Visualisation accelerator for small size HMI systems

Author : Uwe Harasko, SÜTRON

31 January 2014

Fig.1: AMD’s hardware-based graphics accelerator creates smoother interactive graphics and animations in Inosoft’s 3D VisiWin demo
Fig.1: AMD’s hardware-based graphics accelerator creates smoother interactive graphics and animations in Inosoft’s 3D VisiWin demo

Engineers are increasingly calling for premium graphics, including high-quality 3D visualisations on ever-smaller devices. How can developers integrate demanding graphical user interfaces and 3D visualisations so they also fit into fanless low-power panel PCs? Inosoft has tested the use of SÜTRON panel PCs with AMD APUs because the visualisation accelerator has already been integrated in the hardware.

Eighty percent of HMI functions are determined by graphics, which is why graphics capabilities are the focus of attention now. In the latest generation of human/machine interfaces, conventional physical operator controls are increasingly being replaced by touch-screen interfaces that provide a user experience comparable to that of a modern consumer smartphone or tablet PC. This technological evolution promises to bring about huge gains in productivity and precision in industrial controllers and the automation field in general.

Similar to the way in which smartphone designers have jettisoned most physical pushbutton controls in favor of reconfigurable touchscreen interfaces, HMI panel designers can more easily modify the functionality of their applications now. They can gradually adapt and improve operation of the devices they design and build by utilising software-reconfigurable multi-touch interfaces. What’s more, the hardware dependencies between the user interface and the embedded panel PC are reduced as a result.

GUIs are growing more important
Many users regard high-quality visualisations of processes and machines as an increasingly important consideration in the purchase process, since these allow operating parameters to be determined and used intuitively. Users experience the HMI as the “face” of the machine or factory, as it were. As such, this interface is also an important way of expressing quality in a visual manner. Besides that, a high-caliber user interface also has a number of concrete economic benefits for users: it simplifies operation and it helps the operator to use the device correctly. A self-explanatory interface that’s easy to use can also dramatically reduce the cost of training an operator and the time it initially takes them to use it effectively at their workplace. However, the more graphics are employed, the more graphics capability is expected of the HMI device.

Many developers of HMIs wish to incorporate increasingly realistic 3D animations into their applications to visualise the design and functionality of machines and factories by using 3D illustrations of exploded assembly drawings or other animations, for instance. This kind of functionality calls for sophisticated computer algorithms that can either be implemented in the CPU software or through hardware acceleration on the graphics unit.

Hardware-accelerated 3D graphics
Stefan Niermann, Key Account Manager at Inosoft, a visualisation software manufacturer, discusses the necessity of hardware acceleration, particularly for 3D visualisations: “Modern visualisation systems rely on hardware-accelerated 3D graphics for high-quality GUIs. Only this ensures smooth, lag-free images, even for realistic 3D photo animations with dynamic lighting and smooth color transitions. But it is a different case for systems with small screen sizes of up to 15 inches, as more energy-efficient processors are usually employed in such cases. Their graphics features have tended to be rather weak up until now, meaning that 3D animations couldn’t be displayed in a satisfactory way.”

To save factory system builders from having to do all the programming for the 3D GUIs themselves, Inosoft has designed a number of visualisation products under the name of VisiWin. Using this series of tools, engineers can quickly and easily create new, high-caliber designs for graphical user interfaces intended for visualisation and SCADA applications on the basis of standard libraries, such as Microsoft Visual Studio and Blend. Thanks to the use of these libraries and programming interfaces like DirectX, designers – which are reliable and available long-term – designers can have some level of confidence for future planning.

Fanless designs
Up until recently, the kind of 3D graphics unit necessary for this was only found in high-performance HMIs with high processor power, or in bulky panel PCs with a discrete graphics card. Both types of systems are associated with high costs and high heat loss, requiring cooling with fans, which are prone to failure. However, customers are looking for slim, fanless, cost-effective HMIs with powerful graphics capabilities. Unlike systems designed with fan cooling, fanless systems can be operated in harsh factory environments with low maintenance requirement and without having to worry about potential failures occurring due to faulty fans. Additionally, they also lower the cost of maintenance, since it is no longer necessary to replace the fan or air filter on a regular basis.

To meet all of these requirements, AMD has developed x86 processors that can provide high-quality 3D graphics while consuming a low amount of power. The long term available AMD Embedded G-Series Accelerated Processing Units (APUs) include an x86 CPU and a discrete-level graphics processing unit on a single die. Benchmark results published in the IT trade press demonstrate the high potential of AMD’s Embedded G-Series APUs. In this case, the AMD G-T40E and AMD G-T40R APUs achieved scores of 291% and 259% on the performance index, as compared with the 100% achieved by an Intel Atom D2700 processor. In other words, they’re capable of providing up to three times more graphics performance than the competition. Lab benchmarks only go so far; in the field is where these processors can really be put to the test. Inosoft has carried extensive tests of the AMD G-Series APUs for its own VisiWin visualisation solutions.

Efficient during real operation
Inosoft’s Stefan Niermann tested the performance of the AMD G-Series APUs on panel PCs from the “P Line,” a range of products made by SÜTRON electronic. The top-of-the-line systems in this fanless series are based on the dual-core AMD T40E APU, which has a thermal design power (TDP) of 6.4 W. P Line models incorporate the design of the AMD Embedded G-Series APUs in a powerful touch panel designed to be completely fanless. On the benefits of the new systems, Niermann says: “The development system went very well — even our most demanding 3D demo ran nicely. It shook a bit, admittedly, but much less than a comparable Intel Atom processor-based system.”
A more objective impression can be gained by comparing 3D graphics using standard tools such as Futuremark’s 3DMark06 v1.2.0 graphics benchmark. Depending on the application, devices with an AMD T40E APU that have AMD Radeon HD6250 graphics can perform anything between three and ten times better than devices that only allow software emulation. This is due to the hardware graphics acceleration for WPF and Open GL.

For OEMs in the industry, it’s also important that the systems have a high degree of scalability. Inosoft’s software and the AMD processors are scalable for each of the SÜTRON HMI systems, regardless of whether they are entry-level or high-end solutions, and have a consistent feature set across the entire performance range. Additionally, the family of AMD APUs support virtualisation of Microsoft Windows GUIs in connection with deterministic, real-time features for controlling machinery. In summary, SÜTRON’s AMD processor-based panel PCs are likely to be a particularly attractive technology platform for many industrial machine and factory builders. These HMIs enable them to integrate small form factor HMIs with impressive, user-friendly graphics into their systems, to drive down overall system costs and both increase system and user efficiencies.

A uniform, scalable processor platform enables tight integration of process control with real-time operation and a real-time operating system as well as the graphical user interface with an operating system such as Microsoft Windows.

Fig.1: AMD’s hardware-based graphics accelerator creates smoother interactive graphics and animations in Inosoft’s 3D VisiWin demo

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