Capacitive Pressure Sensing Based Key in PCB
Technology for Industrial Applications
Ljubomir Vraˇ ar, Member, IEEE, Aneta Prijic, Member, IEEE, Duˇ an Vuˇ kovic, Student Member, IEEE, and
Zoran Prijic, Member, IEEE

Abstract—This paper reports the design and manufacturing of
a device suitable for use in command panels of industrial equipment in the place of mechanical buttons and switches. The device
consists of a capacitive pressure sensor, low-cost microcontroller,
current driver, and state indication LEDs. All components are embedded into multilayer printed circuit board using standard manufacturing steps. The device has user-programmable properties and
it can behave either as a key or as a switch. An interconnection feature is provided in a sense that multiple devices can be organized
into an array thus forming a keyboard. A simple two-wire communication interface for controlling the keyboard is described.
Index Terms—Capacitive-pressure sensor, keyboard, PCB technology, two-wire communication.

EVELOPMENT of versatile human interfaces for various
electronic devices has attracted much attention in recent
years [1]. Although efforts are mainly directed towards consumer devices, there are requirements from industrial, medical
and other more specialized electronic branches. Manufacturers
of such equipment are looking for a substitution of mechanical
push buttons and switches used in command panels with more
sophisticated and customizable components.
Capacitive sensors, either touch or pressure, are found to be a
good alternative to mechanical devices, mainly due to their implementation flexibility, reliability and overall durability. These
sensors are used in conjunction with microcontrollers to provide
accurate detection of the change in capacitance due to a touch or
a pressure of a human finger. Touch sensors have limited usage
in the industrial environment due to their susceptibility to false
readings induced by humidity and inability to implement a single
conductive touching surface over several devices. Pressure sensors are more appropriate for the implementation in the equipment designed for harsh working conditions. For the pressure
range of interest these sensors are designed as MEMS devices
usually using fabrication processes from the printed circuit board


Manuscript received September 05, 2011; accepted October 09, 2011. Date
of publication October 25, 2011; date of current version April 13, 2012. This
work was supported in part by the Serbian Ministry of Education and Science
under Grant TR32026 and in part by Ei PCB Factory, Niˇ. The associate editor
coordinating the review of this paper and approving it for publication was Prof.
Kiseon Kim.
Lj. Vraˇ ar, A. Prijic and Z. Prijic are with the University of Niˇ, Facc
ulty of Electronic Engineering, 18000 Niˇ, Serbia (e-mail: ljubomir.
vracar@elfak.ni.ac.rs; aneta.prijic@elfak.ni.ac.rs; zoran.prijic@elfak.ni.ac.rs).
D. Vuˇ kovic is with DELTA–IdemoLAB, 2970 Hørsholm, Denmark (e-mail:
Color versions of one or more of the figures in this paper are available online
at http://ieeexplore.ieee.org.
Digital Object Identifier 10.1109/JSEN.2011.2173483

Fig. 1. Isometric view and cross–section of the capacitive pressure sensor (onequarter shown due to the symmetry of the structure; not to scale).

(PCB) technology [2]–[4], while for different applications other
techniques have been reported [5]–[10]. Many details of sensors
design and usage are also given in the documents issued by several major semiconductor device manufacturers [11]–[16].
The objective of this paper is to present a composite device
which consists of the capacitive pressure sensor, microcontroller
and the peripherals, and can act either as a key or as a switch.
The device is realized in a conventional PCB technology and
it has properties customizable by the user. The sensor design
with double layered dielectric and a self-calibrating procedure
to improve sensitivity and reliability of the device are proposed.
Apart from the standalone use, an interconnection capability is
introduced to make the devices suitable for organizing into an
array which behaves like a keyboard. Its flexible configuration,
compact design and the ability to be used with gloves make the
device suitable for the command panels in industrial equipment.
In the following sections, the capacitive pressure sensor design is presented, and the device construction is described in detail. The application interface and the communication between
devices and controller logic, including protocol details, are also
presented and discussed.
The device is designed using a square-shaped geometry suitable for production in conventional PCB technology. The pressure sensor is a circular parallel plate capacitor occupying a part
of the device volume, as shown in Fig. 1. On the square shaped

1530-437X/$26.00 © 2011 IEEE

1 are listed in Table I. Note that. in this construction only FR4 is used. thus forming two capacitors in series [17]. 3. also from FR4. whereas another capacitance is determined by the air gap between the top electrode and the surface of the prepreg. Illustration of the working principle of the capacitive pressure sensor.: CAPACITIVE PRESSURE SENSING BASED KEY IN PCB TECHNOLOGY FOR INDUSTRIAL APPLICATIONS TABLE I DIMENSIONS OF THE STRUCTURE FROM FIG. The capacitor with prepreg has a constant capacitance. In this case the top layer is deflected to the limit when the top electrode touches the surface of the prepreg. as illustrated in Fig. core. free meshing strategy with an initial smart sizing option .2 cm) [19]. 2. Simulation results of the total deformation and equivalent stress values in the sensor under applied pressure of 115 kPa are shown in Fig. Loads are defined by applying pressure up to 115 kPa onto the circular pressing area at the top surface of the top layer. This area is assumed to have a diameter of an average human fingerpad (1. dielectric between the electrodes is double layered consisting of the thin prepreg and air. Elasticity of FR4 material enables the top layer to deflect under pressure applied to its surface at the area above the cavity. 2. A mesh for structural analysis was the one primarily generated by ANSYS Mechanical Workbench with subsequent refinement of the elements on the top surface of the top layer. Apart from the design described in [12]. This value is well below the yield strength of FR4 material (Table II) and reliable mechanical properties of the sensing element should be expected. 1 1497 TABLE II MECHANICAL AND ELECTRICAL PARAMETERS OF THE MATERIALS USED FOR THE SIMULATION Fig. ANSYS 12 Workbench and APDL Software [18]. In this way the relative change of the equivalent capacitance is increased as the air gap thickness is decreased. 3. (left) Total deformation and (right) equivalent stress values in the sensor under applied pressure of 115 kPa. the bottom Cu electrode of a circular geometry is printed. The capacitance of the sensor should be as high as possible in order to minimize influence of parasitic capacitances due to the rest of the device structure. which seals the element. The capacitance of the sensor for different pressure values is determined through CMATRIX macro of ANSYS APDL software by implementing SOLID123 type of 3D tetrahedral electrostatic elements. Mechanical properties and sensitivity of the capacitive pressure sensor from Fig. A nonuniform. Relevant mechanical and electrical properties of the materials used for the simulation are given in Table II. [10]. Diameter of the bottom electrode and the spacer thickness are determined on the basis of the overall device dimensions and by the limits of the used PCB technology. sensitivity of the element is considerably improved for the larger pressures comparing to the sensor with the same geometry having only one dielectric. separates core and top layer and forms cylindrical cavity partially filled with solid dielectric (in this case prepreg). The top electrode is realized as Cu layer on the bottom side of the top square FR4 layer. made of the Flame Retardant Class 4 (FR4) woven glass reinforced epoxy resin.9 MPa at the center of the pressing area. The actual dimensions of the structure from Fig. Mechanical constrains were set by fixing support at the bottom side of the structure and by setting the symmetry boundary condition onto the vertically halving plane. larger area of the bottom electrode. Also. Simulation geometry was simplified in comparison to the actual one (see Section III) by assuming that the core extends up to the bottom of the device. An appropriately shaped spacer. As a result. existence of the solid dielectric layer make it impossible for the top and bottom electrodes to be shortened and it maintains the sensor’s operability even when the top layer is considerably damaged. It was assumed that Cu electrodes are isolated conducting surfaces onto the FR4 dielectric areas. In this way the top electrode is pushed toward the bottom one and the capacitance of the sensor is changed. The maximum equivalent stress in the layer has the value of 43. apart from the reported designs involving other polymers [2]. Therefore. 1 are analyzed by numerical simulation in Fig.ˇ VRACAR et al. thinner spacer and higher permittivity of the dielectric between the electrodes are preferable.

1498 IEEE SENSORS JOURNAL. Output delay time is . 7. NO. since the sensor is embedded in the much complex structure. VOL. as shown in Fig. 8. Functional block diagram of a single key device. 5. MAY 2012 Fig. the bottom surface of the core was grounded as a part of the shield used to improve noise immunity in the real sensor. are set utilizing a Slew Rate Limiter filter [24]. However. where is the capacitance in the pressed and in the unpressed state. 7. 5. Voltage changes caused by pressing the sensor are acquired by a 10–bit ADC converter of a low–cost PIC12F683 microcontroller [21] using a Capacitive Voltage Divider (CVD) principle described in [22] and the corresponding hardware and software guidelines [23]. The capacitance formed by the bottom electrode and the shield is connected in parallel with the sensing capacitance. 6. Waveforms measured on a voltage divider showing voltage change due to the pressure applied on the sensor. Simulated values of the total sensor capacitance are in the range 8. Exploded cross section of a single key device (not to scale). DEVICE DESCRIPTION Functional block diagram of a single key device incorporating described pressure sensor is shown in Fig. for single and double layered is increased by the introduction dielectrics. 6. as described in Section III. 12. Waveforms captured on a voltage divider are shown in Fig. which define pressed and released states of the key (Fig. 4. was used for mesh generation of the solid model. It is evident that of a double layered dielectric. 9). Waveforms illustrating the behaviour of the whole device are shown in Fig. its value of 4. Electrostatic constrains set the bottom electrode at the high potential and the top electrode grounded. Fig.6 – 12.7 pF. Note that the bottom side of the top layer and the top side of the bottom layer are used as ground planes. Therefore. correlation between the simulation and experiment is performed on a fabricated device. Fig. Also. The relative change of the sensor capacitance is defined as: (1) Fig. It should be emphasized that for the case of a single layered dielectric relative change of the capacitance does not depend on its permittivity. Simulated relative change of the sensor capacitance versus applied pressure. ADC readings start when the microcontroller opens an internal switch to measure voltage on its sample and hold capacitor. 4. The components are laid out in a manner that enhances noise immunity [20]. Simulation results for as a function of the applied pressure are given in Fig. Threshold values of the ADC readings. The subsequent refinement of the volume elements was conducted to obtain solution independence on the mesh density. In essence. 5. The blocks are arranged using conventional multilayer PCB technology with embedded electronic components. III.23 pF contributes to the total simulated capacitance. as being built–in and constant. changes of the ADC readings are inversely proportional to the changes of the sensor capacitance.

slowly reversible or permanent deformation of the top layer may occur. In order to achieve interconnection accessibility. as described in Section IV. The device is designed to be used either in a single key (standalone) mode or in an array (keyboard) mode. the saved value is compared to the current reading so the device can ”decide” whether or not it is being pressed (i.5 A. When the headers are soldered. Normalized ADC readings are calculated as: (2) . this pin may be connected to the other type of indication control. held) during the power–up. The measured values are averaged for randomly selected devices from various PCB panels to obtain a typical curve. Then. dependent on the filter adjustments [24]. When in the pin (Fig. The connection pads are realized to accommodate standard one-row headers having 2.e. the key is set to the released state and the threshold values are set below the current ADC readings. The LED out pin should be short-circuited to the LED in pin to control state indication LEDs. the key may behave as still being pressed. The connection examples are given in Section IV. The described readjustment of the threshold values may be qualified as a self–calibrating feature. Open–drain configuration of the MOSFET is for driving relays which is often required in industrial equipment. A software watchdog timer which monitors duration of the applied pressure is introduced. Fig. Photograph and the pinout of a fabricated single key device (side length 35 mm). and pin is used to to the supply voltage provide high. low or high impedance state to the host applicapin may be short-circuited to tion. Moreover. Slew Rate Limiter will set the thresholds to their initial values. If the top layer’s deformation fully recovers after the pressure has been removed. Fig. 9. 5) is short-circuited single key mode. 8. within the startup sequence. Therefore.: CAPACITIVE PRESSURE SENSING BASED KEY IN PCB TECHNOLOGY FOR INDUSTRIAL APPLICATIONS 1499 Fig. Optionally. using some object as a load rather than a finger) or by a hit.g. Sensitivity of a single key device from Fig. In a keyboard mode these pins are used to receive clock and send/receive data. the device can be inserted into a main command panel board like any other through–hole component.54 mm pitch spacing. as illustrated in Fig. If a high pressure is applied on the key either for a long time (e. 10 is experimentally determined using force transducer as a load and recording corresponding ADC readings. the key will be activated again only if a higher pressure is applied. pins are arranged on all four sides of the device [25].. Threshold values adjustment used to compensate the effect of a continuous pressure. Reliable operation of the device is achieved by using the minimal value of 50 ms. Waveforms measured on the device: the upper waveform shows ADC readings on the voltage divider. 11 and compared to the simulation. 10. the lower waveform shows output from the device. respectively. Crosshairs (a) and (b) mark the moments when the sensor is pressed and output is produced. thus defining output delay time. an additional functional problem is particularly handled. Optionally. the gate of the built–in MOSFET to extend the output current capability of the device up to 0. 9. as shown in Fig.. When the monitored value reaches the predefined timeout (10 s in this case). This is achieved by saving the reading of an unpressed state into microcontroller’s EEPROM during regular operation of the device. The device also has an ability to detect its state on power–up. When the load is released.ˇ VRACAR et al. 10. The obtained results are shown in Fig. and debounce time which can be prolonged as a customizable parameter.

including the inner layers depicted in Fig. NO. all devices in the array receive the packet. so it can be used for sending and receiving data. In order to ensure waterproofing. applied pressure for a single key device. Photographs of a fabricated device: (a) top layer—top view. using clock and data lines. where the controller board sends the packet. where is the reading in the unpressed state. Fig. VOL. The photographs of the realized device. common interfaces for the connection with the host application. The controller board consists of the microcontroller (PIC18F4520 in this case). (side length 25 mm). ADC refers to the reading in the unpressed state. It should be pointed out that any possible tension effect caused by the mask fixture on the keys is compensated by their self–calibrating feature. It should be noted that neither the controller nor any of the attached devices actually pulls the data line to the high level. (d) bottom layer—top view. 12. whereas the larger ones are for a standalone use. as illustrated in Fig. After receiving the packet all devices set the data line to low level and as every single one finishes with processing the packet it sets its data line pin to high impedance. Reliability of the device was successfully tested up to activations with 2 s period using pressure of 30 kPa as twice the value assumed to be most commonly used in practice. (c) core—bottom view. 13. 6. 11. APPLICATION INTERFACE Fig. Communication between the controller board and the devices is designed as a serial–based. During the initial phase of communication. The clock line is driven by the controller. as shown in Fig. whereas the discrepancies are due to the simplified simulation geometry and technology tolerances. the controller board initiates reading of the first byte of the reply. 13. 14. are shown in Fig. Top and side view of the prototype command panel for the torch control in an industrial process. (b) bottom layer—bottom view. In this way the data line is going to return to high level only when all devices have finished with processing the data. In the idle state the clock line is at the low level and the data line is at the high level via a pull–up resistor to the supply voltage. and the two wire interface for the communication with attached devices. The smaller devices might be more convenient for a keyboard arrangement. Byte transfer resembles SPI 0 mode with an additional clock pulse at the end of the transmission to release the data line. a parameter–driven modelling is employed to design a device with smaller lateral dimensions by keeping the same sensitivity. Depending on the value of the received byte. On the basis of the presented simulating technique. Normalized ADC readings vs. 12. 5. A decorative and protective fascia of a user’s choice should be mounted over the top of the keys. especially for operators wearing industrial gloves.1500 IEEE SENSORS JOURNAL. the controller board is needed only for the configuration of their properties and not for the application implementation. 15. When such an event occurs. which can vary from the error . Each device can be configured to act either as a standalone or as a part of a keyboard using the same controller board. The data line is bidirectional. the top pin headers can be sealed using epoxy resin. instead the high impedance state is used on their data pins. For devices intended to be used as standalone. It can be made even of The described device can be customized in terms of adjustment of its behaviour and properties. MAY 2012 Fig. A fairly good agreement is found between the simulated and measured values. sample and hold capacitance of the AD converter and is the capacitance of the microcontroller’s input pin to which the sensor is connected. This is accomplished by using the custom controller board and hardware interface shown in Fig. IV. 12. metal with the nonconductive foil attached beneath.

Although the designed address space allows up to 127 keys. and tion parameters. The keys remain in the addressing mode until the command for ending the address procedure has been issued by the controller. every pressed key will assign to itself the address it has received.. (b) keyboard mode. follow. 14. When a key is pressed it signals its state to the controller by pulling the data line low. is a byte containing the particular device’s are up to 7 bytes containing configuraaddress. Once the keyboard has been configured. where is a byte containing the command identiis a byte containing the number of bytes to fication. Black jumpers indicate short–circuited pads.ˇ VRACAR et al. When the con- . Examples of the keys arrangement in an application environment: (a) standalone mode.: CAPACITIVE PRESSURE SENSING BASED KEY IN PCB TECHNOLOGY FOR INDUSTRIAL APPLICATIONS 1501 Fig. The addressing procedure starts when the controller issues a command to set an address and as a part of the command it sends the desired address value. in order to maintain signal integrity practical usage should be restricted to a few tenths of keys. e. a photograph of the controller board is shown (dimensions are 25 mm 40 mm). [27]. in the case when the same key role is required in different places on the keyboard. 2 code to a beginning of the configuration readout from the device. Note that it is possible to assign the same address to multiple keys. 15. All keys in the keyboard receive the command and get into the addressing mode. A PC–based utility with a graphical user interface is developed to simplify the configuration of the devices. A developed communication protocol consists of a set of commands with the following syntax: Fig. The procedure is designed to speed up an overall keyboard response and it has been inspired by the search method used in 1–Wire devices [26]. which would result in severe degradation of keyboard responsiveness. thus eliminating the need for the controller board.g. Note that without using the described procedure search time would be orders of magnitude longer (depending on the number of keys). In the inset. An address is required for the device operating in the keyboard mode and may take value from 1 to 127. Block diagram of the controller board and connection interface for an array configuration. the controller board finishes the communication or continues to receive additional bytes from the device that has sent the reply. The address required is obtained in 10 ms. the role of the controller is to decode the address of a pressed key and to pass it to the host application. While in the addressing mode. Communication protocol and the search procedure can also be built in the host application. The controller then starts to acquire the address of a pressed key by using the search procedure according to the flowchart given in Fig. 16.

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. A. “A keyboard tealized c c by keys based on the printed circuit board technology. Niˇ. During this time. ´ ´ ´ [25] Lj. She has authored or coauthored over 30 papers published in the international journals and conference proceedings. Faculty of Electronic Engineering. [27] B. respectively. M. Petnica Science Centre .com [22] T. energy harvesting. 2007.S. P-2010/0571. Serbia. Vraˇ ar. “Layout and physical design guidelines for capacitive sensing. he worked on establishing international cooperation with the Weizman Institute of Science in Israel in the field of communications and education of young talents. From 2001 to 2006. degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Niˇ. 2009. Appl.” Microchip Technology Inc. 1996 and s s 2007. ´ Duˇan Vuˇ kovic (M’05) received the M. 2010.S. and Ph. while his technical interest includes industrial informatics.S. He joined Ei-Microelectronics. He has authored or coauthored over 30 papers published in the national and international journals and conference proceedings.microchip. Department of Microelectronics. “Techniques for robust touch sensing design. ´ Zoran Prijic (M’91) received the B. and Ph. s since 1995. in 2009. Appl. Note 937. he joined the Academic Staff. Available: http://www. Lyngby. s Niˇ. c degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Niˇ. wireless sensor networks and power management.S. [23] T. degree s c in electrical engineering from the University of Niˇ. Denmark. he was a Research and Development Vice-President of Ei Holding Co. Serbia. Peter. and M. Niˇ.D.D. University of Niˇ.S. Niˇ..” Microchip Technology Inc. s s He has been a member of the Academic Staff with the Department of Microelectronics. Appl. Prijic. in 1993. in 1999 and 2009. Serbia. Faculty of Electronic Engineering. “Book of iButton standards. respectively. Note AN1103. where he is currently Head of the Department s of Microelectronics. He is employed as a Specialist at a test and consultancy company DELTA. since s 2002. University of Niˇ.: CAPACITIVE PRESSURE SENSING BASED KEY IN PCB TECHNOLOGY FOR INDUSTRIAL APPLICATIONS [20] T. [26] “1–wire search algorithm. Appl.” Serbia Patent Appl. in 1987. especially in field of home automation and energy harvesting.” Microchip Technology Inc. [24] B. “Capacitive touch using only an ADC (CVD). and Z.S. D. Niˇ.D. Ljubomir Vraˇ ar (M’99) received the B.” Maxim Integrated Products.” Maxim Integrated Products. She has been a member of the Academic Staff with the Faculty of Electronic Engineering.. [21] “PIC12F683 data sheet.. Denmark. Note AN1102. s working initially on CMOS integrated circuits and then on power MOS transistors technology development. Perme and D. Niˇ. degree at the Danish Technical University (DTU). Note AN187. Davison. 1503 ´ Aneta Prijic (M’91) received the B. Her main research areas are modelling and simulation of electrical and electronic devices.. Serbia. From 2001–2007. Note AN1334. Linke. He gained his vast pedagogical experience by performing a large number of lab experiments during his studies and was engaged in development and modernization of teaching material. Inc. Appl. Vuˇ kovic. in 1987. 2002.. he was the head of the Applied Physics and Electronics Department. Serbia. M. 2007 [Online]..” Microchip Technology Inc. His research interests are in the areas of embedded systems.ˇ VRACAR et al. Dec. He has s authored or coauthored over 50 papers in the international technical literature. . Valjevo. Perme. respectively.” Microchip Technology Inc. Hørsholm. In 1990. University of Niˇ. Appl. Prijic.S. micro-electromechanical and energy harvesting systems. He is currently working toward s the Ph.. 1990. He was Head of the Laboratory for Microelectronics and Head of the Computer Center. His area of research is modelling and simulation of electronic components and micro-electromechanical systems. 2007. “Software handling for capacitive sensing. and is currently working on embedded controller systems and smart sensors design. 2002. Note AN1298. degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Niˇ. 2010. and s s 1993. Perme.

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