Retail expectations of industrial products

Embedded computing technology historically lags some years behind mainstream desktop computing. This is not something we take any shame in, actually quite the opposite.

The retail sector tends to release product as soon as the technology is saleable. Even before a new technology becomes mainstream, there are plenty with deep pockets willing to play guinea pig. The next stage is making that technology competitively priced, enabling the masses to climb aboard the next bandwagon. But at the same time we ask: Should our own industry hop on now?

No, of course not, is the answer. We simply can’t afford to play guinea pig. Our industry is purposefully lagging behind in introducing new technologies. I wouldn’t even consider availability to our client base until I could state, with absolute authority, that the technology has the stability required to be an product.

By holding back, we allow the retail sector to become our beta testers – without any loss to our own reputation, or worse. And it’s easy to understand why: If your new tablet fails, it can be returned and replaced in a matter of days with losses not stretching much further than one’s own inconvenience. Now if the controller in charge of train signaling fails … I’m sure you get the picture. Let’s look at the danger of expectation from retail products in the industrial marketplace – focusing on display technology.

Industrial versus consumer tech

Pushing proven stability aside momentarily, let’s say a technology is natively so robust that the risk of avoiding a retail “bedding in” period is perceived to be very low. Then does the embedded market really want the latest and greatest? More crucially, will the end user pay for it?

Since the release of a certain smartphone, the expectation of consumers as to the quality and usability of touch-screen devices has risen exponentially. When faced with any active display, the end user subconsciously compares it with that utilized in their pocket. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You will never find me arguing against an increased pace of technology advancement, but just because it’s the latest technology doesn’t mean it’s the most appropriate technology. There are two aspects in this example: display quality and the touch screens themselves.

Display quality

The first aspect, the native resolution, is the simplest barometer of display quality. High-end smartphones use high-definition displays (the current guise boasting 1136 x 640 pixels) coupled with the tiny physical size of these displays; the image quality is superb and was historically unimaginable.

Conversely, a typical small panel PC sports an 8" SVGA display: 800 x 600 resolution. Immediately observable, the panel PC’s display is quadruple the size, yet a lower resolution. Cries of “poor quality” are heard as groups debate amongst themselves how Neanderthal this product must indeed be.

At this point we should remind ourselves why the two products exist. A mobile phone is likely to be used in close proximity for a number of hours a day and is expected to capture HD photography and video with amazing clarity, unlike the industrial panel PC. Typically, panel PC systems have a fraction of the daily viewing time and have never seen a high-resolution image.

So yes, of course it would be wonderful if every display, everywhere, offered HD resolution with eyewatering definition. But if that solution multiplies the price with little advantage to the end user, there’s only going to be one loser: he who blindly insisted on it.

Touch screens

The second aspect is touch screens, nicely in parallel with the display itself. The public is now long used to gesture-based control – fantastic on a mobile phone and increasingly expected by the end user. But in industrial, it’s often the opposite. In industrial environments, workers often wear gloves to protect their hands, which previously had no impact on their ability to use touch-screen HMIs to increase efficiency. Unfortunately, Projective Capacitive (PCT) screen functions via electrical impulses through the fingertips. With most types of gloves, though “touch friendly” gloves are increasingly available, PCTs will be nonfunctional.

Additionally, how many existing industrial application GUIs would really benefit from pinch and grab, twist and turn, gesture control? An obvious advantage of a zoom mechanism on assembly lines would be to focus on particularly detailed assembly processes, but I’ve struggled to find many cases where a standard click to zoom wouldn’t be sufficient. I suspect in 2-3 years’ time, we might see the need. Until then, let us stick with stability and technology for purpose, not technology for technology’s sake.

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