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Spurred by the implementation of AI, robotics, and other technologies, the global industrial automation market is projected to reach USD 265 billion by 2025. UX is one solution to the challenges presented by this scramble to automate.
The move to automation is on a scale that the Third Industrial Revolution only previously rivaled, but it isn’t without its challenges. There are concerns about the interoperability and standardization of devices and software, as well as the needs of the human at the center of the automation puzzle. However, one solution to ensure that every stream works seamlessly is UX.
UX design implicitly asks, ‘what’s next?’, allowing its practitioners to advocate for user experience by spanning the domains of industrial design, marketing, software, hardware, and UI. By looking for methods and tools that make industrial automation better and more efficient, UX is being turned into a strategic advantage, consigning to history the days of industrial manufacturing companies being siloed.
Automation in large-scale production is transforming the role of the workforce. “Machines are now handling the repetitive motion with precision and certainty, whereas people are present to shepherd and oversee sequential processes, sometimes from afar,” observes Mark Baskinger, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University who teaches industrial design with an emphasis on form and interaction.
“It’s about the rapport between humans and machines. Whatever the robotically controlled system, an operator supervises, enters inputs, or responds to other factors. So, the physical space, the ergonomics, the working conditions, the control panels, and the kill switch’s location can all be designed for. What we can’t design for are the changes in the person and those in the system that happen over time,” he adds.
The design of any dynamic machine or system is critical in giving operators the agency to understand the connections and instantly adjust, safeguarding against unnecessary downtime and repairs. Baskinger explains, “A machine doesn’t care who the operator is, but an inherent relationship evolves from the fit and feel. An operator learns to be mindful and attentive using the system.”
Today, operators are simultaneously engaging with semi-sentient devices and systems in an embodied and disembodied way, which has never been experienced before.
“As an industrial designer, I’m committed to the physical. Everything returns to the role of the material because we’re dealing with those tools to engage with larger systems. Once we go to immaterial systems, we can only think of interaction, and that begs the question, ‘what is it to be human?’” posits Baskinger.
"There is a risk that the developers are disconnected from what users want to do with the product. A tight-knit collaboration with designers is needed. User research is also part of future-proofing your product," she notes.
After the product has been launched, analysing how the users interacted with it helps to improve the next generation of products.
High-quality user experiences, whether material or immaterial, enable human operators in industrial automation to work with connected devices and advanced manufacturing equipment in a more efficient and controlled way. Alexander Bertsch, Head of Product Line Sensors, Liebherr-Electronics and Drives GmbH, notes that offering customers the greatest possible scope for individualizing the graphical user interface is essential when developing the system.
Be it intuitive interfaces and customizable controls to increase efficiency or visual and auditory cues to provide immediate feedback, UX ensures continued safety while enhancing security, productivity, and management. The industrial automation sector is investing in improving UI/UX across companion devices, digital twin technology, and voice control, according to Qt Group’s latest study with Censuswide.
Further, connectivity and interoperability are also influential trends among embedded device manufacturers. Mason Adair, a product and strategy consultant who interviewed embedded manufacturers on behalf of Qt in the summer of 2022, sees remote machine operation as the factory’s future: “Displays may not be removed from machines, but rugged tablets and handheld companion devices will take hold. Today we stand on the cusp of tablet adoption in many industries.”
However, there is still tension regarding interoperability, adopting baseline protocols, such as MQTT or OPC-UA, and connecting PLC devices with displays showing relevant data from the machine/equipment.
“Standardization and open systems have been a hot topic within industrial automation for decades. Despite this, there remains strong optimism that the next decade will finally deliver interoperability between different control systems and meet the necessary safety regulations that demand keeping physical kill switches separate from digital display controls, for example,” says Patrick Dalez, Qt Group Business Line Director.
These steps may ignite creativity and collaboration on the internet of things (IoT) and more advanced uses of the industrial internet of things (IIoT), such as condition monitoring. Industry experts are registering a definite swing in machine builders towards condition monitoring as they understand how it works and what significant benefits measuring real-time parameters can deliver going forward.