24 Jan 2005
Keypads(HKTDC Electronic Components & Parts, Vol 01,2005)
Perhaps the most obvious element in both consumer and industrial electronic items, keypads have changed in recent years. Keypads have been transformed as product stylists have enthusiastically embraced brighter designs, ergonomic principles and new materials, particularly silicone rubber.
One Hong Kong company at the forefront of this evolution is Modern Metal & Electric Ltd, a 36-year-old firm that manufactures silicone rubber keypads and accessories in Dongguan on the southern Chinese mainland.
"Silicone has excellent thermal and conductive properties, so it can be used in a switch in many electronic products,_ assistant general manager Philip Chan enthuses. It accepts print and can be made in any colour, which is why it has been an important material in the electronics industry for 20 years."
Modern Metal & Electric (MM&E) imports silicone from the US, Japan and Europe and processes some US$18m-worth of product per annum at its ISO 9001- and QS 9000-certied factory. Ten million units a month roll off MM&E's production lines for sale worldwide, although the companys principal markets are Japan, North America and the mainland. "Minimum order sizes are negotiable and we can deliver 2-3 weeks after confirmation," Chan adds.
An OEM manufacturer, MM&E is ideally placed to view the development of the keypad industry. "It seems that different kinds of coatings and finishings on keypads will dominate the market in the near-term," Chan predicts.
Korea-headquartered You Eal (HK) Ltd is similarly dedicated to using silicone in its keypads, according to sales manager Samuel Cheung. "Silicone is a good electrical insulator that also has interesting properties," he maintains. "It is a soft but durable material whose hardness can be adjusted in the manufacturing process, so it is ideal for constructing electronic components such as mobile phone keypads."
You Eal won The Hong Kong Electronic Industries Association Gold Award for Outstanding Innovation and Technology Products in 2004 with its Electro Luminescence (EL) keypad, and has been manufacturing ISO 9001- and TL 9000-certifed keypads for companies such as Samsung, LG, Alcatel, Motorola, Panasonic, Philips and Siemens for more than 10 years.
The company's ISO 9001-certified mainland plant in Shenzhen produces standard keypads for export to Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Europe and the US.
Design is important, Cheung feels, particularly in view of You Eal's flexible minimum order requirements and delivery policies that are subject to the complexity of the products.
"In general, our customers give us their ideas or concepts of the mobile phone keypad, and then our R&D in Korea will provide technical support," he explains. "We have more than 50 people in our R&D team, who will discuss technical issues and make suggestions about materials in order to meet customer requirements."
He says You Eal works closely with all its customers and is able to provide many types of keypads and finishes. "For example, we offer plastic keytop, film insert laser, elastomer film, rubber film, film elastomer, hard epoxy keytop, transparent metallic, negative printing, laser marking, special assembly and the latest electro-luminescence keypads," Cheung adds.
Equally representative of the new wave of keypad manufacturers is Hoi Wah Industrial Co Ltd, a 26-year-old manufacturer of silicone rubber keypads and individual silicone components such as O-rings, gaskets, small single parts and single keys.
Hoi Wah maintains a 200-worker factory on the mainland in Huizhou that enables it to deliver variable minimum orders to domestic and international markets 7-10 days after confirmation.
The company sources silicone in Taiwan and Japan and increases its competitiveness and maintains high quality standards by adopting advanced production equipment for moulds and products.
As a result, Hoi Wah's products have applications across many industries, says sales representative Cally Yip. "We control the whole process, from tool design to final coating, laser etching or printing and pay close attention to testing and QC procedures," she says, adding that silicone has transformed the industry.
"Products using silicone can provide better effects than other materials," Yip insists. "For example, we can do laser etching and have an LED light shine through from the bottom of the keypad."
Hoi Wah can also apply a PU coating that is dustproof to provide a smooth feeling, or an epoxy potting that gives the impression of a hard keypad. "Then we can finish, perhaps with an oil spray, or have keyboards that glow in the dark," Yip adds.
More than 75% of Hoi Wah's production is its own design, with the balance coming from OEM customers. "Our R&D department always keeps up-to-date and develops new designs with a focus on what the market needs,_ Yip notes. "The market is now asking for special designs, colourful and of high quality."
A fairly recent technological innovation, silicone looks set to keep Hong Kong manufacturers tapping out record orders for high quality, innovative and competitively priced keypads for many years to come.
Golden Power Rubber Products Ltd
Hoi Wah Industrial Co Ltd
Luen Fung Silicone Rubber Mfg Co