We’ve come a long way from the 1895 keypads used on typewriters. The pad on these artifacts required such force that fingertips of typists developed calluses.

And, thanks to Professor Frederic Stanley Kipping [b. Manchester, England 16 August 1863] and his interest in organic chemistry that silicon was extracted from sand.

Dr. Kipping coined the word “silicone”.

old keypad1

The commercial application of silicone products proceeded in fits and starts until the end of WWII, when the use of silicone became a substitute for natural rubber products. Under the auspices of the Third Reich in Germany, Richard G. Müller and Eugene G. Rochow developed the method that allowed silicones to be synthesized on an industrial level.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that personal computer manufacturers realized that the typewriter keypad was much too stiff and difficult to use for their modern devices and began asking companies to create silicone pads that could be integrated into a keyboard format.

Without the durability and flexibility of high-quality silicone keypads, all the modern conveniences would have a much different appearance – if they would have found existence at all.

Whether you’re tapping the volume control on your steering wheel or adjusting the dosage on an insulin pump, custom silicone keypads are around us every day and they’re getting more and more sophisticated.

Before you know it we’ll have telephones we can wear like stickers in the palms of our hands.

When the Rubber Hits the Road

Whether you’re developing controls for the next space flight or the radio for next year’s hot new coupe, silicone keypads are going to play an integral role in perfecting your product.

The advances initiated those on the leading edge of technological innovations will snowball into new advances by other organizations and existing technologies will continue to develop to necessitate more flexibility in operational construction.

Why Silicone?

As technology continues to develop in both silicone and the equipment it compliments, silicone keypad interfaces will continue to expand their use and impact.

Silicone’s insulating properties and ability to be molded into a single panel prevent liquids, abrasives, extreme temperature and even biological pollutants from causing damage to the circuitry it covers.

• Resistant to extreme temperature fluctuations [-55 °C to 250 °C]
• Minimizes abrasion
• Highly resistant to SO2 and oxidation
• Able to design the tactile and linear feedback qualities
• Allows for custom coloring of fabricated components
• Backlighting possible for translucent applications
• Cost effective for production and shipping
• Water resistant and contamination curtailed

You can incorporate as many buttons and switches as you can imagine into a single molded cover that bends and twists to meet the needs of the user and the parameters of the technology.

Without custom silicone keypads the ability to design a keyboard that would roll up or fold in half and worked as a wireless interface would have been impossible.

The automotive industry is one of the earliest uses for silicone keypads and electronics; if you find a part that requires input from a user, you are probably using a silicone keypad to operate it.

And if you can’t, just wait a few weeks.

Whether you need to program a die cutter on an assembly line or roll down the window in your Toyota to pay the cashier at the drive through, there is probably an elastomeric interface designed to help you.

Sense of Touch Screens

Typing has been an integral part of society since the middle of the 1800s and ever since the first secretary got her finger stuck in the mechanism you can bet it has needed adjustments.

With the complex mechanisms of the first typewriters, all the way to the metal and plastic construction of more contemporary versions typists have had to deal with injuries and ailments, ranging from accidental pinches to carpal tunnel syndrome.

When touch-screen computers and tablets started to appear on the scene a new problem arose because you couldn’t feel the buttons you were pressing any longer.

The lack of feedback through your fingertips meant you had to go back to a hunt and peck typing strategy, which may have prevented some injuries but slowed the process significantly.

Ironically, typing by touch became a skill jeopardized by the touch screen itself. Now flexible keyboards allow you to position your wrists in the most comfortable position you can imagine, using a perfected a silicone keyboard that gives the tactile sensation necessary to bring the touch typing experience to a touch screen tablet.

Its transparent elastomeric interface also ensures that you can see when the caps lock is on before you start shouting in the email you’re composing.

The ease of designing and producing silicone keypads will likely allow you to purchase custom overlays, such as game controllers for other mobile applications in the near future as well.

Cyborgs Don’t Flex Muscles

Back when the Six Million Dollar Man was punching through walls and running faster than cars, you could easily see the difference between tissue and technology. His bionic limbs only bent at the hinges and he had to have surgery any time his programming needed to be corrected.

Thanks to developments from institutions such as Purdue University, you can now take advantage of soft, stretchable and wearable electronics and robotics.

In today’s world, Steve Austin would have a rubberized control panel on the inside of his arm that looked just like skin except for the digital LED shining through.

With flexible keypads on other medical equipment, you can use your wearable defibrillator in a hurricane or signal for help from the bathtub with a waterproof medical alert pendant as well. And the control panels for everything, from CPAP machines to hospital heart monitors, are more easily cleaned and sanitized.

Submarine Security Systems

The difference between waterproof and water resistant electronics now is whether the protection provided comes to you in the form of a rubberized keypad or a series of gaskets around moving parts. With silicone products, you could now equip a submarine with an alarm keypad, if you were so inclined.

Though water, dust and other contaminants inevitably made their way past various gaskets to damage circuitry in the past, flexible keypads made of a single custom-molded piece of material allow no gaps between buttons for them to penetrate.

And you can count on silicone keypads to insulate and protect electronic devices even in the abusive environments associated with harsh activities, ranging from arctic research to deep sea exploration.

Even in temperate indoor situations, elastomeric keypads are used on equipment such as digital oven controls and custom shower heads. You may even use one when you want to get ice from your freezer without opening the door.

Breaking up with the Mold

Currently, silicone keypads are heated and formed in custom milled or machined molds and then contact points and circuitry are aligned on the inside to interact with the circuitry of the equipment.

new keypad

Even if a mold remains necessary for large scale production of custom silicone interfaces you will be able to test and fine tune your designs much easier using a 3D printer. You could eliminate significant research and development costs by perfecting designs long before production equipment, even on a small scale, ever becomes necessary.

Until you can control electronic equipment with your mind, silicone keypads will likely remain the most useful and customizable material for protection and simultaneous operation of these applications and devices.

And even when you can control electronics with your mind, you’ll probably do it through a silicone cap with electronic contact points in order to broadcast your thoughts anyway.