Human-machine interfacing (HMI) is not a new concept. Throughout the first three industrial revolutions, man has been leveraging machines to improve productivity. First, it was steam and then electricity that powered machines. Then came computers and electronics, automation across global shop-floors and production lines. The fourth phase of the industrial revolution, better known as Industry 4.0 is not only built on the previous gains, but by using the Internet of Things (IoT) has set the tone for a totally different type of interaction.
Some cutting-edge technologies have also emerged to further strengthen HMI. Industrial robotics, cyber security, 3D printing, advanced human-machine interface, big data, augmented and virtual reality, machine language and artificial intelligence have significantly contributed to the growing success of HMI. It has created opportunities in production and manufacturing to augment human labour.
The reason why Industry 4.0 is significant in setting new frontiers in HMI is that with the help of technology, machines have become intelligent. The first three phases of the industrial revolution merely automated machines; they performed as instructed; now machines can work independently, without human interventions. This has created a paradigm shift in how smart-manufacturing in industries of the future will operate.
The technologies that we will keep hearing about in the HMI context are IoT, artificial intelligence and machine learning. Besides leveraging other technologies, they will create the critical component of Industry 4.0, namely cyber-physical system (CPS). This combination of computation and physical processes will enhance machine’s intelligence to communicate with other machines and humans in real time. They will integrate sensors and actuators, sense changes in the environment around them, and exchange information through networks. CPS enabled mechanisations will become increasingly autonomous. They will be able to collect data, analyze it and be able to take decisions based on these inputs.
Ultimately, smart manufacturing will not substitute workers. Their roles will change. Not only will it revolutionise the way humans communicate with engineering systems to improve processes, Industry 4.0 will create higher end jobs in data analysis, robotics, and mechanical engineering. CPS enabled machines will be able to do real-time data transfer, flag any downtime, establish better control over production with higher degrees of visibility and control over supply-chains and their traceability and security.
New HMI’s will become more sophisticated and will require facilities where operators will need to communicate with machines more effectively to improve accuracy and solve problems. To that end, IoT developers are implementing enhanced touch, voice, gesture interfaces, and Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality glasses to firmly establish digital automation in Industry. Such improvements will improve efficiency and decrease downtime besides making work environments less hazardous. The International Federation of Robotics forecasts that there will be around 3 million industrial robots by 2020, driven by tech-savvy millennials. In India, automation is increasing, though labour arbitrage still plays out. Robots are no longer figments of sci-fi. Industrial landscapes are sure to witness greater human-machine interfaces soon.