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issue: November 2006 APPLIANCE Magazine

Control Panels and Displays
The Interface Makes a Statement

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by David Simpson, contributing editor

Exploiting sophisticated control panels and display technology, appliance OEMs use appearance and advanced control interface to set apart their offerings.

A new line of Dacor Millennia, Epicure and Preference wall ovens includes a simple-to-use interactive Discovery controller. The control, developed in cooperation with Schott Home Tech North America, not only can calculate the time, temperature and cooking mode for many foods, it also stores 99 recipes and lets the user add customized recipes.

The control—button, switch, dial, keypad, touchscreen, etc.—is the main interface a consumer has with an appliance. As such, appliance producers usually take great care that their controls support the chosen image. Is it a no-nonsense, utilitarian appliance? Then how about designing in large, sturdy-looking, well-labeled pushbuttons? Or perhaps a company wants a sleek, high-tech product. In that case it might try membrane switches programmed with advanced functions.
OEMs can choose from a variety of technologies. These continue to evolve, particularly in terms of the electronics. Touch screens, high-brightness LEDs and capacitive technology are among the developing areas. More generally, taking advantage of the greater electronics processing now available makes it possible for appliance OEMs to program in a greater degree of appliance performance and user choices.

Duraswitch’s thiNcoder™ RT rotor eliminates the need for through-holes, enabling engineers to create a completely sealed control panel and still have a simple, low-cost customized interface. The rotor technology is reported to have a 100,000-rotation life. Tastitalia srl (Castelfidardo, Italy) introduced the rotor technology to El.En Group (Firenze, Italy) for use in a laser for medical and beauty procedures. The control panel has the rotor integrated with a touch screen and membrane/dome switches.

Advanced Oven Control

Among appliance makers using new control capabilities is Dacor (Diamond Bar, California, U.S.). Its cooking products are known for advanced and technologically innovative features, and for their simple but elegant design. This image was reinforced with the fall 2005 introduction of a new line of Epicure, Millennia and Preference wall ovens. These 27- and 30-inch, single and double ovens feature some of the most advanced controls on the market. Controls incorporate a 32-bit microprocessor and advanced LCD display. Embedded programming for 99 recipes is included, and the consumer can add 100 more. The control was developed for Dacor by Schott Home Tech North America (Louisville, Kentucky, U.S.).
In 2002, Dacor began talking with several controls suppliers. One of these was Schott, which had long supplied Dacor with glass-ceramic. Schott’s controls facility in Wheaton, Illinois, U.S., produced primarily cooktop controllers. Dacor became convinced that Schott had the best capabilities to develop a state-of-the-art Dacor wall oven controller.
“We knew that the development work on such a project would take awhile,” admits Schott’s Chuck McClinch, director of sales and marketing. “Programming time, especially with all the recipes, was going to be long. But we knew we could do it, and that the controller would increase our credibility in the wall oven controls area.”
“We first began exchanging ideas after the 2002 Kitchen and Bath Show about how a future controller could really make a difference in how people cook,” explains George Simadiris, Dacor’s vice president of engineering. “We looked at what other oven makers were doing, and began working on specifications. After about 6 months, we began extensive consumer research, which took about a year. We were looking at how we could enhance the cooking experience and enrich customers’ lives. Once marketing had a definition of what we needed, we began the work on the engineering challenge.”
Much of this challenge had to do with software development. “The software requirements were really complicated, especially because of the embedded recipes,” says Simadiris. “It was an iterative, on-going process. We defined the applications, such as which screen would follow which. Schott would develop the software, and we would review it and make corrections as needed. It took some 18 months of development, but in the end we had a control that was robust and user friendly.”
Dacor reportedly cooked thousands of pounds of meat and other foods during the testing process. Simadiris remarks that the food didn’t go to waste, but that engineers joked about the “Dacor 20” for the amount of weight some of them gained during the process.
While the software development took the most time, great attention was also given to the control’s appearance on the oven. Notably, the LCD screens are capable of producing millions of colors to catch the consumers’ eye.
The completed control is part of what the company considers to be one of the most advanced wall ovens in the industry, and reinforces its image as a technology leader. “We have a very sophisticated product, but at the same time it is extremely easy to use,” adds Mike Laiman, vice president of operations. “You can start the oven with as few as three buttons: cooking mode, (including bake, broil and convection), temperature and start. But if the user chooses to use a pre-programmed recipe, alter a recipe or make one from scratch, the control will lead him or her intuitively through the process using a touchpad. And the oven provides great uniformity in cooking.”

To make cooktop operation easier and more comfortable, a new type of IR sensor array enables the selection of the heater and the choice of the heat setting with a single touch. By sliding a finger on the operating line, the user can vary the heat setting constantly without having to enter repeated commands. Cherry GmbH (Auerbach, Germany) reports that the patented sensor system sends infrared light through the vitroceramic surface. During operation, the infrared light is reflected and a microcontroller evaluates the reflection. Software determines if the operation is intentional. Unintentional operation signals—caused by cleaning, children, pots that have boiled over, pets, or foreign light—are excluded by decision-making algorithms. In addition, Cherry says its cooktop controls distinguish themselves through their modular, freely-configurable construction. The hardware and firmware of each module can be adjusted to application requirements. This individual programming permits, for instance, the realization of a two-zone switch or a timer. Another innovation is that, with snap-in technology, the controls can be fastened into the cooktop without screws.

Touch Screens

3M Touch Systems (Methuen, Massachusetts, U.S.) observes that high-end appliances may offer so many menu options that traditional buttons or knobs cannot accommodate them all. As an alternative, touch screens allow consumers to quickly drill down through multiple choices using intuitive menus. By eliminating buttons and knobs, an appliance’s appearance can be more streamlined. The 3M MicroTouch ClearTek II touch systems have glass surfaces and no moving parts, making them durable and easy to clean.
3M Touch Systems’ marketing manager, Alice Moran, reports her company has begun developing touch screen applications for white goods appliances. One product already on the market is the TMIO, Inc. (Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.) Intelligent Oven, as covered in the November 2005 APPLIANCE cover story, Aesthetics to the Fore.
“One approach some refrigerator companies are considering is consolidating controls into one location,” she says. “Right now, a refrigerator might have separate controls and displays for freezer temperature, refrigerator temperature, water and ice settings, and crisper drawer settings. You can consolidate all the controls and displays into one touch screen location. By doing so you can save costs, plus the touch control can be used as a design element.”
Further down the road, she visualizes common kitchen placement of touch screens, perhaps on refrigerator doors or on a counter. “The touch screens are easy to use and durable, and they play into the home automation trend. We are looking at different ways the screens can be used in the kitchen.”
Another technology, printed Segmented Electroluminescent (pSEL) touch displays from Pelikon (Cardiff, Wales, United Kingdom) looks promising. Its Intuitive Touch Display offers a flexible, segmented display, with areas of the screen illuminating only when required. The display is in production and available in consumer devices such as the Kameleon One For All universal remote control. The company also uses the same platform to produce pSEL Backlites and Animated Backlites, and has proprietary drive electronics.
Next year, the company plans to introduce the pSEL Hybrid Intuitive Touch Display, which has full daylight visibility. “This is a major step forward, and will have huge potential in the mobile…displays markets where outdoor usage is a requirement,” says Charlotte Fionda, marketing manager.
“Our pSEL displays offer a low-cost display solution along with the low power consumption,” she explains. “pSEL displays are flexible and, in combination with a keypad or domeless array, allow touch sensitive interaction at a lower price point than capacitance sensing. Another key difference is that the pSEL Intuitive Touch Display offers a segmented display, which can guide consumers through functionality quickly and easily by displaying controls only relevant to the function selected.
“Displays also look good. Their flexible nature allows for novel placement in product design. With 16 levels of grayscale, smooth animation adds to the slick appearance of the display. This attribute is aided by the specialist driver electronics we have developed to optimize the displays performance.”
In August, Pelikon entered into partnership with Memtron Input Components (Frankenmuth, Michigan, U.S.), the membrane switch division of Esterline in the U.S. The partners plan to combine capabilities to create fully integrated display solutions. Marketed under the sELect–animated electroluminescence brand name, the companies intend to work together to transform how people interact with devices. They will offer integrated plastic molding, electronics and switch technology.

Seven-inch thin-film transistor, liquid crystal display (TFT LCD) panels are well suited for mobile devices, reports Samsung Electronics Company, Ltd. (Seoul, Korea). Until now, the market for mobile LCDs with WVGA resolution has been centered around 8- and 9-inch models. Samsung’s single-chip solution replaces the four- to eight-driver ICs common for a 7-inch platform. By utilizing advanced integration techniques, the company’s new mobile display eliminates the need to have a separate printed circuit board that contains timing control and power components to drive the display. Previously, multi-chip approaches have limited the design of very slim portable electronics.

Lighting Up with LEDs

Light emitting diode (LED) status indicator lights and number/character displays have long been used in appliances from stereos to dishwashers to rice cookers. Advantages have included long life, small size and considerable power savings compared to incandescent lights. Now, newer technology has increased brightness and added colors. This has opened new or expanded appliance applications.
Increased brightness, for instance, can mean more LED backlighting of liquid crystal displays (LCDs). Cell phones and other small handheld devices are now a large market for high brightness LEDs. High brightness LEDs can even provide light for camera phone flashes.
As the technology improves and prices decline, LED backlighting is also finding its way into larger LCDs. The first LED backlight for LCD home TVs was announced in August 2004 for Sony’s 40-inch and 46-inch Qualia series, which used the Luxeon lit system that Sony said delivered the most vivid colors seen on a TV. The system expanded the gamut of reproducible hues by as much as 45 percent. The light source was jointly developed by Lumileds (San Jose, California, U.S.) and Sony (Tokyo), and optimized for Sony’s TV application.

Kingbright Corporation (City of Industry, California, U.S.) has advanced its SMD display products by developing the ultra-thin 0.8-inch character height SMD display with thickness of as little as 0.12 inch (3 mm). This characteristic enhances design flexibility and readout clarity in various appliance and healthcare applications. In addition, the SMD display’s lightweight and low-profile design coupled with its vivid and crisp displaying capability enables smaller, lighter and flashier products. Displays are available in different sizes and colors. The display’s automation-friendly tape and reel package and robust design are said to reduce assembly cost and eliminate product deterioration in harsh assembly environments.

As for LED colors, until the 1990s the palette had been limited to red, yellow and green. In 1993, blue LEDs were developed. “By working with the three basic colors, it is possible to pretty much simulate the full color spectrum, including white,” points out William Chu, regional sales manager, Kingbright Corporation (City of Industry, California, U.S.). “You can catch a user’s attention with color, and customize the color to the application. For instance, in refrigerators, you wouldn’t want a red tone, which is a hot color, but something more blue, or a cool white. Not only are we seeing more refrigerator displays and control panels with LEDs, but in the next year or two I expect to commonly see LED refrigerator lighting. This will give more aesthetic control than incandescent lighting.” When looking at LED installation, Chu points to the low-profile surface mount device (SMD) LED as a breakthrough product. “These are half the thickness of traditional through-hole displays, and they are easier to mount on flex circuits. While through-hole displays can still be used, they are thicker, and require manual placement. The trend in appliances is to smaller components and more automated processes.” Whatever the technology trend, Mike Buchanan, operations manager for membrane switch supplier Douglas Corporation (Eden Prairie, Minnesota, U.S.), cautions that there must be a good interface between the design, the appliance company and the controls supplier. “In some applications, insufficient communication can result in disaster,” he points out. “Fortunately, the controls industry is slowly moving toward better awareness of the process requirements as they work with designers. Companies such as Douglas are asking questions that will help us best meet the end user needs.” Appliance companies shouldn’t depend on their suppliers to ask all the questions, though. A close, free-flowing relationship, such as that between Dacor and Schott, may be the best way to arrive at the controls and displays that fit the end user’s needs, and make a statement at the same time.

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