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The Sound of Silence:  Communicating with machines

25 July 2013

Successful diagnostics, regardless of all the latest high tech data acquisition devices, still relies on good communications, as Steve Reed, technical director of the Institution of Diagnostic Engineers, explains

We now live in a world of automation, computerisation, mechanisation, robotics and the dreaded acronyms. Some are much overused and often by persons not realising that they are acronyms at all as they have evolved over time to become words in common use.


I looked up the acronym HMI on a website and found almost fifty definitions ranging from Human-Machine Interface to Hazardously Misleading Information. This article deals with the former, but please remain very aware of the latter.


One of my favourite acronyms is SCADA – Supervisory, Control and Data Acquisition – although changing in complexity it is in reality meaning the same today as the time of my early recollections some half century ago. My father would phone a special number that connected him with The Westgate Water Tower in Lincoln and together we would listen to a sequence of bells that indicated the water level in yards, feet and inches. This was data acquisition at its finest.


In the 1960s I would be working on numerical controlled machine tools, these would become computer numerical controlled CNC, through CAD/CAM to what we are familiar with today as the all embracing CAE Computer Aided Engineering.


Today with Distributed Control Systems DCS the control element shifts away from the central core of the system taking with it the diagnostic functions. This creates sets of new and unique problems for Industrial Network Security INS, reliability and maintenance of manufacturing systems. We have a strong urge to use the latest available technology regardless of whether it is necessary or applicable to the process. 


We have no SCADA without communication; in an industrial application we have an HMI of one sort or other, but let’s just consider what we may be creating with our desire for the latest interface with our machinery and processes.


What is occurring outside the industrial environment I feel is relevant within industry because frequently I am made aware of failures due to the lack of a robust Human-Human interface. Certain benefit claimants are now compelled to use an online service and we are all familiar with automated teller machines, self service petrol pumps and self service checkouts. It is therefore possible to conduct your daily business without contact with another human being unless you require tobacco or alcohol which I believe requires a person to confirm your age. 


We must therefore apply the appropriate technology but be mindful of the fact that there is an alternative to the automated electronic communicator. Successful diagnostics today regardless of all the latest high tech Data Acquisition devices still requires that little extra information. During a recent factory visit to a well known earth moving machinery manufacturer the guide proudly proclaimed that they had the ability to log into their machines worldwide to diagnose problems, access data and fix faults. I only hope that they also have a little chat with the driver to get his opinion on how things are going. As in the case of the most technologically advanced machining centre the operator is still a source of useful information.


Our leading aerospace and automobile companies, together with several other high tech industries, have embraced the CAE philosophy. However for the UK to compete on a global platform we need to apply CAE to the other 80% of manufacturing and other industrial activities that still continue with the old traditional methods. Emerging Industrial nations, like small children have no transition period they just go straight into the new technologies.


The application and common use of high tech equipment in the medical sector has seen more growth due in part to the high costs associated with low volume production. Pharmaceutical and chemical industries main costs are associated with high upfront development rather than the capital cost of high tech manufacturing plant. 


So while appreciating the need to expand the use of CAE within UK industry we must maintain a communication system that is robust, legible appropriate and secure. To repeat, successful diagnostics rely on good communications.


Industrial network security

Industrial networks become more vulnerable as control complexity and geographical remote access increases. Cyber threats to control systems and industrial networks are on the increase for many reasons, sabotage, industrial and political espionage and national security to name a few. Perpetrated by individual hackers and government organisations alike the results can be catastrophic in many ways. Keeping the network small and secure may seem obvious but the 'must have the latest wireless gizmo' approach is all too obvious in many organisations. Li-Fi  (Light Fidelity) will soon be a must have. Other emerging technologies, such as Samsung's eye-tracking smartphone, will no doubt soon be incorporated into the latest MMI devices.

A local hard wired system may be adequate in many applications and as most would agree it would be difficult without local access to steal the data. As we then go to regional, national, international, global and intergalactic as the extreme NASA system, the use of wireless, radio and satellite communication of data exposes it to the world and, if the code or encryption is hacked into, then nothing is safe.



For the purpose of fault finding and trouble shooting machine and process problems, nothing has significantly changed other than the methods of receiving and presenting the data. Noise, temperature, vibration and other parameters all present themselves as electrical signals suitably displayed and or transmitted to whoever or wherever the data is required – stuff with which we are all familiar. Visit any of the maintenance exhibitions and you will be exposed to all the latest and greatest bits of kit whose purpose is to alert the system to impending faults before temperature becomes smoke and vibration becomes noise. Simplicity is often the key – using a  traffic light display for the benefit of the operator, very complex and difficult diagnostic tasks are performed but simply displayed and understood. The communication is obvious but the red light may not shutdown the machine as it may be desirable for the operator to make that decision depending entirely on the circumstances. 


We all have our own example of things occurring which were as a result of that lack of communication – aircraft crashing, ships running aground, plant explosions – of course these are extreme and, fortunately, rare occurrences.


We must return to the spoken work. So obvious you say, yet diagnostic engineers – doctors of industry – can’t ask the patient how they are feeling; we must speak to each other for one of us may just have that vital piece of information.


Prof Stephen Hawkings’ voice remains back in the pioneering days of computer generated vocals because that is His Voice, it is the accent of the man and instantly recognised worldwide. Communication is the key.


Reduced eye contact and reduced conversation in public places may be due to reasons other than being connected to some media device or smartphone.  In the workplace is the power of speech as a means of communication beginning to disappear?


It was assumed by many that if someone didn’t understand English you just raised the volume. When I was lecturing people who only understood a little English, I- Would- Speak-Special-English as spoken on The Radio during the Voice Of America show and soon I was in demand to translate for those with strong regional accents who, of course, were also speaking English.


Happy sounds: poka-yoke as used by the Japanese happy little tunes emanating from the production machinery when all is in good order.

The sound of distress:- A loud continuous screeching sound coming from the direction of a pillar drill was in fact John the newly graduated engineer attempting to drill a 12mm hole in a piece of plate steel, running the machine in reverse. John had not learned the language yet but had he continued the change of colour of the drill from blue to red would no doubt  have alerted him to a problem with his drilling technique. 

We are probably all familiar with the above and I guess that provided no one was hurt we may have found the actions of those new to industry mildly amusing.

Spreading the word

The Institution of Diagnostic Engineers actively encourages networking and takes every available opportunity to attend exhibitions both in the UK and overseas, arranging and presenting seminars. We evaluate and promote the products and services of our Accredited Industry Partners. Our Accredited Education Partners offer courses and training opportunities to fellow members at preferential rates. As a registered charity we can help and support young engineers with training assistance packages and all members have access to the membership’s vast knowledge and experience across a wide range of industrial sectors and activities.

Although the perception is maybe that you can learn from the internet and information should be provided electronically, we do have an active website and produce an electronic version of our journal Diagnostic Engineering. We strongly believe however that the spoken word, seminars and good exhibitions are still very relevant today. 

Our CEO Bill Parker recently made a presentation at Maintec (NEC, Birmingham) during our Spring Fair in March and was invited as a keynote speaker to make a presentation to The 11th International Operation and Maintenance Conference in Saudi Arabia this May.

For over 30 years we have been spreading the word and while we move with the times and delight in the emerging technologies within the field of diagnostic engineering we treasure our industrial heritage. We invite engineers, technicians, students and apprentices to join us and help shape the industry over the next 30 years. We have a grade of membership to match all suitable applicants. For more information about what we are and what we do, visit our website at www.diagnosticengineers.org