TouchSensor and Gemtron Corp incorporate electronic controls into U-Line's wine refrigerators

From Appliance Magazine, August 2004

When refrigeration manufacturer U-Line realized it would have to incorporate electronic controls into its wine refrigerators to stay competitive, the company was left with a challenge.

The Milwaukee, WI, US – based company, which is typically recognized as a major player among high end refrigeration appliance makers, wanted to maintain its status, which meant it had to make the switch from mechanical to electronic controls on many of its appliances. The problem was that the company did not have an electronics department.

“Many mid-to small-size manufacturers don't have an electronics department,” Tom Rand, engineering manager for U-Line, tells APPLIANCE. “We knew we would have to rely on a vendor to provide the expertise.”

Gemtron Corporation ( Sweetwater , TN , U.S. ) and its subsidiary company TouchSensor Technologies, LLC ( Wheaton , IL , U.S. ) helped fill this need. Together, U-Line and the two companies worked together to develop the electronic controls and sensors-and the material in which they would be encased – for U Line's new 2075 Drawer Wince Captain. The refrigerated wine drawer, which, at press time, was slated to start production in mid-July, is not only new to U-Line, but to the refrigeration industry. Therefore, U-Line had to ensure the drawer was not only top notch, but it had to be anything other than ordinary, according to Mr. Rand.

Making High-End, High-Tech
Nearly 2 years ago, U-Line decided that it needed to update some of its controls because the company was finding “that people really want digital controls,” Mr. Rand points out. “We wanted to make sure we provided this feature when we introduced the drawer. The biggest impetus was sales and marketing and competition. We are a high-end product, and to maintain the status of our brand, we have to offer such high-end features, especially when other low-dollar units with electronic controls are entering the marketplace.”

Mr. Rand admits that U-Line's engineering department first thought that adding electronic controls to the drawer “was just fluff-not really necessary. But we realized it really was,” he says.

U-Line originally started out working with another one of its vendors, which it still uses and with which it has a good relationship. “The company is great,” Mr. Rand notes, adding that the company supplies a main control board in the wine drawer and that it makes all the controls for U Line's other units. But, he says, the supplier didn't have all the technology U-Line needed for this project- a touch sensor for a “nice, clean feel,” Mr. Rand says.

The refrigeration maker then began taking quotes for electronic controls. Two or three quotes came in, but the problem with all of the potential suppliers was they wanted to put the control display inside the appliance. “We wanted to put the display on the outside, where the user could see the display without opening up the appliances – and we wanted a touch sensor. I think it comes down to a lot of people having trouble using manual knobs, and the electronic controls are also very tangible to customers. They are used to saying, ‘I want 38 or 36 degrees.' With a knob, there is just one through seven.”

During the midst of all this decision making, the proposal came in from Gemtron's TouchSensor Technologies. U-Line had worked with Gemtron in the past on other projects and had developed a good relationship. What's more is that by having the TouchSensor and Gemtron combination, U-Line could deal with only one vendor for two aspects of the project – the electronic controls themselves (TouchSensor) and the glass pack in which they would be encased (Gemtron). “We could really rely on Gemtron to coordinate the development of both products,” Mr. Rand explains. “We had a good history with them, too and have a lot of faith in their engineering capabilities, so it was a natural to choose them. It made things less complex working through one corporation.”

U-Line and Gemtron first worked together in 2001 when Gemtron developed encapsulated shelves and the door for the U-Line Echelon wine cooler line. Now, 3 years later, Gemtron has designed the plastic frame that holds the glass to get the flush edge on the wine drawer, and its subsidiary, TouchSensor, has developed the display board with electronic controls that is attached to the glass.

Design Details
In the fall of 2003, U-Line gave Gemtron a rough visual sketch with dimensions of what they were looking for. During the process of pinning down what vendor to use, U-Line had hired a design firm to develop the wine drawer's industrial design. The industrial designers came back with the idea to have flush glass all the way to the edge of the unit's door and to have a display outside the glass. “We definitely could not have assembled the touch sensor to the glass,” Mr. Rand points out. “That's what re rely on Gemtron's expertise for.”

For Gemtron, this was a great opportunity, says Bob Hermann, engineering program manager, Molded Product Systems, Gemtron. “We had the freedom to design and create a new refrigeration drawer front with touch electronics as the user interface,” he says. “U-Line gave Gemtron a blank piece of paper – it had some pictures of an industrial design, but this was just a visual aid. We had only a concept sketch – what we would design needed to be ‘x' inches tall, by ‘x' inches wide, and ‘x' inches thick. They let the expertise lay in our lap and be responsible for it.”

The result was a user interface assembly that employs TouchSensor's patented Field-Effect switching technology. The foundation of the technology is the TouchCell™, a stand-alone switch that combines TouchSensor's TS-100 integrated circuit (IC) with a patented-foil trace and two resistors, which are used to set touch sensitivity to the customer's requirements. “A keyboard is essentially just an amalgamation of many TouchCell's™ put together,” says Dave Muisenga, manager of New Business Development, Touchsensor Technologies. “It is a building block approach,” he notes.

The TouchCell™ requires only a 5-V power supply and ground to create a keypad that works through dielectric substrate materials, such as glass or plastic. “The 5-V supply and ground powers the TouchSensor TS-100 IC and creates a dynamic electric field around the TouchCell™,” Mr Muisenga explains. “The TS100 IC then monitors the field for changes. On user interface applications, these changes are the result of human touch, but TouchCells can be designed to sense any conductive material, such as metal or liquid. The TouchSensor TS-100 does this without software, so TouchCells interface electrically the same as mechanical or membrane switches.”

The design process, however, did not come without some challenges. The first challenge was to find the best position for the TouchSensor™ keypad. According to Mr. Hermann, the simplicity of the electronics integration enables appliance customers to focus on the mechanical challenges inherent in appliance design. “Gemtron engineering placed it on the backside of the thermopane so that it can be accessed as necessary,” Mr. Hermann explains. “This will enable U-Line to easily add new features to the core user interface in the future.” Another issue was designing the entire assembly to fit into the area to which it was restricted. The problem was solved, however, by working with the frame designed by Gemtron. Additional alterations to its design were made wherever necessary.

There were also some prototype challenges with glass breakage and the adhesive coating releasing on the initial units due to the unique combination of electronics, glass and plastic. “We've solved some of these problems by working with the integrated unites and with field tests,” Mr. Rand of U-Line says. “We provide feedback, and they (Gemtron and TouchSensor) have been very responsive to getting back to us with changes, so now we have worked to correct this problem”

A Measure of Success
Although the wine drawer has not been out on the market long enough to know how profitable the relationship has been, Mr. Rand says the initial feedback has he has received has been very favorable. “We received lots of positive feedback at K/BIS, where it was introduced, from dealers and reps wanting the product. This has been one of the best-received new units that we've had. It is generating a lot of excitement.”

This, Mr. Rand says, is evidence of both the success of a new product and evidence of a good partnership with a supplier. “For Gemtron, working with a company such as U-Line gives it a good test bed of where to try new things,” he offers.

“They like that we are using their core capabilities and extending them to other or new products,” Mr. Rand continues. “At the same time, we work on an aggressive schedule, and we appreciate that they can keep pace with us and keep on our time line. U-Line is an innovative company with innovative products. We are dedicated to developing new technologies that keep us ahead, and together with partners like Gemtron, we are doing that.”