Touching on Multi-touch

Multi-touch screen I’m frequently on the floor with customers to get a real-world understanding of the types of challenges that can be overcome through operator interface technology. Just recently, I had an opportunity to speak with the engineering manager at a semiconductor OEM. He told me that when he trains users on the operator interface panel his company supplies, most operators inevitably swipe their finger across the screen. When nothing happens, they shrug their shoulders and say, “OK, tell me what I do with this thing.”

The consumer market is driving expectations in the automation community and today’s end users expect operator interfaces to have the same functionality as tablets and smart phones. When these expectations aren’t met, they’re understandably disappointed—and not just in the operator interface panel.

They are disappointed with a piece of equipment for which they just paid hundreds of thousands of dollars. On most systems, the operator interface is the part of the machine they interact with constantly. If they have to tediously navigate through menu after menu of pushbuttons, trying to remember where to find a particular screen, their opinion of the entire machine is adversely affected.

OEM software developers are not always aware of these end user expectations, or even the latest multi-touch capabilities. I was showing another OEM the multi-touch features of GE’s new QuickPanel+, and the first question from the software developer was, “Who would ever use that?” He was picturing a traditional application with lots of menus and navigation buttons.

He later told me that he was thinking, “So I can pinch-zoom to make a bigger button. Big deal.” Then I showed him an application without any navigation menus. Simply swipe across the screen to quickly jump to the next screen, or press and hold to jump to any screen in the application. His next comment came with a smile: “Menus are a thing of the past.” With QuickPanel+, they are.

Changing perceptions can be difficult. Ken Olsen, founder of minicomputer company Digital Equipment Corporation, famously said, “There is no need for any individual to have a computer in his home.” And he was the founder of a computer company!

The next customer I visited wasn’t focused on swipe navigation. His idea was to create one screen with a schematic showing an entire facility. We came up with icons that represented each sensor throughout his customer’s facility. The operator can zoom into any area using pinch-zoom and panning. He can see all the sensors clearly, then click on a specific one to bring up a detail screen with current status and modify set points or acknowledge alarms.

Back to my friend the OEM software developer and the automation industry. Who would ever use multi-touch screens on operator interfaces? People with smart phones in their pocket (one-third of U.S. adults) and a tablet at home (more than half of U.S. adults). That’s who.