Pushbuttons and switches become conversant

Walk through any manufacturing operation and you can't help but pass a variety of pushbuttons, pilot lights, and switches. Sometimes these simple but reliable control devices are located in the most unlikely spots and frequently they look like they've been in service since before you were born.


Walk through any manufacturing operation and you can't help but pass a variety of pushbuttons, pilot lights, and switches. Sometimes these simple but reliable control devices are located in the most unlikely spots and frequently they look like they've been in service since before you were born.

Guess what? Some of them have been in service since before you were born.

When people talk about product life-cycle and mean-time-between-failures, pushbuttons, pilot lights, and switches fall under the category of 'things that seem to last forever.'

So, if these devices are so simple and reliable, why survey readers and write about the results?

Pushbutton and switch suppliers don't hold annual user group conferences. Users that wander into exposition booths probably don't talk about their future pushbutton and switch needs. So with the help of several supplier companies CE and Cahners Research prepared a survey designed to learn what users believe will be their future pushbutton and switch needs.

Where pushbuttons are going

During May 2001, Cahners Research invited 7,000 Control Engineering subscribers to participate in an online pushbutton and switches survey. Of the 532 who clicked on the embedded URL, 450 indicated they specify, recommend, or buy pushbuttons and switches, with 54% indicating they specify, recommend, or buy for in-plant use. Of the 30 industries represented by the 450 responders, electronics and semiconductor, automotive and transportation, and machinery equipment manufacturing make up 41% of the total.

To help suppliers understand the environments where new devices must 'live,' responders were asked about current pushbutton and switch environments, the most often used sizes, and dominant power requirements.

A whopping 72% indicated a need for dust tight with another 64% requiring watertight devices. After that, requirements drop off severely with only 7% indicating a need for deployment in hazardous environments and 5% seeking other NEMA ratings.

Despite emphasis to adopt international standards, such as CE, and the fact most 30 mm devices use an older design with exposed wiring terminals, when it comes time to buy panel hole punches, responders indicate you still only need two sizes-30 mm (42%) and 22 mm (41%). This sort of size dominance may lead local distributors to stock fewer of the CE-approved 16 mm size pushbuttons and switches, which responders use only 11% of the time.

A similar analogy can be made when looking at power requirements. According to responders, 44% of pushbuttons and switches use 120 V, 5 A power. The next closest power usage is 24 V, 35 A at 21%.

What's important?

Responders were asked to rank lists of supplier and product characteristics, several of which consulting suppliers deemed important to include. Results show that when users evaluate a particular pushbutton or switch, the things most influencing their decision to select one pushbutton or switch over another are the same things that users have always considered important-quality, availability, ease of installation, etc. (See 'How rankings were determined' in the online version.)

And when users evaluate one supplier against another, again the important things are the same as most everyone seeks in any supplier-reputation and being easy to do business with.

It's interesting that as suppliers clamor to offer on-line catalogs and stores, 45% of responders ranked online purchasing and order tracking unimportant. Perhaps suppliers believe 'ease of doing business' and 'on-line purchasing' are closely linked, but that may not be a safe assumption. Suppliers would be well advised to measure and track customer satisfaction as it relates to the above or similar characteristics.

What's coming?

Today, when you peek behind a panel of neatly aligned pushbuttons, pilot lights, and switches, you see wiring bundles and harnesses. Sometimes these bundles are neatly labeled and routed; other times they're like spaghetti.

If manufacturers deliver on expectations, wiring will be replaced with a single twisted pair (or cable) that places intelligent pushbuttons, pilot lights, and switches on a sensor network.

Without detailed explanation of what onboard intelligence and networking capability meant, responders ranked these two features far-and-away more important than the remaining five features. (See 'Future features' diagram.)

Building on the idea of understanding the future, we asked responders about their plans to replace pushbuttons and switches with touch panels or other operator interface panels. Sixty-eight percent (320) already have and another 7% say they plan this upgrade in the next 12 months.

Pushbutton and switch products

For more information on industrial pushbuttons and switch products, circle the following numbers, or visit www.controleng.com/freeinfo . For a wider listing of manufacturers, go to Control Engineering Buyer's Guide at www.controleng.com/buyersguide .

Ranked factors users apply to select a pushbutton or switch supplier


Weighted ranking

Manufacturers reputation


Ease of doing business


Local distributors reputation


Broad product line


Pre-sale technical service


Single vendor sourcing


On-line purchasing and order tracking


Ability to customize products


Source: Control Engineering and Cahners Research

Ranked factors users apply to select a pushbutton or switch


Weighted ranking





Ease of installation


Termination type


Choice of illumination types








Intrinsically safe


Custom legend plates


Class I, Div. 1 or 2


CE rating


RFI/EMI protection


Prewired modules


Source: Control Engineering and Cahners Research

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