Interview with Design&Electronics
Trends in switches, buttons & Co.
Published in Design&Electronics 01/2022
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Operating elements on the way to Industry 4.0
»Touchscreen plus E-Mech: It's all in the combination«
Today's HMIs usually combine touch panels and electromechanical operating elements. But flat membrane keyboards with extensive features are still popular, especially in medical technology. Markus Zemke, Sales Manager at N&H Technology, comments on this.
What innovations and unique selling points do you want to use to survive in the market compared to your competitors in the area of switches and buttons?
We place special focus on a comprehensive service profile, with which all processes of product development and product manufacture can be covered. This includes, among other things, support in development and construction, the optimization of technical specifications for product safety and the development of options for cost reduction. In addition to manufacturing electromechanical components and turnkey solutions, we also offer purchasing outsourcing options. We offer our medium-sized customers in particular the opportunity to simplify existing supply chains and streamline purchasing structures. For items with a regular, predictable need, we offer our customers the facility to set up a buffer store at our location in Germany. This is becoming increasingly important for our customers, especially in the current supply chain situation, because they benefit, among other things, from cost advantages due to higher production volumes and lower transport costs as well as flexible call options with a low supply risk.
How intelligent or "smart" do electromechanical operating elements have to be to do justice to the HMIs of tomorrow?
In the status quo, innovative control elements are usually a combination of proven electromechanical control units and modern touch panels. Above all, the controls should be reliable and durable. They also have to adapt to the area of application. Membrane keyboards, for example, are still very popular in medical technology. If several electrical sources are used in one place, for example in the operating room, malfunctions and faults can occur in the individual devices if there is insufficient shielding against electrical or electromagnetic effects, so that additional EMC shielding of the keyboard is necessary.
The increasing demands for miniaturization and design orientation also play an important role. Buttons with low installation depths and membrane keyboards with extensive equipment and a flat design reflect the trend. The end devices should be flatter, thinner and lighter, but miniaturization in the input area is also reaching its limits, after all the devices still have to be operated by humans. Touch screens and voice control, coupled with further developments in artificial intelligence (AI), are becoming increasingly present precisely because they are already an important part of our everyday lives.
To what extent can the functional parameters of electromechanical operating elements be programmed or configured? To what extent is context sensitivity possible?
A context-sensitive menu navigation enables users to interact with the system in even more depth. In this context, classic electromechanical control elements are the basis, which can be used in an even more focused way with a well thought-out software solution. In the best case, the interaction can minimize the number of required control elements and at the same time make operation more intuitive. However, because the design options depend directly on the defined control elements, it is all the more important to obtain expert knowledge early on in the development in order to optimally coordinate the software and hardware.
In which touchscreen HMI applications are electromechanical operating elements useful, and in which designs and functionalities can they be integrated there?
In industry and medicine, electromechanical controls are still very popular and useful. Especially in devices with a small number of functions, which at the same time require good visibility and are in constant user interaction, proven input components such as membrane keyboards, silicone switching mats and pushbuttons remain the preferred choice - also with regard to costs. Because the financial outlay for programming a graphical HMI interface is a not inconsiderable factor. The following applies: Often not everything that is technically possible is also economical.
In combination with touch displays, pushbuttons, membrane keyboards or silicone switch mats as additional input elements promote user-friendly menu navigation. Recurring input commands or preset parameters can be called up quickly, easily and clearly thanks to the mechanical keys. Thanks to the haptic feedback of the mechanical command transmitter, user-related input errors can be avoided, which increases the safety of operation.
Which new standards, regulations and sets of rules in the context of switches and buttons must electronics developers observe?
Switches and buttons are used across applications and industries. Here, the conditions of use determine the standards to be observed. However, topics that are often discussed in all areas are IP protection classifications, flammability requirements and, of course, shape and manufacturing tolerances in the respective material area. There are international standards for this, which most developers are familiar with. In addition, the service life and abrasion resistance, for example, are important characteristics that are secured at N&H Technology by application-specific factory standards and can be evaluated.
What do you advise to consider when selecting switches and buttons?
As large as the selection of different solutions, the customer's requirements for the products are often just as complex. Once the button has been defined, it usually passes on direct design requirements to many other development steps. Examples of this are the layout of the circuit board, the construction of the housing or additional seals required. At the same time, usability is an important feature for the end product and has a significant impact on the user experience. Customer-specific solutions also require a certain amount of lead time for project planning and the creation of the tools. We therefore recommend including the topic of operation early on in the development.