Embracing the Future: Dial vs. Digital Indicators and the Rise of Precision Instrumentation

In the early 1980s, the introduction of digital electronic indicators caused quite a stir in the industry. It was believed they would eventually overshadow mechanical dial indicators due to their enhanced resolution, accuracy, and utility in systems of statistical process control and data collection. Yet, mechanical indicators managed to hold their ground, largely due to certain advantages they possessed and the continued preference of many users.

Today, the digital versus dial debate is no longer about which is superior, but more about which is suitable for specific applications. The selection between the two relies heavily on the application in question and user preference. Nonetheless, digital indicators are emerging as the preferred choice for an increasing number of applications.

The Technological Advantage: Digital Indicators in Process Control

The primary advantage of digital indicators lies in their use for data collection in process control. With digital indicators, operators can output measurements directly, eliminating operator errors in reading or recording. This process has become even more streamlined in recent years with the introduction of wireless technology, which allows greater portability of gages. The only manual step is positioning the workpiece and pressing a button, the rest is taken care of by the digital indicator.

Conversely, dial indicators involve a more complicated, error-prone process where the operator must interpret the pointer’s position, record it manually, and then enter the data into a computer. As a result, digital indicators are the most logical choice when data needs to be entered into a computer system.

Affordability and Utility: The Cost-Benefit Analysis

Historically, the cost of digital indicators was considerably higher than that of dial indicators. However, this has changed in recent times, and basic digital indicators are now competitively priced alongside high-quality dial indicators. Moreover, digital indicators often come with additional standard features such as reversal of measuring direction, auto-zeroing, data output, in/mm switchable reporting, and actual values. This provides exceptional value in what used to be a premium product.

The Cognitive Appeal: Dial Indicators’ Unique Strengths

Despite the cost advantage being wiped out, there is still something intriguing about mechanical dial indicators. The human brain, like an analog device, can often glean more information quickly from an analog readout. Dial indicators also provide more intuitive information than digital ones. However, modern digital indicators have overcome some of these cognitive disadvantages by incorporating analog-like displays, providing an indication of direction, and showing how far over or under the part tolerance the item being inspected is.

The Digital Ascendancy: Today’s Digital Indicators

Many of today’s digital indicators are becoming increasingly powerful and feature-rich, rivaling bench amplifiers in performance. With features such as dynamic measurements, multiple factors, unilateral tolerances, different output formats, and micro-inch resolutions, these advanced digital indicators offer exceptional value, usually at a fraction of the price of a bench amplifier and probe.

Additionally, digital indicators eliminate certain common issues associated with dial indicators, such as overlooking when the pointer makes a full revolution or two. By displaying the actual part size, they eliminate the problem of returning to “0” or reading deviations.

Charting the Future with Digital Indicators

Digital indicators have proven to be highly reliable in the shop floor environment and are widely accepted by operators, thereby, gaining dominance in more applications. With only a single moving part, digital indicators require less frequent cleaning than their mechanical counterparts and now feature clear IP ratings that define their usable environments. Although dial indicators can last virtually forever and do not need batteries, finding professionals who can repair them is becoming increasingly challenging.

At Willrich Precision Instrument, we offer a comprehensive range of metrology products, from the most sophisticated metrology products to basic measuring tools, including both dial and digital indicators. Experience the ease and accuracy of digital indicators with us.

by George Chitos