Applications of Advanced Human-Machine Interfaces in the Industry 4.0 Era

6 min.

Human-machine interface (HMI) has changed significantly over the last decades driven by rapid technological advances. The HMI industry has witnessed the evolution from a simple push button to a modern touch-screen display. Still, more changes in the way people communicate with machines are expected to come. The internet of things and Industry 4.0 have an essential role to play in this regard, being the early adopters of HMI transformation.

The Four Stages of The Industrial Revolution

The term Industry 4.0 was first used in 2011 for smart manufacturing, and later received a broader meaning spreading to such areas as transportation, smart buildings, mining, oil and gas, healthcare and more. It appeared during the fourth stage of the Industrial Revolution, so to understand the notion of Industry 4.0 it is important to explore its predecessors.

The First Industrial Revolution

In 1784, the first mechanical loom was invented, marking the beginning of the first stage of the Industrial Revolution and Industry 1.0. This was followed by the introduction of water- and steam-powered machines to give workers the ability to drive machinery day and night without the need for multiple operators. Mechanization was at the core of Industry 1.0 and gave rise to the modern manufacturing as we know it.

The Second Industrial Revolution

By the beginning of the 20th century, electricity appeared to replace water and steam, thus enabling businesses to focus their power sources on individual machines. The era of Industry 2.0 is characterized by mass production of goods using assembly lines and the division of labor, which was done to optimize workforce.

The Third Industrial Revolution

The third stage of the Industrial Revolution started in the early 1970s with the creation of programmable logic controller (PLC). The broad application of electronics and information technology to achieve further automation and digitalization of manufacturing underlie the age of Industry 3.0. Technologies such as IoT, cloud computing, big data analytics appeared and became among the key drivers of the third Industrial Revolution as well.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution

We are in the midst of the fourth Industrial Revolution—the next leap in digitization and automation of the manufacturing sector promising to bring sustained productivity growth and change the way factories work. It was estimated that organizations might increase their revenue by $493 billion annually and reduce costs by $421 billion each year through 2020 by applying Industry 4.0 technologies.

The major difference of Industry 4.0 from the previous stage is that machines start working independently without human intervention, whereas in the Industry 3.0 machines are automated.

Industry 4.0 Components

Industry 4.0 provides new opportunities for advanced production and manufacturing with technologies that complement and augment human labor. The set of technologies is familiar to everyone, since they all are the innovations that we heard about in the last decade:

  • Industrial robotics
  • Cyber security
  • Internet of things
  • 3D printing
  • Advanced human-machine interface
  • Big data
  • Augmented reality & virtual reality
  • Artificial intelligence

We have just reached a tipping point in artificial intelligence and machine learning, whereby these technologies are starting to have real-world applicability. This is particularly encouraging for the Industry 4.0 vision because these technologies will be essential in providing the autonomy, adaptability and “smarts” envisioned in Industry 4.0

Diego Tamburini

However, the key component of Industry 4.0 is a cyber-physical system (CPS), which is a combination of computation and physical processes. Compared to today’s machines, CPSs have increased intelligence, as well as an ability to communicate with other similar systems and with people in real time. This is allowed by the integration of sensors and actuators that help to control machine’s movement, sense changes in the environment around them, and exchange information through the network.

CPS Benefits and Concerns

According to the Industry 4.0 paradigm, CPSs are increasingly autonomous and self-organizing: they can collect data, analyze it, and even make decisions based upon it. The next logical question is “What will be the human’s role in the manufacturing process?” Some people have concerns about workerless production facilities if smart machines replace humans. In fact, CPSs will not substitute operators but will only change the roles. While intelligent CPSs are continuously monitoring the manufacturing process, predict or detect shifts in normality, people intervene only for critical decision-making. Moreover, Industry 4.0 can introduce new jobs in big data analysis, robotics, and mechanical engineering, as well as revolutionize the way humans communicate with engineering systems and improve processes significantly.

It is expected that some key benefits will arise sequentially from the replacement of today’s machines with CPSs:

  • Real-time data transfer between industrial machines, manufacturing supply chain, suppliers, and business systems will provide for effective decision-making.
  • CPS enables self-monitoring, so when an industrial asset gets broken it sends an alert to support engineers to fix issues proactively. This saves time, money and efforts required to maintain systems functioning.
  • CPS allows everyday control over the entire production, which helps to adapt the latter to better satisfaction of consumers’ demands.
  • CPS provides a higher degree of visibility and control on supply chains, improving the traceability and security of goods.

New Types of Human-Machine Interface

Since 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, so that to increase the accuracy 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 glasses.

Enhanced touch interfaces

Touch screen displays have developed significantly since their introduction at the end of the last century: they became more user-friendly and powerful for visual data representation. Industrial interfaces enable IoT and M2M connectivity and allow manufacturing companies to monitor and control industrial operations from local and remote plant and facility locations. Modern touch interfaces are sensitive and allow to manage machines even in gloves, which brings additional comfort and safety to the operator.

Voice interfaces

Voice interfaces typically don’t have a screen to display information, but they facilitate data access through hands-free, intuitive and efficient interactions. Speech is the most natural and popular means of communication for people. In Industry 4.0, voice-activated interfaces become indispensable, especially in the conditions where remote operation of machines is needed.

Gesture interfaces

Similar to voice interfaces, gesture control allows for touchless manipulation of industrial machines or computer systems. They recognize 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 or stereo cameras, hand tracking controllers—gesture interfaces provide more accurate and faster human-machine interaction.

VR and AR tools

Virtual and augmented reality is no longer science fiction. Global spending in virtual and augmented reality is poised to double every year through 2021 in every sector, including Industry 4.0. This is not surprising, since the benefits of using VR and AR technologies are considerable: enhanced productivity in terms of quantity, quality, speed, and flexibility. Use cases include machining and production, education and collaboration, factory planning, assembly, and digital prototyping, to name a few.

In maintenance and repair, for example, an operator who wears smart VR/AR glasses is able to walk along a line of factory machines, see their performance parameters, and adjust each machine without physically touching it. They enable more innovative and bidirectional solutions such as increased reality viewers to support operational activities and operator training.

Final thoughts

With voice and gesture control, enhanced touch interfaces, and VR/AR glasses, the interfaces between human and machine are shifting to digital automation in Industry 4.0. New types of HMIs can bring many benefits to smart factories, improve their efficiency and decrease downtime. Moreover, used for repetitive activities or work in hazardous environments, they can facilitate or even save operator’s lives. Looking ahead to the future, IoT technology and advanced HMIs can expect further growth and development.