Industrial Displays Meet the Challenges of Intense Viewing Requirements
Trends from military and consumer environments are driving product enhancements in viewing capabilities and user interface for industrial displays in a wide variety of applications.
“Industrial display” is a large, encompassing term that sets these types of products apart from their consumer/retail and military-aerospace (mil-aero) counterparts. They generally include many of the more rugged attributes of military displays without the regulated requirements found with these types of installations, while reliably performing in a variety of lighting conditions from direct sunlight to dimly lit indoor environments, as typically found in retail.
Since their humble beginnings showing only characters and simple symbols on monochromatic screens—a tried-and-true function they still dutifully perform today—industrial displays have evolved to serve a more interactive role in system computing operations.
Currently available industrial displays draw from their consumer and mil-aero cousins to offer a range of options, readability, functionality and interfaces that help bring the back-end technology of a computing system to the forefront, where users can easily interface with today’s advanced embedded electronics systems.
For traditional industrial operations, monochrome character-based vacuum fluorescent displays (VFDs) still serve the simple purpose of displaying basic system information (Figure 1).
|Figure 1: Industrial applications not only include the factory floor, but a growing range of applications as well.|
But “industrial” applications have moved beyond the factory floor to include areas such as transportation, railway, mobile medical equipment and outdoor kiosks, requiring more intense graphical representation, wider viewing angles and better readability in a variety of lighting conditions.
Fortunately, designers have a wide breadth of display technologies in their arsenal from which to choose including:
- Ruggedized high-bright active matrix LCDs: thin film transistor (TFT) or active-matrix LCD displays typically have high resolution, high contrast and very fast pixel response. They have essentially become the workhorse for consumer and industrial applications. Anti-reflective coatings and super-high-bright backlighting can be used to enhance readability, especially for outdoor applications.
- Organic LED (OLED): A newer emissive display technology that provides brighter, crisper displays on electronic devices and uses less power than typical LCDs, OLEDs work without backlighting, so they can display deep black levels while being thinner and lighter than LCDs.
A Display for Every Environment
Options abound for today’s industrial system designer needing to incorporate a unique display interface based on application requirements. Display sizes can range from as small as 3.5 inches up to 21 inches for equipment applications and to 60 inches and beyond for signage and control room applications; all of these displays can be developed to operate in temperature extremes from -30°C to +70°C. Integrated enhancements bring peripheral functions that range from on-screen display controls to single and multi-touch touchscreens.
Custom housings and bezels enable precise development of displays for specific installations and environmental sealing provides extra protection from harsh conditions such as dust, humidity, chemical splash and condensation. EMC filtering and shielding is easily integrated into today’s displays, ensuring reliable, consistent operation.
Preserving an Interface
Display customization not only helps when building new systems, but in retrofits as well. As the back-end technology of a computing system becomes more advanced, the natural outcome is more flexibility in data available for manipulation or viewing.
Older display technologies may not accommodate current visual parameters afforded by upgraded computing systems, such as increased video resolutions, deeper color or gray-scale processing, faster response times, or touch screen interface. What good is an upgraded computing system if the user can’t effectively access the data in real-time?
At the same time, the transition to an upgraded display may need to be in line with the user’s existing process to ensure a seamless transition to a new interface, while preserving the familiar one, lessening disruption in work flow due to the user’s retraining or acclimation to the new display.
Think of when you upgrade your own computer workstation or learn a new program. Typically, you need to figure out where certain commands are now located or what screens you need to access to in order to obtain needed data. The familiar location of switches and bezels as well as similar color, shape and sizing may seem like minor attributes, but this degree of familiarity can aid in the user becoming more comfortable with the new interface, allowing them to quickly embrace the enhanced features that have been incorporated into the display.
Moving Beyond Environmental Design Options
In addition to these design options, certain technological advancements have also pushed display technologies forward, enabling their use in a growing number of industrial applications.
3D without the glasses
Making significant headway is the integration of sophisticated beam-steering optics and LED backlight controllers used to create 3D autostereoscopic technology that allows for 3D viewing without the need for special glasses. Display applications from the broadcast industry and retail environments up to in-the-field, military handheld equipment can now employ autosteroscopic 3D technology to significantly enhance the viewing experience. Industrial applications are no different.
Critical processes, as found in medical and laboratory environments, will benefit greatly from the added depth dimension that 3D displays bring to visual data, video and graphics to help separate and highlight critical information, giving users the ability to “layer” real world data. And the ability to view this content without glasses makes it all the more attractive for industrial applications.
Consistency across platforms
High-definition (HD) imagery is making its way into retail and military environments, putting pressure on industrial displays from both ends of the manufacturing perspective to incorporate this enhanced content. Most, if not all of the modern TVs, laptops, cell phones and tablets, employ a wide format (16:9 or 16:10) and an HD pixel density/resolution.
When users experience HD and wide-format viewing in most aspects of their lives, it becomes the accepted norm and what is expected in terms of viewing capabilities. The eye becomes trained to see this wide HD content, so anything less is noticed by the user. Additionally, as the technology matured, the volumes produced increased and the costs have fallen, making HD an obtainable option for environments not typically concerned with enhanced viewing.
Display manufacturers are also constantly working towards higher brightness, increased contrast capabilities, more clarity and improved efficiency. Films for brightness enhancement and contrast enhancement are consistently integrated into industrial displays as are more efficient LED backlight components that help to increase brightness and decrease internal component size. This allows for additional display performance at equal or lower power, increasing the reliability and life of the product. This reduces the overall cost of ownership of the product and the value to the customer.
Technology on the inside
Low-power, low-heat generating processors are enabling a better balance between processing performance and the hardware acceleration of communication and video/graphics that are critical to many industrial operations.
Integrated standard software platforms, such as Android, Linux and Windows, promote the reuse of extensive libraries of open source applications developed and deployed in modern-day cell phones, PDAs and tablet devices—formats many users are already familiar with operating.
Thin client Ethernet communication architectures—especially those being developed, analyzed and planned for next-generation system architectures—enable displays to be added to standard network server architectures prevalent in most locations. Rather than needing to design and install video cabling and distribution components, these displays basically plug and play on the network using standard Internet protocols.
One thing holds true for all display technologies—legibility is the name of the game. If you can’t read the data, it doesn’t matter how big the display resolution or how intuitive the user interface is. All the options in the world won’t make a difference if the display isn’t readable.
Careful optical design and surface treatment materials are key to maintaining a high contrast ratio throughout the application environments. Advanced bonding and lamination techniques reduce internal light reflections and parallax issues as well as condensation and internal dust build up. These techniques preserve the inherent contrast ratio of the LCD and deliver consistent, legible displays (Figure 2).
|Figure 2: The complexity of today’s displays requires consistency and quality at every layer and every aspect of the manufacturing process.|
As more complexity is added to a display, in terms of HD content or 3D viewing, touch screen interfaces and protective coatings, the ability to drive light through the screen becomes more of a challenge. The pixels get smaller and there are additional layers for the light to get through. Quality bonding and lamination will truly make the difference in the how images are displayed on today’s industrial displays.
Embracing the Enhancements
Industrial displays are being employed in a much wider variety of applications that enhance viewing capabilities as well as the user’s interface with the computing system. Trends from military and retail environments definitely help to drive product enhancements, but by embracing the additional attributes afforded by these enhancements, industrial displays are growing in use and in function.
As vice president of business development for IEE, Inc., Steve Motter uses his extensive engineering experience to develop the company’s long-term strategic plan as it relates to both technologies and products to better serve IEE’s client base. He has worked in various engineering capacities, from director to vice president, throughout his career managing many product development programs.