SECO Northern Europe gives an overview of current HMI trends and future developments

Whether in vending machine operation, machine control or medical equipment - haptic controls and analogue displays are increasingly being replaced by modern Human Machine Interfaces (HMIs) for interaction between people and machines.

The main drivers are new technologies as well as increasing digitalization in all sectors. The main focus is on easier operation and a more precise presentation of information on the displays. HMI expert SECO Northern Europe (formerly Garz & Fricke Group) explains which trends are currently shaping the market and where the journey is heading.

Hygiene aspect of HMI operation

With HMIs for medical applications, the hygiene aspect has always been very important. This concerns in particular the operating elements. The Corona crisis caused other areas of application to focus on this criterion as well. Therefore, it is increasingly required that the control units must be completely disinfectable, which has an impact on the materials used. For example, visible, painted plastics are usually not resistant to disinfectants. Also, today, for reasons of hygiene, it is necessary that installations are seamlessly integrated. This will prevent any edges from gathering dirt. SECO's extensive experience over many years in the seamless integration of displays enables the implementation of the highest level of hygiene protection. This aspect also drives the development of alternative operating concepts such as gesture control.

Alternative operating concepts

The interaction possibilities are becoming more and more diverse: from touch screens to remote touch systems, where operation is done with the user's own smartphone, to voice and gesture control. The main consideration here is to find the optimal interaction option between the user and a specific end device. For example, voice control is not useful in a noisy environment and if you do not have your hands free, you can do relatively little with gesture control. Ultimately, the application, the environment and the location determine the operating concept.

Customizable software

From the smartphone world, users are used to customize their device via the software. This trend can now also be observed in the B2B and industrial sectors, especially in the automotive sector. For manufacturers of products with a longer life expectancy, it is an enormous competitive advantage if the devices can be repeatedly adapted to the circumstances in terms of appearance and type of use through software and can also be modernized. This concept offers the possibility to add, change, remove or even only allow functions for a limited time via the software. With these customization options, optimizations and function extensions can also be made during ongoing operation.

With software solutions for Human Machine Interfaces today, the simple integration option into the systems of the device manufacturers is decisive. There is a clear trend towards complete HMI solutions from a single source, including a complete interface to the operating system, integration into comprehensive IoT solutions, certifications, and documentation, etc. Thanks to the customizable functions in the software, this enables extensive individualization of the systems. However, this must be taken into account from the very beginning in the development of the hardware.

Increasing computing power and hardware requirements

Although computing power is increasing in all areas, the market does not demand general-purpose hardware that can do everything. The range of components is wide: from simple microcontrollers to controllers with special features such as Industrial Ethernet with real-time capability or with special camera engines. From simple processor systems to high-performance SoCs, everything is possible. However, the diversity also increases the demands on the developers. Components with newer technologies and higher bandwidths require special attention in PCB design. This is necessary to guarantee perfect function and stability over the entire temperature range. This requires much more preliminary work today than a few years ago and will become even more important in the future.

Interfaces also have an impact on hardware design: USB 3.0 offers more functions than just connecting a memory stick or a mouse compared to USB 2.0. These features, however, bring with them new requirements in terms of electromagnetic compatibility (EMC). This affects not only the hardware design of the HMI, but the entire device design. Just as the screen resolution increases, so does the performance of the processors and thus the demands on software development. In addition, the possibility to connect cameras and microphones will gain in importance. Today, a comprehensive analysis of the processes in the devices is already almost standard.

Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence

New processors like the i.MX 8M Plus from NXP, for example, come with a neural network engine. Part of the processor is only responsible for the execution of machine learning algorithms. The topic is still relatively new in industrial systems, but it offers many opportunities. Manufacturers are also beginning to address the issue. For example, you ask yourself questions like: What can I do, what are the benefits and what impact will it have on my business processes? Is it possible, for example, to place a coffee machine in a public space that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to evaluate faces and then offers the user a double espresso because he or she looks very tired at the moment - is that permitted under data protection law?

The first systems with a dedicated AI unit have been available for several months and are now finding their way into customer projects.  As a result, this technology is gradually making its way into the HMI world. This offers manufacturers great opportunities: They can enter into discussion with their customers and demonstrate the benefits of a neural network engine in an HMI. For example, a rotating component in the machine could be monitored via microphone and AI and, if necessary, error and warning messages could be issued via the operating unit. Closely connected to this is, of course, the issue of data protection. Therefore, development activities will be much broader in the future than they have been so far. Developers need to think more about the impact of an innovation, considering what legal boundaries they might reach and what data protection policies might be breached, if any.

SECO has positioned itself in the best possible way for this development and offers its own business unit, SECO Mind, which bundles all services related to powerful and innovative IoT and AI applications. The focus is on providing special software services and platforms for the use of artificial intelligence (AI), data science and data orchestration. For this, SECO offers its customers a SaaS IoT software suite called Clea. The easy-to-integrate solution was developed to transform field data into actionable and measurable insights and to bundle device and application management in one platform. Already today, this flexible solution is tightly integrated into SECO's hardware and can be quickly deployed upon request.