Humans and machines: the best of friends

Humans and machines: the best of friends
Marginal Column

July 2016


The human-machine interface is increasingly important in networked production. To enable the protagonists of the smart factory to cooperate smoothly and in a safe environment, they need to find a common language that allows for intuitive and unambiguous communication.

What was previously limited to pressing a button on the control unit is now enormously diverse. The human-machine interface (HMI) is comfortable, intuitive and easy to use. In both the lab and in practice a number of additional communication possibilities are in the spotlight nowadays – from smartphones to tablets to wearables like data glasses. Thus, people and machines can meet without any reservations..

Touch, wipe, scroll

Firstly there is nothing more obvious than transferring the way we use touchscreens on smartphones and tablets to industrial controllers. You touch, wipe or scroll and the surface contact is translated into signals that the machine understands. Touch systems allow for safe and comfortable human-machine communication. They also work in industrial environments and are strong and durable – a truly effective tool for a stationary manufacturing facility. Tablet PCs serve as control panels for the machine. More and more apps will be used on them – in particular when it comes to service, maintenance, and technical product documentation. What's more, the first steps towards augmented reality applications or the use of wearables have already been taken. For example, machine data is sent in the cloud in real time and the operator gets status reports on their smartwatch or data glasses.

Facial expressions, gestures, emotions

To be intuitive, simple, unmistakable – these are the challenges for the designer of the human-machine interface. Researchers are working on being able to recognize and interpret facial expressions, gestures and emotions reliably. Even brain waves can be detected by neurosensors to interpret the intention of the respective individual. The MIT Media Lab, a Faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States, is going at it a different way. There, researchers are experimenting with the possibility to interact with a ball hovering in the room in a magnetic field. You can touch and move the ball and a computer registers every movement. Thus, movements in three-dimensional space can be recorded and reproduced any number of times. Scientists are even working on communication between humans and machines by means of spoken language. Like the language assistants on smartphones, machines will be able to respond to spoken commands in the future. Whether or not this is the right way forward for noisy factories remains to be seen.

Position, density, texture

The future of HMI has not only dawned in the industrial sector, but also in mobile equipment such as harvesters and road rollers. High-precision positioning systems direct beetlifters or harvesters to the optimal route via GPS. Freely programmable displays show the driver all the important information and the machine is controlled via durable, safe and ergonomic controls. Sensors on the other hand monitor all parameters for the compaction of the soil in road rollers. Currently being tested is a feature that will even enable the machine to select the appropriate course of action. Then the excavator operator will only need to enter the coordinates and volume of the excavation and the excavator translates that into an efficient machining strategy.