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Pros and Cons: Automatic Kiln Controllers vs Manual Kiln Controllers [Infographic]

Header image for blog post on manual kiln controllers vs automatic kiln controllers.

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!

Infographic explaining the pros and cons of manual kiln controllers and automatic kiln controllers

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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!

Modernize Your Kiln Firing with TAP Controllers

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What Does a Kiln Controller Do?

This image is a blog header showing a TAP Automatic Kiln Controller

Let’s talk about the high-level nuts and bolts of kiln controllers. Kiln controllers come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and offer varying degrees of capability, from simple control knobs to sleek user interfaces. But what does a kiln controller do? Below, you’ll learn about manual kiln controllers and digital kiln controllers, what they do, and the pros and cons of each.

What is a Kiln? 

Hey, I thought this was an article about kiln controllers, why are you talking to me about kilns? It is! But before we can jump into what a kiln controller is, we first need to understand what a kiln is. A kiln, in the simplest form, is an insulated chamber that can be heated to very high temperatures. A kiln, in a complex form, is a scientific piece of equipment responsible for delivering a precise amount of heat for a precise amount of time. Whether you’re working with pottery, glass, ceramics, metals or other materials that require heat treatment, you’re likely familiar with kilns and want to understand how to control the intense heat they emit. In comes kiln controllers.

What is a Kiln Controller?

A kiln controller is responsible for managing the kiln’s temperature and tempo according to your inputs. Ultimately, it allows the artist to take a break while it conducts the firing orchestra. The controller precisely calculates what the temperature should be and constantly monitors the inputs and cycles the outputs to make sure that the firing schedule you defined is adhered to from start to finish. Kiln controllers also provide you with feedback on your kiln’s operation.

Why Do I Need a Kiln Controller?

By utilizing a controller on your kiln, you have the ability to expand the creative range of what you’re working on. Whereas before you may have felt you could work solely on pottery, which doesn’t necessarily require an advanced controller, you now have the flexibility to work on glass, metals, and ceramics, with precision and accuracy in firing. A kiln controller is a trusted companion to the kiln, because it constantly monitors the activity that’s occurring. It knows the temperature, it knows when the heating elements are on or off, and it knows exactly what you want it to do.

Kiln controllers help glassworkers, ceramicists, and metalworkers control the temperature of their kiln.
Kiln controllers help glassworkers, ceramicists, and metalworkers control the temperature of their kiln.

 

What Types of Controllers Exist?

There are two types of kiln controllers: manual and automatic. Below are short descriptions of each:

Kiln Controllers

Manual kiln controllers, also known as analog controllers, are generally knobs and switches that enable the constant application of power for as long as they’re on. Temperature control is performed manually with the help of external tools, like high temperature thermometers, for temperature monitoring and the fine tuning of knobs for temperature adjustment. As you can imagine, this requires constant attention and may not allow the user to achieve a specified temperature for any prolonged duration.

Digital Kiln Controllers

Digital controllers harness current technology and build on the advances in computing over the last several decades. These controllers are fine-tuned, intuitive, and provide constant communication and feedback to users.

Some controllers use a push button interface, while others use a touchscreen. Many of the newer controllers are connected controllers, which provide an app for control from your mobile device and offer push notification updates on your firings. Connected controllers also offer the ability to easily receive software updates, which is how you can keep up to date with the latest features and capabilities that your kiln controller offers.

What’s It Like Working with a Controller?

Working with analog controllers is quite cumbersome, but working with digital controllers can be surprisingly simple and intuitive. Digital controllers can offer an interface much like your mobile phone, keeping data displays clear, crisp, and packed with just the right information to help you make informed decisions.

How Can a TAP Controller Help Control Your Kiln?

We at SDS Industries offer a range of digital controller products, which can all be managed through our TAP Kiln Control Mobile app. From multi-zone controllers with support for varying thermocouple types to single-zone controllers, we’ve got you covered.

We created the original TAP Kiln Controller in response to our own frustrations with using the digital controllers on the market at the time. Fed up with pouring over user manuals, we decided to design a controller that was responsive, intuitive, and easy to use – while providing full control over each phase of the firing process. And we’ve been working on improving our platform ever since.

Unique quality-of-life features of the TAP Kiln Controller include:

  • Responsive touchscreen controls, an intuitive graphical UI, and logical, easy-to-navigate menus.
  • The ability to create (and name!) an unlimited amount of firing schedules
  • Wi-Fi compatibility and mobile integration to allow you to remotely manage and monitor your kiln firing from your phone or tablet.
  • Diagnostic reports and preventative maintenance alerts to help you anticipate and avoid component failure.
  • Automatic safety shut-off if the kiln surpasses its intended temperature.
  • Continuous software updates and improvements that are automatically downloaded to your controller (or can be uploaded via USB drive).

Whether you’re working on a new build or looking to upgrade your manual or electronic kiln, we have products that allow you to tap into the world of streamlined, user-friendly kiln controllers. Check out our website to learn more about our TAP Ecosystem of Products.