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The Connection - Three Quick Questions

Red and green to grey – Why switch my HMI

Many operators are perfectly happy with their trusty red and green HMIs and can’t imagine why they should give them up for a dull greyscale display. When they take a closer look, they usually find out that grey is beautiful.

We spend an incredible amount of time staring at screens.  The average American watches two hours and 49 minutes of TV and spends over four hours on their smart phones each day. It’s not a problem if they get bored or distracted and fail to see a hilarious cat video. For people operating manufacturing and process facilities, though, failure to notice an alarm could have disastrous consequences.

To support operators in their critical roles, facility managers are turning to high-performance HMIs. I talk to many people thinking about making this transition and consistently hear the same three questions. 

1. Aren't we just swapping our red and green screens for greyscale monitors?

That’s like saying “Aren’t we just swapping our 25-inch black and white TV for a 60-inch LED flat screen”? The benefits are enormous, but there is so much more to the current generation HMIs than just the color and resolution.

Don’t get me wrong, the improved display IS a huge benefit that makes it possible to clearly see much more process detail. But more information isn’t always better. Anyone who’s tried to find the one bit of information they need in a 500-page owner manual will confirm that. Without alarm management, operators have too much information and are driven by alarms. That’s why the other aspect of high-performance HMIs is alarm management technology that drastically reduces nuisance alarms so operators can more quickly identify abnormal situations that require their attention.

Experience shows that high-performance HMI technology makes operators five times more likely to identify and react to abnormal situations before they generate an alarm.  That keeps your plant running in steady state, with reduced losses from poor quality or scrap. 

2. Won’t operators miss the familiar technology?

Probably, but not for long. When it comes to technology, we like what we know. For process control systems that have been in place for decades (which is common), operators know and trust them. There are shortcomings but they have workarounds. What they don’t realize is how those old systems hamstring performance and productivity.

ASM reported some impressive stats comparing old school red and green systems to high-performance HMIs:

  • Operators are five times more likely to detect abnormal situations before alarms occurred
  • 22% increase in success rate for handling abnormal situations
  • 41% decrease in time from alarm to resolving the abnormal situation

I’ve been involved in a lot of these installations and can say that almost everyone I talk to at the site a few months after commissioning asks “How did I ever control the plant without the high-performance HMI?” 

3. How big is the startup investment?

The trauma of switching out your old system for a modern HMI is less than you probably imagine. You don’t have to do a whole plant upgrade. In most cases, facilities add level one or level two overview displays, what some refer to as surveillance displays. Now they are positioned to incorporate high-performance HMI principles, but still maintain links to familiar, existing P&ID displays.

The installation can be completed at a fixed price in a short, couple of weeks, and operators immediately gain increased visibility into their processes.


If you have more questions about high-performance HMIs and how they might help you improve performance and productivity in your facility, I’d be glad to try to answer them. 

About the author

Bob Kanel

Bob Kanel

Bob is the Technology Manager for ABB's Power Generation and Water automation business in North America.  Bob leads the applications engineering team supporting simulation and optimization projects and plant model development; he also manages the technical sales support team and demo systems development.     

Previously, Bob worked at Renewable Algal Energy, where he was Chief Operating Officer.  Bob also has twenty-four years previous experience with ABB holding roles in Systems Engineering, Project Management, Development Engineering, Sales Support, Systems Marketing and Business Development.  Bob holds a degree in Computer Science from the University of Akron.

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