Mike’s Blog: Are touchscreens really better than knobs and dials? The U.S. Navy says no

There is a large-scale movement in test engineering toward instruments that use a touchscreen interface, replacing traditional knobs and dials. But are all test engineers in favor of it?

Helm Touchscreen NavyU.S. Navy

In the early morning hours of Aug. 21, 2017, the U.S.S. John S. McCain Navy warship collided with a Liberian oil tanker off the coast of Singapore and Malaysia, with the crash resulting in the deaths of 10 sailors and injuring 58 others. The crash happened when sailors lost control of the McCain, putting it in the path of the tanker.

A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation report stated that the McCain sailors were using an integrated bridge and navigation system (IBNS), which is a multifunctional pair of touchscreens designed by Northrop-Grumman.

That interface had been installed only a year before the fatal accident, and the NTSB report stated that a lack of proper training on the new touchscreen interface was the cause. Prior to installing the IBNS, McCain sailors had been using traditional mechanical controls with knobs and dials. The NTSB found that in the August 2017 incident, a sailor became confused about the interface that controlled only one side of the ship, with that sailor instead believing he was commanding steering of the entire ship’s throttle.

As a result of the tragedy, the U.S. Navy will revert its destroyers back onto a physical throttle and traditional knobs-and-dials control system over the next 18 to 24 months, according to a report by USNI News. That report cites a NAVSEA spokeswoman stating that all DDG-51 class ships with the IBNS will have physical throttles installed, with the first one scheduled for the summer of 2020 and “after the hardware and software changes have been developed and fully tested to ensure the new configuration is safe, effective, and has training in place.”

So, what does this have to do with electronic test & measurement?

Wave Length 304930 1280

One of the major movements across all of electronic test & measurement in recent years has been the replacement, or advancement, of traditional knobs-and-dials interface on T&M instruments onto a prominently touchscreen panel interface. This movement coincides with how this has happened amid the greater electronics industry, in everything from smartphones to industrial maintenance equipment.

As complex as T&M instrumentation designs have become, the push to make such products more user-friendly has resulted in oscilloscopes, vector network analyzers, EMI/EMC test equipment, and much more offering larger and larger touchscreen interfaces aimed to be easier and faster to use for engineers. While this aims to help all engineers, it’s a particular plus for inexperienced engineers, as the learning curve on instruments with with a knobs-and-dials interface can often be challenging to navigate. Many newer instruments are a hybrid, offering a touchscreen while retaining knobs and dials, so that engineers can perform all functions using either interface.

Today’s electronic test labs—and the greater T&M field as a whole—are facing the challenge of “Brain Drain”, in which experienced test engineers are retiring and leaving the field, and there is a shortage of younger test engineers with at least decent experience to replace them. It’s a talent pipeline shortage that these touchscreens in-part aim to help with, and a topic  I’ve touched on in several EE editorials. I've been sent valuable feedback on it.

I’m well aware that unlike the U.S.S. McCain accident, a test engineer mistakenly using the wrong touchscreen procedure on their oscilloscope or arbitrary waveform generator isn’t going to result in physical harm to anyone. Yes, it’s an apples and oranges comparison. Still, the principle applies. Are all test engineers in favor of the move to touchscreen instruments? It’s a question I haven’t directly posed to product engineers in my many visits with them at various industry expos, but one I’d like to going forward. As with any technological advance, and the average age of test engineers, I have to assume there’s at least decent pushback.

Mike Hockett, EE Editor-in-ChiefMike Hockett, EE Editor-in-ChiefSo, EE readers, I’m asking now: Do you like a touchscreen interface on test instruments, or do you prefer physical knobs and dials? What are the drawbacks to touchscreens in T&M? Is proper training being provided for touchscreen interfaces?

I’d love to hear your feedback on this topic. If I receive enough, I’ll gladly provide a follow-up editorial or blog that includes that feedback, anonymously. 

More in Instrumentation