Industrial IoT still needs humans -- and user interfaces

GE's Predix UI helps developers design interfaces for applications on the Predix platform

IoT is getting more automated, but not everything can be done by machines. An engineer who's been working with a system for decades has insights that machines can't grasp, so sometimes it's a human making the tough calls.

General Electric now offers a way to design that engineer's virtual dashboard. The system, called Predix UI, is for enterprises developing applications on GE's Predix cloud platform.

Predix is a development and hosting platform for industrial IoT applications that started shipping widely last week. Enterprises can use Predix for applications to monitor and manage a variety of IoT systems, not just those made by GE. The apps can run on the enterprise's own cloud or on GE's.

Predix is aimed at heavy industrial companies like Rasgas, a natural gas company in Qatar. Rasgas takes natural gas off rail cars, cools it down into a liquid and loads it on tankers. If any part of that process isn't working, the whole operation has to shut down. Rasgas runs an application on Predix to analyze inputs from sensors throughout its facilities and predict failures.

These kinds of uses call for special user interfaces suited to the industrial world, says Dave Cronin, executive design director for General Electric's Predix IoT application platform.

"It's very different from a user sitting at their desk interacting with an application on a desktop computer," Cronin said.

For example, industrial IoT managers usually have to keep an eye on a lot of things around them, not just their PC or mobile device. They also tend to work in poor light, so it's harder to see the screen.

predixui1 General Electric

A sample image of a user interface created by General Electric's Predix UI development platform.

To deal with these issues, Predix UI uses simple and direct design elements. Colors are bright, and the most important data can be put in the spotlight at center screen, with outer elements dimmed so they don't distract. Buttons for primary actions are always the same color.

"Even if they're staring across a plant floor, they're able to see this button, out of the corner of the eye, that they need to press to execute the action," Cronin said.

Within that overall look, enterprises will have a lot of flexibility to design their own interfaces, he said. Predix UI makes use of things like Google's Polymer component library and the Web Components specifications pushed by Google and others. Developers can use any Web app framework, such as Angular or Ember. Also, users will also be able to share components they've built with Predix UI with other developers.

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