How Will Human Machine Interface (HMI) Shape the Future of Manufacturing?

By Laura A. Studwell, Industry Marketing Manager, Food, Beverage & Packaging / Life Sciences at Omron Automation Americas. 

People-centric Technology Empowers Workers To Interact With Machines Intuitively and Safely

As SKU proliferation continues, the ability to handle different product types and varying materials on one machine will become even more important to the packaging industry –especially among consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies. In fact, CPGs are adding an average of 300% more product variations annually, according to the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies (PMMI).

Human machine interface (HMI) is shaping the future of manufacturing, and following are answers to questions we frequently hear:

How is HMI evolving?

HMIs continue to become more intuitive, with more custom-made templates for applications. For example, an HMI with pre-built templates tied to an automation platform will allow for quick and easy adjustments along the production line, allowing for minimal interruption when producing a large number of SKUs. Operators will be able to select a template with pre-set parameters and adjust settings on the line.

Why is it important for automation technology to be more people-centric?

The factory we are seeing today is not the same as it was in the past. Automation assists human workers with cumbersome, repetitive, non-value-added, and dangerous production tasks so that workers can perform valued-added and meaningful tasks. Additionally, it’s hard to find experienced and skilled workers in today’s labor market. Therefore, ease of use and accessibility to technology is important to upskill plant personnel without engineering backgrounds to be able to use automation equipment. Automation exists to empower those workers to interact with machines intuitively and safely. It provides them with the capability to customize production runs and easily make on-the-fly changes. With a solid automation platform, all technologies can work together to accomplish what needs to happen. With the greater integration of AMRs and collaborative robots, operators can focus on more skilled responsibilities, leaving mundane tasks to automation components.

What are the primary challenges a people-centered approach to automation can resolve?

The movement of people in a production facility can hinder production levels. This means operators are leaving their stations to get parts needed to start a new production run. And in the past, sometimes having to stop production and troubleshoot if a part no longer functions in the manner it was intended due to wear and tear. With predictive maintenance, operators are warned ahead of time when anomalies start occurring so they can perform maintenance during scheduled downtime – versus the past where ‘when it breaks, it needs to be fixed.’

How does industrial automation enable manufacturers to strike a better balance between sustainability, and worker satisfaction?

Industrial automation excels at repetitive tasks – especially in tasks that require high levels of precision and accuracy. For workers these tasks are at best boring and at worst physically and mentally stressful. By automating these tasks, workers are able to focus on tasks that provide more challenges or require human intelligence, which can lead to high worker satisfaction. After workers gain familiarity to use this automation technology it can open paths to upskilling and role mobility within plants as well.

Sustainability goals can be achieved using the same benefits. Processes typically done by workers can suffer from high scrap rates, especially in processes that require highly trained workers to execute tasks that push the limits of human precision and accuracy. For example many assembly processes in the automotive and life science sectors have little to no room for error, resulting in even minor inconsistencies to cause costly scrap rates or even recalls. Automating applications such as these allow your human workers to focus on the jobs they excel at and reduce waste.

What are important considerations when integrating collaborative robots (cobots) into processing or packaging lines?

A common misconception regarding cobots is that they are “safe out of the box”. Although cobots are often designed with safety-centric hardware and software considerations, integrators and end-users need to consider a cobot’s entire workspace and application before a cobot solution can truly be considered “collaborative”. Cobot tasks, tooling, payloads, and placement within a workspace can introduce new potential sources of harm. This can be mitigated by early conversations with a cobot supplier – it is possible that an application is inherently non-collaborative and you may be better suited with a higher performance industrial robot. Additionally, many cobot suppliers and system integrators can provide a Risk Assessment – a process to review your cobot solution’s ISO compliance, identify sources of risk, and develop a strategic plan to reduce risk of harm and injury. Cobots can potentially allow for shared workspaces and simplify safety configuration but integrators and end-users are still required to perform due-diligence to make their applications as safe as possible.

Regulations such as ISO/TS 15066 and ISO 13849-1 provide further guidance for analyzing and addressing sources of harm related to cobot applications. These regulations outline proper Risk Assessment procedures, acceptable levels of human / cobot contact, force and speed limits for various scenarios, and other safety considerations. System integrators and end-users need to factor in all of these points when designing a cobot solution.

How are autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) shaping the future of manufacturing?

With integrated safety features, AMRs can navigate the plant floor – from processing all the way to warehousing. In the past, we have seen AMRs used along a line to deliver goods from one station to another. Today, with their increased payloads their use is expanding into many different applications. For example, bringing parts from a warehouse to a production cell so the operator doesn’t have to leave their station. Another example where AMRs have expanded capabilities is in their payload capabilities. They can handle the movement of a pallet and even car frames. When an integrator becomes involved, different sorts of toppers can be made – everything from a refrigerated vending system to a lockbox for medical supplies. With intuitive software, deliveries can be specifically timed to stop at stations at given intervals. In this respect, the future will be AMRs being used for a variety of applications in differing environments allowing operators and other workers to focus on skilled tasks.

What capabilities should be considered when choosing a supplier for robotics or automation?

You need a reliable and responsive solution provider who is capable of coming to your facility to perform service activities, provide comprehensive training and application support for your automation solution. A supplier that has extensive knowledge about your industry and business segments understand your production challenges and fill full your application needs. Another key area to consider is that supplier’s ability to consult with you on all of the applicable safety standards to ensure your application is within industry compliance and create a safe working environment for your employees.

Also, when you get into robotics, a reliable integrator partner is imperative. There are many types of robots and when you get into AMRs and collaborative robots, they can be used for many different applications. This often results in customized toppers or grippers which integrators can help procure or design. The last consideration, and perhaps the most important, is the automation platform. Can the automation platform communicate and work with all components on the production line. Having one platform to control all automation lessens engineering and programming time as well as lessens ongoing changes that may need to be made as well as maintenance.

About the Author

Laura A. Studwell is the Industry Marketing Manager, Food, Beverage & Packaging / Life Sciences at
Omron Automation Americas.

Omron Automation is an industrial automation partner that creates, sells, and services fully integrated automation solutions that include sensing, control, safety, vision, motion, robotics, and more. Learn more at www.automation.omron.com.

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