New types of human-machine interfaces
As intelligent computer controls change the communication process between humans and machines, new types of interfaces are needed to ensure smooth interaction. New human-machine interfaces must be more sophisticated to increase efficiency and enable remote maintenance operations, especially when workers interact with technologies in dusty, humid or dark environments. Because operators are involved in the manufacturing process for critical decisions, the operator control system should allow for easy and quick entry of commands to increase accuracy, safety and speed of problem resolution.
With these requirements in mind, new types of operator interfaces are now being implemented by Industry 4.0 and IoT developers: enhanced touch interfaces, voice interfaces, gesture interfaces, and AR/VR tools.
Enhanced touch interfaces
Touchscreen displays have evolved significantly since their introduction about 20 years ago, becoming more user-friendly and powerful in terms of how they visually display data. Industrial interfaces enable IoT and M2M connectivity, allowing manufacturing companies to monitor and control industrial operations on-site and remotely. Modern touch interfaces are sensitive and allow machines to be operated even with gloves on, bringing added comfort and safety to the operator.
Voice interfaces typically do not have a screen to display information, but instead facilitate data access through hands-free, intuitive and efficient interactions. In Industry 4.0, voice interfaces are becoming indispensable, especially where machines need to be operated remotely.
Makino, one of the companies pioneering industrial voice-activated HMI, has developed Athena, which uses basic voice commands to control production equipment on the shop floor. Athena operators can now not only issue commands remotely, but also ask questions about critical machine readings.
Similar to voice interfaces, gesture controls enable non-contact manipulation of industrial machines or computer systems. They recognize the operator's hand or head movements and use special mathematical algorithms to control or interact with equipment. Through a variety of methods - wired gloves, depth-sensing and stereo cameras, or hand-tracking controllers - gesture interfaces enable more accurate and faster human-machine interaction.
VR and AR tools
Currently, augmented and virtual reality are among the most high-profile technologies for increasing efficiency, reducing operating costs, and making production more flexible in many manufacturing processes, from inventory management to employee training.
Assembly line tasks often require operators to be extremely focused in order to precisely assemble a plethora of components. AR tools break down these components by overlaying important information, making assembly personnel's jobs much easier and reducing the risk of errors.
Workers now no longer need to refer to assembly manuals and can always be sure of what they need to do next, dramatically improving performance. For example, Lockheed Martin, the world's largest defense contractor, has integrated an AR solution for spacecraft assembly. Since there is no repair shop in space, the company makes extra efforts to ensure accuracy and precision. In this case, some important parts such as fasteners must be placed with a tolerance of 0.5', and AR goggle-equipped workers can now reliably align these components. Lockheed reports that for every fastener ordered in the millions each year, they save $38 in touch labor.
Another area of impact for AR and VR in manufacturing is employee training. There are many challenges when onboarding a new employee, such as the availability of equipment and trainers. In addition, it is often costly to replicate some scenarios on-site, especially those involving safety. Lockheed Martin has also used AR to provide its employees with animated instructions on how to assemble spacecraft components. The company reports an astonishing 95% reduction in the time it takes workers to interpret assembly instructions. Ultimately, these technologies simply provide more realistic on-the-job training, which sufficiently increases employee satisfaction.
Finally, Artificial Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) can also drastically reduce maintenance and defect detection times. For example, ThyssenKrupp, a major elevator manufacturer, has equipped its technicians with AR tools for repair work. Now, service technicians can more reliably identify problems and receive guidance superimposed in real time. The company claims that technicians can now complete a repair about four times faster than before.