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Industrial Keyboards: Not Available at Office Max
Keyboards for nurse stations and hospital rooms must be protected for washdown, sterilization and/or disinfecting.

What is an industrial keyboard? Good question. The answer depends on what industry you are in. So the question is more easily answered by what an industrial keyboard is not. Industrial keyboards are not PC keyboards, those ubiquitous input devices attached to personal computers inhabiting almost every desk in the civilized world.

Those are inexpensive, available for around $15 at Staples or Office Max for the most part, and intended for home or office use. They don't travel well outside the confines of a desktop and a passing acquaintance with the contents of a coffee cup often dooms them to the trash heap. Go beyond the comforts of an office environment or introduce more stringent requirements than heavy gaming or multimedia use and you enter the realm of what is generically referred to as "industrial" keyboards. But beware. Many different creatures inhabit this space.

The term "industrial" mostly implies more heavy-duty applications resulting in product features such as water and dust protection, higher durability or special features. Over time, this has led to a proliferation of products and a dilution of the term "industrial keyboards" and the inclusion of special applications like public access terminal keyboards under the same category. What they have in common can be concentrated into three attributes of industrial input devices: Protecting, Positioning, and Pointing.

Protecting the Keyboard
Industrial keyboards need to be protected against the hazardous conditions of the industrial workplace. Depending on what industry you are in, this may mean different things. A manufacturer of industrial machinery may focus on protection from environmental conditions such as dust and water. In a hygiene-sensitive industry like medical care or food processing, much more attention will be given to easy cleaning and disinfecting. A public terminal company may have much greater concern about durability and vandal-proofing. Industrial keyboards follow the international standards (IP) or North American rating system (NEMA) for enclosures to classify to the degree of protection provided. The two standards are not identical InduKey's® InduProof® keyboards, for example, are rated IP68 for complete protection against foreign objects and for continuous submersion in liquids. That exceeds the protection of a NEMA 6/6P keyboard. In addition, the IP/NEMA ratings do not address the protection required against common industrial chemicals, cleaners and solvents present on many factory floors. In even more hazardous environments, keyboards have to be intrinsically safe and explosion-protected with an Ex-approval rating.

The food processing and medical industries need to address protection against the spread of viruses and bacteria on top of the broader concern about liquids and dust particles. Here, too, industrial keyboard manufacturers have answered the call for innovation by adding ant-microbial coatings or materials to the mix. Special design consideration is given to easy cleaning and disinfecting by eliminating undercuts and openings that would easily provide hiding places for disease-causing micro-organisms. Special resistance against commercial and medical cleaners and disinfectants provides additional protection.
Heavy-duty stainless steel keys and controls are needed for public kiosks.

But what if it is not the environment that is tough on the keyboard? What if it is the users? Both industrial uses and public access terminals pose a challenge to the durability of a keyboard. Heavy, repeated use can wears out a standard PC keyboard in months, if not weeks, depending on the environment in which they are used. This requires hardening of the keyboard enclosure as well as key switch mechanisms while maintaining user friendliness and ease of use. This can be achieved to a limited degree with the measures used to protect against dirt and grime.

If the protection needs to be tougher, for example in publicly accessible computer terminals, the best protection at one time was in a stainless steel keyboard, both housing and keys. The penalty for this kind of vandal-proof protection was paid in cost, usability, and weight. This is no longer true. InduDur is the first industrial keyboard that combines a carbon-fiber front panel with stainless steel keycaps, providing exceptional protection in an attractive, lightweight and cost-effective package.

Mounting Keyboard Anywhere
PC keyboards are right at home on the desktop. Industrial keyboards, usually, are not. They are mounted on trays, drawers, and shelves; in enclosures or right inside machines. Once again, the industrial environment dictates the solutions. Considerations for protection extend into this aspect as well. No level of protection for the keyboard helps if the connection to the industrial PC is not connected as well. This may require integration of the keyboard into the chassis of the machinery or by using bulkhead connectors. The same result can now also be achieved by making the connection wireless.

Other mounting options include rack-mount, panel-mount and front panel insert options — even VESA mounts originally intended for video displays. Where on your equipment you place the operator interface will mostly dictate the best mounting method for your keyboard. The more options you can chose from, the more flexibility you have in selecting the best fit for your requirements.

Industrial use does not evoke the vision of velvet gloves. Heavy-duty work gloves or surgical gloves are a much better fit. This creates extra challenges for manufacturers of industrial keyboards, since they need to respond to competing needs for ease of use under demanding conditions. At the same time, the user interface dictates the type of operator input that may be required.

Pointing Devices
Graphical interfaces have largely replaced numerical inputs, and these interfaces call for pointing devices of some kind to access menus and to make selections. This has led to the integration of industrial mice or substitutes into industrial keyboard designs. The solutions offered today include ruggedized optical mice that are protected to IP68. Mouse buttons and touchpads, both capacitive and resistive, are also options as are trackballs and joysticks. Which solution works best? That depends very much on the user's specific needs and explains why no single solution fits all applications in the industrial environment.

Consequently, industrial keyboard design should be needs-driven, not product-driven. At the same time, industrial equipment manufacturers are not dealing in the same quantities as consumer products, making custom solutions often cost-prohibitive. A more modular approach to product design that allows for low volume semi-customization has proven to be most responsive to customer needs while remaining cost-effective.
One of several types of available pointing devices may have to be incorporated into the keyboard.

Any of the described feature requirements can be satisfied with a custom keyboard design. Upfront development costs and economies of scale in production often make this uneconomical. Buying an off-the-shelf industrial keyboard requires a trade-off between user requirements and available product features. The ability to semi-customize keyboards based on modular components that can be easily combined into industrial input solutions opens up possibilities for equipment manufacturers who cannot justify the cost of custom products.

Where does this leave an industrial equipment manufacturer looking for the right industrial keyboard solution? When designing a new piece of equipment requiring an input device, look at your needs first, rather than looking for how an existing keyboard may fit into your design. What does the operator of your equipment need to do? How will he or she enter data and access information? In what environment and under what conditions?

Answers to these questions will determine the options you are looking for and the solutions that best fit your needs. Chances are that there is an industrial keyboard that meets specific needs both in performance and cost-effectiveness.

Contact: InduKey-NA, LLC, 329 Moore Ave., Leonia, NJ 07605 877-558-2172 fax: 877-558-2172 Web:

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