October 30, 2015 John Benitz

What You Need to Know about the ISA 101 HMI Standard: Empowering the Operator

Updated on April 5, 2017 

A HMI by itself is only a tool.

To be useful, it needs to be used — and that involves an operator. The ISA 101 group understood this, dedicating considerable space in the standard explaining how the makeup of HMIs should be designed to accommodate the operator.

I strongly believe one of the best things we can do in life is teach others how to accomplish a task. Teaching is a noble profession, perhaps the most noble around.

Somebody had to go through the trouble of learning the lesson before passing it on. Imagine how tough life would be if we had to learn and re-learn things over and over, constantly starting from scratch. Imagine if nothing was documented and there was no direction.HMI

If we want to learn how to do something today, we go to YouTube and select one of the dozens of tutorial videos available online. It’s nearly inconceivable to think of Googling a “how-to” problem and nothing popping up on your screen.

It’s because people spend the time to document and upload these lessons in order to pass on the knowledge that they’ve learned, saving the rest of the world from painstakingly trying to start from zero.

The ISA 101 HMI committee, a group formed to establish guidelines for human-machine interfaces in manufacturing and processing applications, published a set of standards for the industrial user interface that does just that.

The standard serves as an exhaustive set of guidelines created to help organizations design, build and operate effective HMIs. According to the authors, the primary purpose of the standard (and its accompanying technical reports) is to “help users understand the basic concepts” of a HMI and “more readily accept the style of human-machine interface that the standard recommends.”

The standard isn’t meant to be an out-of-the-box, by the letter set of guidelines for companies to follow. Rather, the standard is more of a set of criteria that gives organizations direction on how to create a set of standards for human-machine interfaces.

When all aspects and guidelines are taken into account, the ISA 101 group suggests they will contribute to reducing human error.

With respect to the actual device and its environment, the ISA committee included various suggestions ranging from guidelines for ambient lighting to density of displayed information and more.

It also outlines guidelines for user cognitive limits, offering suggestions for dealing with how a HMI’s design could impact cognitive processes that allow the operator to transform, reduce, store, recover and use sensory input.

The ISA 101 standards group committed much time setting up some guidelines for the way an operator physically interacts with HMIs, a practice commonly referred to as human factors engineering (HFE).

The HFE aspect of the standard provides guidance on how to design HMIs with respect to an operator’s needs. This guidance includes, but isn’t limited to, how the HMI functions intuitively, if it supports both normal and abnormal tasks— such as those experienced in alarm situations— and how it provides controls and information appropriate to specific tasks.

The goal of the standard’s recommendations on setting guidelines around how a HMI impacts the operator and vice versa is to improve their awareness of what’s happening in the process now and what will happen in the future. Inadequate situational awareness, ISA 101 group said, is a leading contributor to accidents that are attributed to human error.

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The work is based on decades of experience, includes several suggestions based on best practices and has a number of strong guidelines for specific situations.

Throughout the course of the standard the ISA 101 committee addresses the philosophy, design, implementation, operation and maintenance of Human Machine Interfaces (HMIs) for process automation systems. Much time is spent on the user, dedicating guidelines to improve the user’s ability to detect, diagnose and properly respond to abnormal situations.

The 61-page standard was a collaborative effort written by a group of veteran automation professionals including end users, integrators, academics and solution-focused professional services engineers, such as myself.

While the document provides a breadth of knowledge, there are a few important highlights in the document you should know about if you are someone who works with a HMI on a regular basis.

The Big Three: HMI Philosophy, Style Guide & Toolkit

A large portion of the document includes the creation of a system standard for HMIs, which establishes a lifecycle model for packages and provides a roadmap for how they should be developed and managed properly.

This management system serves as a sort of “standards gatekeeper” for HMI display and major system changes. The punch list of guidelines acts as a must-have set of standards, assuring major system changes adhere to agreed-upon guides or the existing pre-ISA 101 HMIs are continuously improved when display changes are made.

The management system is comprised of three parts: HMI philosophy, style guide and toolkit.

1) HMI Philosophy

As it pertains to the managed lifecycle of a HMI, the ISA 101 committee suggests a philosophy that provides “a foundation of concepts” that lets new developers and users understand devices better. The ISA asserts if the person understands the what, why and how of a certain device, that person will in turn create and maintain an effective HMI.

The HMI philosophy should be a strategic document, the standard states, which addresses guiding principles governing the design structure of the HMI. Suggestions for guiding principles are provided such as operational requirements, design standards and guidelines, work practices and more.

2) Style Guide

This provides the guidance for designing and building displays.

The HMI style guide includes the specific standards and guidelines for the design and implementation of the configurable HMI, drawn largely from the specifications set by the appropriate company or facility.

Since the standard is additive by nature, the style guide should incorporate and reinforce the guiding principles in the HMI philosophy, general design rules for displays and their associated applications, as well as provide guidance on usage of scripting, embedded logic and the use of color.

3) Toolkit

The standard lays out guidelines for a HMI Toolkit, the collection of design guidelines for use within a given platform.

The toolkit is designed to meet style guide requirements and includes display templates, pop-ups and faceplates, as well as static and dynamic graphic symbols.

Included in the standard’s document is a roadmap detailing guidelines for the process design, implementation and operation of HMIs.

Empowerment Through Knowledge: A List of Common Terms & Guidelines for Training

The standard suggests organizations should wrap HMI training into its existing training processes and follow relevant change management procedures for adjustments to the instruction just like any other training.

Training is broken into four areas: operations, maintenance, engineering and administration and management.

Operations: The ISA 101 standard recommends outlining training for operational tasks associated with the HMI such as interaction with the control system under all modes of operation, using the alarm system, retrieving historical data and more.

Maintenance: With respect to maintenance, it suggests training plant or site maintenance staff to be prepared to use the HMI to accomplish required tasks, as well as vendor documentation for both HMI hardware components and configuration tools, in addition to other things.

Engineering and Administration: On the engineering and administration side, training for the implementation or modification of the HMI should include familiarity with operation functionality, diagnostic tools, system backup and recovery procedures and more.

Management: The standard touches on management training by suggesting education of access to high-level production and plant-operating information.

Common HMI Terms & Acronyms

Included in the standard is an exhaustive, long list of industry terms and acronyms. From “alarm” to “yoking,” the document contains 46 terms with detailed definitions and another 16 acronyms.

While the list might seem a bit excessive for veteran automation professionals, its thoroughness plays a dual role. Both sides support the purpose of the standard.

Defining a term provides an accepted, agreed upon set of terms for the things we use on a daily basis that can provide guidance to newer engineers. It also clearly explains what the term means in simple, straightforward terms. This states what the term is, but more importantly defines what it is not.

It­­ spells out the 16 most common acronyms automation professionals encounter in the industry, providing a much-needed reference for the abbreviations that color so many conversations like HMI, SCADA, I/O and more.

Again, defining an acronym goes a long way towards clearing the confusion between automation and general computing. An example is the acronym “FAT.”

FAT translates to “Factory Acceptance Test” in an automation conversation, and means “File Allocation Table” when referencing the file system structure in general computing terms.

Apart from providing clarity, the definitions included come from a place of experience. So, it’s a far better reference for knowledge than an internet source with no attribution, such as Wikipedia.

Even with the intuitive design of most modern HMIs screens, the navigation and usage can be daunting for those new to the industry. The ISA guidelines on training users helps spread knowledge in an effort to create and empower all operators to be the best operators.

Looking Towards the Future: ISA 112 SCADA

The newly formed group ISA 112, SCADA Systems, is expected to release a series of ISA standards and technical reports in the not-so-distant future.

It will provide guidance on system design, implementation, operation and maintenance of SCADA systems by showcasing case studies of best practices within a range of industries.

The focus will be on companies and utilities within water and wastewater, power, oil and gas, as well as other industrial organizations that rely on SCADA systems.

Currently, there is no set release date as it’s still in the drafting process. I’ll be providing more information once it’s available in early May after the ISA Spring Leaders’ meeting in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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