The Future of Human-Machine Interfaces
Humans rely on machines to help them accomplish tasks quicker, safer, and better. Human-machine interfaces (HMIs) have been the driving force behind this concept for the past two decades, and the technology is only getting smarter. Now, with COVID-19 bearing down on factories, there’s demand for even more robust HMIs and other assistive robotics. The pandemic is quickly jumpstarting innovation, and the robotics segment of industry is seeing a major spike in interest.
The best of two philosophies
As factories turn to technology to help them combat the changing manufacturing landscape, the obvious choice for stability is automation. But pure automation isn’t necessarily the answer. Most factories aren’t yet equipped with the digital infrastructure to build out broad automation at-scale. Moreover, they may not want to! Enter: HMIs.
HMIs combine the benefits of both human laborers and automation technologies, bringing a happy medium to the factory floor. Producers reap the benefits of human creativity and ingenuity, alongside the precision and speed of intelligent machinery. It’s a solution that capitalizes on all available benefits, without the drawbacks of a manual-only or completely digitized production method.
It’s a concept already deployed on factory floors today. Push-button display pads that execute pre-programmed machining sequences. Human-controlled robotics for safe operation at a distance. These examples and more are poised to look archaic against the next iteration of HMIs.
COVID-19 as the means to a robotic future
As mentioned, COVID-19 has quickly become a primary driver for robotics innovation. Factories dealing with social distancing, ill workers, and displaced work environments see the potential for robotics to step in and pick up the slack. Naturally, that lends itself to HMIs, rather than a full “lights out” factory.
There’s been a staggering influx in demand for robotics testing and development at some of the top universities and organizations in the country over past several months — including noted robotics leader, Boston Dynamics. These requests are coming from manufacturers, looking to solve COVID-19-inspired problems through smarter HMIs. Many producers are even exploring ways to enable factory work from home, via remote HMIs.
A sneak peek at the next generation of HMIs
Recent demands and research in robotics are giving way to an increasingly clear picture of the future of HMIs. Here are some trends likely to come to fruition in the near-term — especially if COVID-19 disruptions continue:
- Remote work HMIs that allow floor workers to control machinery from their home.
- Camera link systems that allow operators to use an HMI from an isolated space.
- Cloud-based HMIs with real-time reporting of process and status updates.
- Learning HMIs, which can recognize tasks and problems to complete them efficiently.
If these possible trends in HMI evolution are exciting, they’re made even more so by the figures of an industry on the cusp of booming. HMI and robotics development is expected to be a $5.6 billion market by 2025, showing a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.2%. It’s closely linked to the Internet of Things (IoT) market, which shows even more promise.
COVID-19 has spurred a sense of urgency for better practices and more efficient means of production. Short of total automation, which is impractical and not necessarily wanted by many manufacturers, a leap in HMI capabilities seems the next logical step forward.