A Design Engineer’s Guide to Control Panel Overlays

Posted by Casey Cephas | 3/14/22 9:00 AM

What does heavy-duty industrial machinery have in common with a cutting-edge medical device? Neither can do their jobs without human operation. That’s why the control panel, and particularly the user interface, should be a prime feature of equipment – and not merely an afterthought.

If you’re a design engineer considering your options for creating the optimal control panel, allow us to provide a quick overview of control panel overlays and how they can benefit your product.

What is a control panel overlay?

A control panel overlay is a type of graphic overlay designed for control panels, such as those used by industrial equipment and medical devices. The overlay is made from a thin plastic film and printed on to create graphic buttons, instructional text, indicator areas, branding elements, and more. Once placed on top of the control panel, the overlay helps guide the user in operating the equipment efficiently and safely, as well as improves the product’s durability.

Graphic overlays hold several advantages over other control panel options. Since overlays feature a continuous, seamless surface (and, in some cases, fully sealed), they are more resistant to liquids and contaminants than control panels with physical buttons or mechanical keys. Additionally, they can be more cost-efficient and easier to use than touchscreen or remote-control panels.

Extending the life of equipment

Thanks to the durable and rugged nature of control panel overlays, these components can add value by extending the service life of critical, high-cost equipment used in harsh conditions or subjected to frequent use. Through experienced design and knowledgeable material selection, control panel overlays can withstand a range of conditions, including:

  • Reducing abrasion and other surface damage
  • Resisting liquids, including rain, spills, oils, and cleaning agents
  • Preventing dirt, dust, and other smaller debris from infiltrating the control panel
  • Providing flame resistance
  • Minimizing UV damage

Layers and optional features of control panel overlays

The basic construction of a control panel overlay is quite simple. The top layer is the film, typically polyester or polycarbonate. In general, polyester is the preferred material for control panel overlays due to its higher durability, superior resistance to chemicals and abrasion, and longer flex life (estimate 1 million switch actuations). Polycarbonate is still reasonably durable (expected 100,000 actuations), plus offers superior flame and impact resistance.

The bottom layer of a control panel overlay is self-adhesive tape to easily assemble the overlay on top of the control panel or within a housing. Factors for selecting the most suitable adhesive include the material being attached to (typically plastic or metal), surface finishes, environmental factors that may impact the adhesive, and more.

Beyond the basic construction, you can add features or finishes to enhance the control panel overlay to your needs.

  • Coatings to improve durability and resistance to various environmental elements
  • Cutouts or holes for LED lights, LCD screens, etc.
  • Windows with a range of transparency levels and colors
  • Embossing or debossing
  • Metal or plastic housing
  • Panel to integrate with underlying circuitry

Printing and converting for control overlays

Control panel overlays can be customized to your unique specifications using modern printing and material converting processes. Overlays can be printed using four-color process (CMYK) or Pantone (PMS) spot color. Your printing partner can recommend a technique to achieve cost-effectiveness and proper color matching. To create custom sizes and shapes, die-cutting is often the preferred method.

Questions to consider when designing a control panel overlay

The following are questions our Tapecon team typically asks customers while working on a control panel overlay. You can also use them as a starting point for your project.

  • What functionality is needed from your control panel?
  • What environmental conditions will the overlay be exposed to?
  • Do you have a preferred material? What is the desired thickness?
  • How many colors will be printed? Will you specify PMS colors or require color matching?
  • Will there be a display or window?
  • Will there be any embossing?
  • Will there be any special finishes, hard-coatings, or textures applied?
  • Will the overlay be adhered to another surface or material? If so, what kind?
  • Is there a subsequent manufacturing process to consider?
  • Will the overlay be applied manually or by machine?

Advanced manufacturing partner for control panel overlays

Whether you’re new to control panel overlays or want to improve the design of your existing control panel, Tapecon is here to help. Our highly experienced team can provide engineering consulting, testing, printing, and custom materials converting – all working together to create the highest-quality product possible. If you have any questions about control panel overlays, contact us today.

Let’s make something great

With over 100 years of manufacturing experience, Tapecon works with product teams to solve challenges, create products, and enhance lives. Learn more about our graphic overlay applications.

Topics: Graphic Overlays

Written by Casey Cephas

Casey is the Marketing Coordinator at Tapecon Inc.

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