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What Voice Control Interfaces Might Mean for Noisy Plants

AI and machine interface experts have had much to say in recent years about how we will use our voices to interface with our machines in the coming years. They point to products like Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Amazon’s Echo that are enabling users to interact with their machines without touching screens or using their hands at all. The artificial intelligence is still in early stages, but quite a lot is already possible if you know how to communicate with these machines in ways they understand.

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But in years when we are seeing a narrowing gap between consumer technology and what is available on the plant floor, how will a new paradigm of voice assisted interfaces work when combined with noisy machines on a busy plant floor? Should HMI/SCADA developers be planning for voice operation?

Why Are Consumer Devices Favoring Voice Assisted Interfaces?

There are some benefits to voice control. It’s often faster to speak than to type, and these systems are becoming quite adept at speech-to-text dictation. Voice controls also are better able to make use of context, such as “what restaurants are near me?” or “Which machines need service?”

In addition, the interface is what makes the query to the database, versus the user having to type in specific commands.

Devices controlled strictly with voice commands may also be cheaper, as they do not need to rely on screens and generally get most of their processing power from remote servers on the cloud. Search organizations such as Google are also favoring voice commands in searches, and are building algorithms to better respond to search queries performed with voice interfaces.

Drawbacks to Voice Technology

There are, however, drawbacks that make voice technology less than ideal for the industrial environment. Machines and plant floors are generally noisy places, and industrial equipment may make it difficult to speak to our machines. In addition, voice controls make it difficult to enforce user authentication from passwords. Other systems will have to be added to ensure security, and precautions must be taken to ensure that voice queries are securely stored on the servers. For examples, just because a machine CAN understand voice commands to start, stop, or change a process doesn’t mean that anyone on the floor should be allowed access, or that the records of these searches can be left unsecured.

For consumer devices, there are also instances in which we simply don’t want anyone else listening in to what we query, buy, or command our machines to do. It’s also, let’s face it, a little awkward to talk to your computer.

How will Industrial Automation handle a shift to voice controls?

There are certainly situations in which voice control could be a benefit in industrial HMI/SCADA applications. The control room or manager’s office may be an excellent place to incorporate voice interfaces. Commands such as “show me the OEE of Machine 3,”  or “acknowledge alarm” may enable plant managers to react even more quickly to issues within the plant. Voice commands may allow remote maintenance to run diagnostics on a machine, even if they don’t have a visual screen. Voice commands will also aid operators who may have a vision impairment, dyslexia, or color-blindness that makes reading or understanding screens difficult.

Touch will continue to play a role even in consumer devices for many years to come, but it would be a good idea for machine builders to think about the scenarios in which their customers might start to expect and demand voice interfaces and plan ahead for them.

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