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programming a single board computer as a machine controller (HMI)

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If you don't buy into the RPi, I'm at a loss as to what other hardware choices out there.

With a RPi running Ubuntu or Debian with Python and PyQt, you would have:
 - a small SBC that you can add a display
 - serial I/O to talk to your system
 - Qt to create a display window with dropdown menus

I'm a C/C++ guy who has used Qt on Redhat Linux and Windows 7.  So, no experience with Python.
You will need Qt if you want typical dropdown menus in a window. 
However, Qt on a PC has a very steep learning curve.

:-//  Unless I totally misunderstand your requirements, there is no easy solution and will probably require a pretty skilled programming person.  And from what others have said here, there doesn't appear to be any easy off the shelf tool out there.

Come to think of it...

Take a look at Node-Red for the RPi / BeagleBone / Arduino.
It might do what you want

I'm thinking of stuff like this:

But yes nodered looks interesting


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