Just like with cars, artists and hobbyists have two options when it comes to kiln controllers: manual and automatic.
Manual kiln controllers rely completely on user input. With a combination of analog dials and switches, users have to set the temperature of their kiln, adjust temp throughout the firing process, and make sure they keep track of their firing schedule (and don’t forget to turn off their kiln!).
Automatic kiln controllers, on the other hand, significantly streamline the firing process by managing the temperature of the kiln without user input. Also known as digital controllers, automatic kiln controllers allow users to program their device to reach the right temperatures at the right times without their direct oversight.
Both types of controllers have their pros and cons – so which one is right for you?
Infographic: Automatic Kiln Controllers vs Manual Kiln Controllers
Below is a quick summary of the pros and cons of automatic and manual controllers. Later on, we’ll be exploring these differences more in-depth!
Manual Kiln Controllers: Pros and Cons
Just like with cars, manual controllers have an element of old school cool. Ceramists, glassworkers, and metal workers have been managing their firing process by hand for almost 10,000 years! However, while manual kiln controllers are more hands-on, unlike manual cars they don’t offer more control – just a greater need for hands-on management. Like manual cars, they also have a much smaller margin for error.
However, manual kiln controllers do have several advantages. They are extremely easy to pick up and use – the learning curve for managing inputs is minimal (it’s just like using your oven!). They tend to be significantly cheaper than automatic kiln controllers. And they do help you feel more viscerally connected to the firing process. After all, you’ll hardly be able to leave your kiln!
If that sounds up your alley, you do want to be aware of the potential downsides. While it’s easy to manage settings on manual controllers, achieving desired results is much more difficult. If you lose track of time, or don’t monitor temperature, it’s easy to ruin the ceramic or metal piece or glasswork you’ve been working on for hours.
Pros of Manual Kiln Controllers
- Simple controls.
- Gives you more opportunities for direct observation of the outcomes for each stage of the firing process.
- More hands-on – so you feel involved in the firing process.
- Less expensive.
- Available on most entry level kilns (although you can always convert to automatic later!)
Cons of Manual Kiln Controllers
- Time intensive and requires constant attention.
- Very little margin for error – extremely minor missteps can result in inconsistencies or failed firings.
- Diagnostics are limited to firsthand observation and the use of tools like thermocouples and pyrometers.
- Unable to save firing programs – so you have to recreate your firing process from scratch every time.
Automatic Kiln Controllers: Pros and Cons
Automatic kiln controllers, on the other hand, do a lot of the heavy lifting for you. After programming your firing schedule or choosing from a preset, automatic controllers manage your firing process – monitoring the temperature of the various zones of your kiln and adjusting temperature throughout the stages of your firing process.
This allows for a greater degree of precision, making them ideal for glass firing or other complex processes that rely on gradual changes to temperature and the ability to set ramps and holds. Additionally, some digital controllers, such as TAP Kiln Controllers, have tons of quality-of-life features that significantly streamline and simplify the kiln firing process – like easy-to-use, responsive touchscreen controls, mobile apps that send you alerts and push notifications and allow you to adjust your settings remotely, and the ability to save an almost infinite number of preset firing schedules.
Automatic kiln controllers can also provide diagnostic reports and alerts for preventative maintenance, letting you know when different components of your kiln are approaching the end of their life.
However, that is not to say that automatic kiln controllers aren’t without their drawbacks. They tend to be a little more expensive than manual controllers, and they might not be available out-the-box on every kiln model. Additionally, many automatic controllers have cumbersome controls and extremely steep learning curves that leave users pouring over user manuals and hoping they’re entering the correct inputs. (In fact, our own frustrations with existing automatic kiln controllers led us to create SDS Industries. We wanted kiln control to be more intuitive, streamlined, and user friendly!).
Pros of Automatic Kiln Controllers
- Manages most of the firing process for you – eliminating user error or the need for constant oversight.
- Allows for more precision and the ability to execute complex firing processes like ramps/holding and annealing for glasswork.
- Provides more predictability and ensures consistency for the finished product(s).
- Gives users the ability to save presets for firing schedules they frequently use.
- Provides diagnostics and alerts for preventative maintenances.
- Allow users to remotely monitor their firing and make any necessary adjustments.
Cons of Automatic Kiln Controllers
- More expensive.
- Some automatic controllers have complicated, unintuitive controls and steep learning curve.
- Don’t come standard on all kiln models.
Is an Automatic Kiln Controller Right for You?
Hopefully, this article gave you a clear idea of the pros and cons of manual and automatic kiln controllers – and also gave you ideas about what type of controller might work best for you. If you are considering purchasing an automatic kiln controller, we invite you to explore our suite of TAP Controllers. TAP Controllers utilize the most advanced automatic kiln control technology available – to provide you with precision, convenience, and ease-of-use. So that you have more time to focus on your craft, without having to stress over the mechanics of temperature control!