Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Automation at the edge: Modern HMI and SCADA

June 16, 2020
By Bernard Cubizolles

Much of the data used by Industrial IoT solutions comes from HMI/SCADA automation software. Accelerate your transformation journey with that in mind

Photo: GE Digital

Automation technologies like HMI/SCADA software have been around for many years. They were the trigger for what many call the “third industrial revolution.”

Now that we have reached the fourth one, known as Industry 4.0, many companies are rethinking their future and trying to understand how they can realize value out of their digital transformation.

Automation solutions are an intrinsic and key piece of the process, enabling an era in which operational data is immediately analyzed by artificial intelligence/machine learning algorithms.

From there, it optimizes operations automatically through a “closed loop,” or it alerts a human for further action. HMI/SCADA drive smarter operator decisions for faster response and development.


Transforming operational data into analytics that can then be used to optimize processes brings true value to the business, making automation the layer on which users can build their digital transformation. Automation essentially becomes the foundation of a company’s digitization strategy.

Assessing risk

There are three big drivers that have plagued manufacturers since the commissioning of their operations: how to simultaneously improve availability, manage risk and reduce costs. The ultimate goal is to ensure optimal asset performance to maximize the desired outcomes.

Manufacturers can use HMI/SCADA to increase visibility, optimize operations and improve quality and output. With a quick glance, operators know what’s important and the right actions to drive increased efficiency and reduced costs.

Many users begin at the risk stage of this scenario. This involves a process of assessing the criticality of all the assets within their business as high, medium and low.

There are three drivers that plague manufacturers: how to simultaneously improve availability, manage risk and reduce costs.

Analytics solutions then deliver an optimized plan to reduce costs while appropriately mitigating the risk of failure based on consequences and probability.

Recommendations issued by analytics are fed back to the process via the automation layer, whether through an HMI/SCADA, in which case the operator will be able to check the recommended parameters before they are sent to the actual process, or directly to a PLC.

This transformation of data is all about making more informed decisions, being proactive and optimizing processes.

Why modern automation software matters

Eighty-five per cent of the data used by analytics tools, such as asset performance management (APM) software or operations management software (OPM), come from the field (OT data). So, getting the automation layer right is essential in enabling the power of Industry 4.0 solutions.

The main goal of automation software is to provide the operator with a window on their application using mimics, trend views, alarm views, etc. However, new technologies have made HMI/ SCADA more powerful, easier to use and more connected.

Modern HMI/SCADAs can deliver content on any connected device in a plant, providing tools that fit a user’s needs while delivering the same experience to their own device.

Mobility is becoming increasingly important. During normal times, operators want to review operational data where the work is – on the floor, in the field – not in the office. The COVID-19 crisis has showed us how important working remotely is to keeping our mission-critical infrastructure businesses in operation.

We all expect to be able to access our personal information from anywhere and at any time with our smartphone; the same applies to process or manufacturing data. A plant manager who is on the go, or needs to be separated from the business, needs to be able to keep an eye on the plant while away from the office.

Digital transformation doesn’t always mean having everything reside in the cloud.

A lot of tools can be deployed on-premise as part of the company’s automation solutions or work process management – which in essence becomes an edge node for the Industrial Internet.

Digital work process management software delivers huge outcomes and can be deployed on top of an existing automation layer, enabling an (almost) paperless plant.

Typical applications range from standard operating procedures (e-SOPs) to maintenance procedures or operator rounds.

Key considerations

Digital transformation doesn’t happen overnight; it’s a journey. Like every journey, it must include a clear and achievable goal, whether it is financial, operational or something else. It must also include the rights steps to make the journey successful. To do this, it is recommended take one step back ahead of the IT and OT aspects to identify the main challenges.

It never hurts to include a pair of external, fresh eyes to ask questions. For example, how can you save in production losses to be more competitive? How can you optimize maintenance strategies and cut processing time? How can you mitigate risk and increase productivity?

Once the goals are set, the next challenge is to draw an implementation roadmap. Many industrial sites have already embarked on the journey without knowing it.

Eighty-five per cent of the data used by analytics tools, such as asset performance management or operations management software, comes from the field.

But journeys can also have challenges. One of the key challenges identified by Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet Consortium is interoperability.

With the emergence of standards like OPC UA, this is becoming less of a problem. When OPC UA is applied to the automation layer, not only does it deliver connectivity, but it also ensures the security of data transfer in a structured way. You can’t operate, analyze, or optimize what you cannot see.

It is key for existing plants or infrastructures to ensure that there will be no disruption in the production process or operation itself during digitization. Quite the opposite of implementing an ERP system, it’s recommended to start small and deploy at your own pace.

Start with the automation layer

The first step is to modernize what exists, look at the gaps and build on top of it. Automation technologies can help mitigate the risk of disruption and then be the very valuable edge node of the deployment. They are mature and proven technologies that can deliver new capabilities while making sure that the application remains safe, available and compliant.

Also, the digital transformation process must take the user into account and make sure that the operator is affected by changes in a positive way. The aim is to make life easier for operators, engineers, production managers, etc.

Modern HMI/SCADAs can deliver content on any connected device – PC, smartphone, tablet – providing tools that fit a user’s needs while delivering the same experience to their own device. Mobile devices have demonstrated the ability to increase efficiency and recent studies have shown that mobile operators are 30 per cent more efficient than the operators using a fixed device.

In summary, if you’re looking at your digital transformation journey, it starts with the automation layer.

The flexibility of the automation layer helps to bring all the required data together and can bridge the gap between disparate systems at low cost with the speed and accuracy required to obtain a holistic view on the application.

By leveraging automation as the foundational piece of your digital transformation, you can capitalize on many of its benefits.


Bernard Cubizolles is global product marketing manager, automation and manufacturing software for GE Digital.

This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.

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