International Women in Engineering Day takes place every year on June 23rd. It is a day to highlight the contributions of women who have or who presently influence, inspire, and drive innovation in the world of engineering. Because of their work, we have great advancements in computer science, computer technology, and programming languages that still propel our industries forward. Notable systems we owe to the contributions of women include graphical user interfaces (GUIs) and human machine interfaces (HMIs).

Despite their similar functionalities, the two are still inherently different. Graphical User Interfaces present icons and other digital visuals that a user can interact with in order to control the device and the functions it performs. A common example of a GUI is a smartphone or tablet. HMI panels, on the other hand, are devices that serve as a liaison between the human user and a piece of machinery. They allow operators to interact with and control equipment, a common practice in manufacturing facilities.

Adele Goldberg and the Graphical User Interface (GUI)

Adele Goldberg is one name often referenced in the history of the graphical user interface. However, she is best known as the computer scientist who aided the development of the computer programming language called Smalltalk-80. This language was used to create one of the first modern GUIs and is what eventually led to the creation of the first Apple computer. Her work on this project, in time, led her to co-found a company that would create development tools for applications that used Smalltalk. 

Unlike command line based systems, graphical user interfaces provide user-friendly components the average user has come to rely on — things like clickable icons, tabs, and toolbars. With the emergence of touchscreen devices, interacting with computers has become even more intuitive. It’s no surprise that demystifying computers has made the technology infinitely more accessible and appealing to the average consumer and to industries like manufacturing and healthcare as well. This is largely evidenced by the use of industrial and medical grade tablets in each respective industry. 

When the HMI Interface Utilizes a GUI

The success of GUIs meant that human machine interfaces could get an upgrade too. HMIs can be as minimalistic as a set of control knobs and buttons; they are essentially a way to communicate with a machine so it performs the desired task. An example of this would be the common keyboard. The integration of digital visuals meant that a human could see which commands they were sending to the machine and receive visual alarms and notifications from the machine in return. Their contribution to reducing human-error has made graphical HMIs a major staple in factories.

As a brief aside, due to their direct link with the equipment on the manufacturing floor, HMIs typically need stringent security measures to restrict access. For this reason, Magnetic Strip Readers (MSRs) or Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) readers are commonly added peripherals because of their identity verification capabilities. The functionality of these additions, however, also extends to inventory management and quality assurance. 

Already benefiting from graphical displays, HMI panels grew in functionality with the advent of automation through the Internet of Things (IoT). While not directly responsible for the beginnings of Wi-Fi, another woman in history patented the frequency hopping technology that became the precursor to the secure Wi-Fi we use today.

Hedy Lamarr and the Beginnings of WiFi

Better known for her Hollywood career, Hedy Lamarr is the ‘Sampson and Delilah’ movie star whose technical mind helped conceive a revolutionary communication system. As the United States geared up for World War II, she felt uncomfortable “sitting there in Hollywood and making lots of money when things were in such a state.” Lamarr, working jointly with George Antheil, developed a system that would allow torpedo systems to hop radio wave frequencies and thereby avoid detection as they traveled to their targets. It’s this technology that paved the way for wireless communications like Wi-Fi, GPS, and bluetooth. 

Despite patenting the idea in 1942, the system was never implemented and fell to the wayside. It wasn’t until 1997 that she and Antheil were awarded for the invention, and not until 2014 (14 years after her death) that she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall Fame. 

HMIs and the Scope Expanding Role of Wi-Fi 

As the HMI interface evolved it also became more connected. Now that these panels could be Wi-Fi enabled, they could communicate more readily with other devices in the facility. This meant they could be more easily troubleshooted, updated, and accessed by information sharing vessels like the cloud. Additionally, without the need for wiring, the application of HMIs became more practical since they could be implemented in a more diverse array of scenarios. 

Such advancements in the interconnectedness of technology created opportunities for smart factories, simulation capabilities, and efficient hospital systems that could all benefit from the ability to connect devices across a Wi-Fi network. Yet, the presence of Wi-Fi and increased cybersecurity concerns go hand-in-hand. This is again why precautions like two-factor authentication are important. Other measures include limiting remote access to HMIs and taking into account the configuration of a facility’s networks.

Women are a Strong Presence in STEM

Inventive ideas developed by women have shaped and completely revolutionized the way we do things as a society. As STEM is traditionally a male-dominated field, it is important to recognize that some of the greatest advancements to the field were ushered in by women. Adele Goldberg and Hedy Lamarr are simply two among numerous others like Grace Hopper, Annie Easley, Radia Perlman,and Katherine Johnson who made instrumental contributions in their respective specialties.

As evidenced by the HMI technology we still use heavily today, the work of these women established the foundations for lifetimes of technological progress. With the inevitability of industry 4.0 and IoT advancements, there is no doubt that human machine interfaces are to continue their evolutionary climb. If you would like to discover ways to incorporate or upgrade the interfaces in your company, contact the experts at Cybernet today!