Types of Custom Designed Keyboards
Although they are often associated with personal computers, keyboards can be found in many sectors of the industrial marketplace. The industrial keyboard is a user interface, helping machine operators and engineers interact with a wide range of automated or semi-automated equipment. These devices typically employ alphanumeric buttons or sensors coded to specific input data that is relayed into a computer system, machine interface, or operational network.
Custom designed keyboards are an alternative to the standard keyboards usually packaged with computer systems. These specialized tools can be configured with a broad assortment of features, with many different combinations designed to meet the needs of specific industrial applications. The National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) provides the specification and safety standards for most keyboard configurations. From swappable input devices and pointing text software, to optical recognition and speech controls, customizable keyboard designs offer a valuable range of tailored functions and utilities.
One of the main distinctions between various keyboards is the type of circuit contact, or “switch,” used to communicate data into a machine. These switches determine the level of feedback and responsiveness of a key, and most keyboards have dozens of them. The most common configuration found in commercial and personal applications is the dome-switch design, which bridges two circuit boards through a rubber or plastic sheath. Pressing a key causes the rubber membrane to descend, connecting the two circuits and transmitting the input into the machine. The dome-switch model is common in offices and handheld devices. Some other customizable switch features include:
• Molded silicone switch keys: These are individually molded buttons that provide durability and tight sealing for industrial applications.
• Membrane designs: Membrane keyboards are usually flat, multi-layered interfaces that issue audio alerts to indicate that a key has been pressed. They are water and leakage resistant, and are often used in difficult settings, such as those involving corrosive elements or harsh environmental conditions.
• Mechanical switches: These keyboards offer a physical switch mechanism beneath each individual key. They tend to be more expensive than membrane designs, but provide strong positive feedback from a key press and relatively quick response time.
• Rollover Capability: Rollover is the degree to which a keyboard can respond to multiple simultaneous key presses. Certain industrial applications require several interface keys to be held down at the same time, or programming to prevent the machine from misreading accidental presses. In these cases, customized keyboards with individual switches and diodes at each circuit intersection can enable efficient rollover detection.
Keyboard Mounting Configurations
Positioning a keyboard is an important consideration in numerous industrial projects. Machine specifications may preclude the chance of a standard desktop arrangement, and space requirements often dictate the interface design. For these reasons, custom mounting settings can be a valuable addition to a manufacturing job. Some common types of custom mountings used in machine controls include:
• Standalone: These keyboards rest on top of a flat surface, such as a table or a clear space directly on the equipment. They can be mounted at an adjustable angle to better help the user access the interface. Some can be configured with optional touch panels, and are available in cable-attached or wireless formats.
• Flush mount: Flush mounted keyboards are usually attached from the rear of the operator’s panel, and have threading holes to ensure a stable connection. They typically include a gasket seal that allows them to lie closely against the equipment, minimizing their profile.
• Surface mount: These keyboards also use a gasket seal, but are mounted to the top of a user control panel, rather than its rear. They usually provide a small profile, and can be customized with other features, such as specialized text overlays or touch screen capabilities.
While many machine control systems employ peripheral devices such as mice, trackballs, or joysticks, certain risks presented by an industrial environment can render them impractical. Contaminants or physical wear may degrade the quality of an external device, making integrated touch panels a commonly used option in conjunction with keyboards. These touch screens detect finger motion and tapping, and usually function without any moving parts. Digital icons can be clicked, dragged, or manipulated using a pointer. The touch panel is usually attached to the keyboard via cables or wireless connections, and can be mounted in ways similar to keyboard positioning.
Virtual Keyboards and Keysets
In circumstances where a physical keyboard is not a viable option, virtual keyboard technology may come in handy. A virtual keyboard can be created with an optical projection device that casts a laser display onto a flat surface and uses sensors to detect key presses, or by a touch panel or tablet computer with a built-in digital keyboard. These devices can often be reconfigured with various key combinations, depending on the changing circumstances of the task.
Similarly, a keyset is a small handheld device useful for situations in which a full-sized keyboard would be impossible or impractical. It employs a series of buttons that, when pressed in certain combinations, transmit various texts or commands to a machine. While it has limited applications due to its inability to fully express a complex language, the keyset can be helpful in communicating simple functions and allows the user to have a free hand while operating the device.
Many industrial keyboards can be equipped with secondary characteristics to enhance their utility. Features such as backlights, audio alerts, ergonomic shapes, and rugged durability are fairly widespread customizable options. In addition, manufacturers can often purchase specialized keysets that provide different button layouts aside from the standard QWERTY configuration.
Some keypads can be designed to suit specific machine controls by providing hotkeys that initiate a frequently used task or with color designations that offer easier access to certain functions. Manufacturers can also choose between connectivity options, depending on whether a USB, serial, parallel, or PS/2 port is the preferable mode for integrating a keyboard into a particular machine system. This vast array of modifiable features, as well as the rapid advance of new designs, makes it likely that custom keyboards will continue to provide valuable support for many industrial applications.