Processing Magazine

Industrial-grade computer peripherals: more than just a NEMA enclosure

Rugged internals and components keep joysticks, mouse pointers and keyboards from breakdown in harsh, messy environments

January 1, 2013

Industrial peripherals — the joysticks, mouse pointers and keyboards that act as the interface between humans and processing equipment — are under constant assault in harsh, messy industrial environments.

In processing plants, mines and mills across the country, these peripherals are exposed to extremely high and low temperatures, moisture, high-pressure wash downs, dirt, grime and operator abuse — often around the clock.

Unfortunately, many industrial peripherals built to last in these environments often fail or malfunction within months and are replaced or repaired at considerable ongoing cost.

The problem isn’t always the harsh, abusive environment. Instead, many industrial peripheral manufacturers rely too heavily on ruggedized enclosures, while using commercial-grade components and internal designs adopted from the PC market.

One technician’s take on it

For Robert Johnson, a service technician for Bethlehem, Pa.-based Minteq, a supplier of refractory systems, the steel foundry environment is, “among the harshest imaginable” and the choice of peripherals used in any control system is critical to care-free daily operation.

Minteq’s LaCam laser profile measuring system for non-contact measurement of refractory linings in metallurgical reaction and transport vessels operates in an environment where temperatures can vary from -10 F to more than 2,000 F at the furnace.

“We were using an industrial keyboard/mouse combination unit,” Johnson says. “But it wasn’t reliable. It wasn’t very industrial. It didn’t react to the temperature extremes like we needed. It would lock up from time to time. We were constantly replacing them.”

The keyboard/mouse combination came with a guide rail and roller system, to pull the keyboard out during use. It wasn’t designed to handle dirt or extreme high and low temperatures. The mouse didn’t respond well when operators wore gloves, which in the steel industry is most of the time. Finally, once the membrane that covered the mouse got dirty or roughed up it didn’t work at all. When the mouse began failing the entire unit had to be replaced. Johnson estimates this occurred every couple of months over the span of 10 years.

NEMA designations

Built strictly to meet established industry standards, many industrial peripherals are protected by a NEMA 4X (IP66) enclosure. This designation indicates the enclosure protects internals from dust, dirt, water (including pressure washing) and even external ice formation.

In addition to enclosures, the industry uses several other common techniques to keep peripherals sealed and watertight. Industrial keyboards, for example, are commonly covered with a monolithic elastomer cover.

But like the old saying goes, “you can’t judge a peripheral by its cover or enclosure.” A deeper look into the internal components and design separates the “industrial” peripheral from those truly ruggedized devices that survive — and thrive — for many years.

A true industrial-grade peripheral entails ruggedized components that can stand a temperature range from -40 C to 80 C, are hardened against wear caused by heavy or rough use and have few moving parts or potential failure points.

Johnson says he spent a considerable amount of time searching for an alternative and tried six or seven different products before discovering the Industrial Mouse from Stratford, Conn.-based CTI Electronics, which designs and manufactures industrial-grade trackballs, joysticks, keyboards and intelligent switches for OEMs, system integrators and commercial end-users.

The ‘joy’ of it

The Industrial Mouse is a rugged joystick used as a mouse pointing-device, with an inductive effect patented by CTI Electronics to deliver the desired control. Unlike most joystick-style devices, there are no physical contacts and only three moving parts, so there is little internal wear despite potentially millions of operations.

“It’s the easiest thing to install, you basically plug it in and it works,” explains Johnson. “There’s no fooling around with it — no drivers, no settings, no nothing.”

Today, the devices Johnson installed 18 months ago are still in service.

“The most impressive thing is that it’s almost indestructible,” says Johnson. “It handles everything we throw at it from the extreme heat down south to extreme cold up at the top of Lake Superior. Sometimes, you’ve got to go from the furnace at 2,400 F back to -10 F in about a minute. It handles all that without skipping a beat.”

The operators love it, adds Johnson. “It’s a joystick and they can use it while wearing gloves. It’s got a little button on top. Basically, it’s like a video game to them. It’s easy and fast. They can just move, click, move, click, move, click.”

The Industrial Mouse allowed Minteq to eliminate the keyboard component altogether. Now operators use the joystick along with touch screens.

Eliminating the keyboard also put an end to the difficulties with the guide rail and roller mechanism. That delivered about 1.25 inches of additional room inside the machine for future design elements, says Johnson. “It’s a complete win. We’ve upgraded every keyboard/mouse unit that failed or that we simply wanted to upgrade.”

 

CTI Electronics Corp.

www.ctielectronics.com