inc.  Let’s examine a case of how web services can be used to access the cloud:
 
HMIs in the Cloud
HMIs and other similar monitoring applications typically operate behind the corporate firewall. Large portions of these applications can reside in the Internet space called the “cloud.” Smaller applications living behind the firewall can feed data updates to “Cloud services.” Cloud Services can include such functions as: reporting, logging and alarming.  All of these can reside online in the Cloud. The unique feature about where these applications can reside is that they can be accessed with a simple web browser. Data sources like OPC UA are specifically designed to feed data securely and reliably into the cloud environment and therefore decouple the HMI from being chained to a traditional workstation.
 
The Advantage of Cloud Computing for HMI
Cloud computing will never replace terminals directly on the factory floor; however web-based HMIs can provide huge benefits for back office and management of the facility. Imagine for a moment the cost savings in simply sharing the streaming data from OPC UA Servers over the Internet via browser based HMIs. Think about the initial cost savings of not having to install terminals, and simply installing PCs with Internet access. The cost savings are almost instantly realizable. 
 
Keep thinking about the time and cost of setting up and deploying a monitoring application in a traditional method. The words “time consuming” and “error prone” often come to mine.  If large portions of the application we’re pre-installed in the Cloud then the complexity of deploying such applications would be considerably reduced. Most of the HMI Services could be run on hosted computers located within the Cloud with the user interface for the application being strictly web based. OPC UA Clients could access the application on the road, from within the factory and from mobile devices.
 
The advantage of Cloud applications is that they typically have a lower barrier to entry for licensing. Instead of paying large up front sums of money to use the HMI, the system can be licensed using a much more affordable “per user- per month” basis. Maintenance costs can be dramatically reduced by utilizing such a service. When a patch is issued for a typical HMI, every computer running the application must be updated. This is both time consuming, and often unnecessary in today’s computing environment.  With cloud based applications, only the server needs the patch. Every user will automatically receive the latest version of the web client when they log in. This means that the IT department does not need to worry about software updates, or hardware failures. IT departments no longer face challenges, only modifications.  If more storage or CPU is required for the application, simply adjusting a setting on the cloud server can provide the needed scalability along with adding more Servers and leveraging standard Load-Balancing technology. 
 
Security is often the biggest concern and barrier to entry for using the Cloud. The thought of sensitive data living outside of the corporate network makes some shake in their boots. In actuality, the sensitive data is probably safer hosted in the cloud than hosted on the typical network of an average company who thinks their network is secure. The plant-floor data can be sent securely to the Cloud using the built-in security of OPC UA; and then more traditional web-based security can be applied to restrict access to the contend/data based on authorization etc.
 
Status Online
Status Online is a Cloud-based version of the ‘Status’ HMI/SCADA Application by MOBIFORM Software Inc. With Status Online the data server, alarming, calculation and logging services live in the cloud. The HMI screens are designed using a web-based graphics designer built in Microsoft Silverlight. The screens are saved to the cloud and viewed through a web browser. The only software required in the facility is a small service which monitors data changes and publishes those changes through the firewall to the web services hosted in the Cloud. Status Online is currently in development and targeted for release later this year.
 
 
Figure one - Screen Shot of a mimic authored in the web based ‘Status Online’ by MOBIFORM. Screens are published to the Cloud. Runtime applications consume the screens in a standard Browser which connect to and consume the data via cloud based services.
 
The intent of this article is to illustrate that the everyday technology that we use is constantly evolving and that there are cutting edge companies within the OPC Foundation who embrace it. Life as we know it is a web-based world in our personal lives and history has taught us that what occurs in our personal lives influences our professional lives. The engineers of tomorrow have already embraced the web and there is no doubt that they are looking at the processes in place today and wondering how they can improve them for tomorrow. 
 
As a Foundation, we are constantly looking toward the future and embrace innovations moving toward that. We realize that if “we do what we have always done then we will get what we have always gotten.” The motto for the next evolution should be “how far is it possible to go?" That is the motto that OPC UA has always taken. Sure the specification can do what needs to be done today, but it is also scalable enough to predict the needs of the future without the end-user needing to upgrade software in five years. That is the mandate for the companies within the OPC Foundation that have embraced OPC UA technology. 
 
For more information on OPC UA technology please navigate to www.opcfoundation.org.