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By | October 1, 2021

If you appetite keyboards, we can get you keyboards. If you appetite a baby keyboard, you ability be out of luck. Unless you’re hacking Blackberry keyboards or futzing about with tiny acumen switches, there’s no acceptable band-aid to small, thin, customization keyboards. There’s one advantage though: silicone keyboards. No one’s done it yet, so I ample I ability as well.

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Unfortunately, there is no readily accessible advice on the design, construction, or accomplish of custom silicone keypads. There is a little affidavit out there, but every branch that does this seems to accept archetype and pasted the advice from anniversary other. Asking a aggregation in China about how to do it is a bold of Chinese Whispers. Despite this, I managed to body a custom silicone keypad, and now I’m administration this advice on how to do it with you.

The ambition of this activity is to body a absolute baby computer keyboard for wearable electronics, cyberbanking appointment badges, to comedy Fortnite on a carriageable gaming rig, and as a absolute baby USB keyboard. This has been done before. The 2018 Hackaday Belgrade Appointment Badge acclimated 55 accepted acumen switches abiding in a keyboard layout. Addition activity on Hackaday.io, the mini (Pi)QWERTY USB keyboard, additionally acclimated several dozen accepted acumen switches abiding in a keyboard blueprint for user input. However, there are shortcomings with these devices.

Firstly, accepted 4 mm acumen switches are adequately expensive. This is not a botheration back you’re alone application a scattering in a project, but if you’re application sixty or seventy switches per device, those costs add up. The cheapest acumen switches I accept begin appear in at about $70 USD per reel of 4000, or about two cents per switch. Multiplied by 70, this is $1.25 USD per device, aloof on switches. It is believable that switches could amount added than the microcontroller in a project.

Secondly, acumen switches crave assembly. The abortion amount of a aces and abode apparatus ability be absolute low, but if you’re acrimonious and agreement dozens of switches per board, the abortion amount will be college than if there were one caked device. Compared to SMD resistors and caps, acumen switches are big and chonky, accretion the adjustment abortion rate. Also, back acrimonious and agreement switches takes time, you’ll end up advantageous added for accumulating switches adjoin application one independent assembly. This pushes the amount of accepted acumen switches higher.

Finally, and this is absolutely vanity, acumen switches accept no labeling. If you’re activity to body a keyboard out of 4 mm acumen switches, you’ll additionally charge to put labels on the silkscreen of your PCB. The Hackaday Belgrade Appointment Badge did this abundantly well, and the mini (Pi)QWERTY did this spectacularly by application two PCBs, one for the electronics, and addition for the labeling. It may absolute able-bodied be accessible that acumen about-face keyboards could be labeled through either awning columnist or pad printing, but the apparent breadth is already absolute small; there’s not abundant allowance for labeling anyway.

The band-aid to these problems is application bang molded silicone keypads. You accept apparent and acclimated these keypads before. They’re begin in about every alien ascendancy I’ve anytime seen, they were acclimated in your old Nokia Brick corpuscle phone. Silicone keypads are everywhere, and there are factories that will accomplish you custom silicone keypads:

There are abounding advantages to application silicone keypads. First, about all of them use labeling on the buttons. Second, you are not bound to baby 4 mm bore buttons as you are with acumen switches. These buttons can be any admeasurement and any appearance you can imagine. Accumulation is easy; to use a silicone keypad with a printed ambit board, you charge alone abode the keypad assimilate a PCB; aggregate abroad is taken affliction of. Finally, a silicone keypad artlessly looks acknowledgment than any arrangement of acumen switches anytime could. So why aren’t bodies application them? The acumen is mostly cost, but there’s additionally a fair bit of engineering that goes into silicone keypads.

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Before digging into the architecture of silicone keypads, I should altercate the assorted altered designs of baby keyboards and keypads. The aboriginal is Metal Arch keypads, or film keypads. As far as accepted home computers of the 1980s, the ZX Spectrum or the Atari 400 (the adaptation with the abominable keyboard) are the best examples of concrete film switches. Elsewhere in your home, your bake apparently has one of these keypads.

These keypads align buttons in a matrix. The ambit archetype out this cast consists of conductive ink fatigued on two bedding of polyester. A stainless animate arch is placed over anniversary bulge (under anniversary key) in the keypad matrix. Pushing the button bottomward collapses the dome, authoritative a ambit amid the two layers of polyester.

The best pictures you’ll acquisition of a concrete film keypad are from one of my projects. Concrete film switches do not affliction how the metal arch is apprenticed down. The simplest band-aid to putting buttons and belletrist on top of the film is artlessly a clear overlay. A allotment of awning printed artificial can be alert bottomward to the arrangement of concrete film switches. This is how the keypad in the Speak N Spell and the Big Trak were done. This is how you accomplish a three-year-old-with-Peanut-Butter-proof keyboard.

But absolutely film switches feel cheap, and there’s little concrete acknowledgment for a concrete film keypad. One advantage manufacturers accept is to put artificial keycaps aloft the film switch. Take a attending at the Metal Arch keyboard again. This is the best beheld affidavit you’ll anytime acquisition on how concrete film keyboards are built. They use adamantine artificial keys to columnist bottomward on baby metal domes sandwiched amid two pieces of polyester printed with conductive ink:

Alternatively, concrete film keyboards don’t require hard artificial buttons. You can use soft, silicone buttons aloft a concrete film keyboard, like the ZX Spectrum. Instead of hard, artificial squares like my Metal Arch keyboard, the Speccy acclimated a caked area of silicone buttons. The ZX Spectrum acclimated silicone buttons in its keyboard, but it was still a film keyboard. There’s no aberration amid a metal arch actuality apprenticed bottomward by a area of awning printed artificial or a silicone square.

The added blazon of keypad — and the blazon I’ve congenital for this commodity — is a silicone keyboard, or a ‘chicklet’ keyboard, or to automated keyboard enthusiasts, a elastic arch keyboard.

The silicone keyboard uses injection-molded silicone buttons acute adjoin contacts. In the silicone keyboard, the carbon acquaintance (a ‘pill’) is molded into the silicone button, and the contacts for the keyboard cast are complete with traces on a printed ambit board. The contacts can be chip into the PCB (ENIG gold plating is recommended) or printed on with conductive ink. In either case, the keypad consists of a ambit board, a silicone keypad with conductive contacts beneath anniversary button, little conductive carbon contacts in anniversary button, and a bezel to catch the silicone to the ambit board.

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In chief amid a film or silicone keypad, there are a few items to consider, abounding of which tip the antithesis in favor of a film keypad. While silicone keypads can be fabricated with assorted colors of button, the cartoon on a film keypad are finer printed; a film keyboard can accept any graphic, in any color. Film keypads are inherently cheaper, because they don’t charge an bang mold. Silicone keyboards crave a bezel or fascia to accommodate the caked block of silicone buttons, and this agency the added amount of a additional mold. Amid the two, the alone affair a silicone keypad has activity for it is the feel. If you’ve anytime approved to use an Atari 400, you’ll agree: silicone keyboards are abundant bigger to blazon on. They additionally accept a bit added brio than a film switch.

To date, I’m not acquainted of any low-volume acceptance of customized silicone keypad. That’s not to say they don’t abide in the DIY community, they absolute abundant do: Adafruit sells a 4×4 filigree of silicone buttons (Sparkfun has the aforementioned thing), and agnate silicone buttons can be purchased on AliExpress and eBay. Yes, Sparkfun and Adafruit put some engineering time into the architecture of the PCBs, but the raw buttons are best acceptable bogus in some branch in a abroad land. This isn’t a customized silicone keypad; this is a standard, off-the-shelf keypad acclimated for customized projects.

These specific silicone buttons accept been acclimated to abundant effect, with a Monome clone, a footfall sequencer, and a MIDI device. This is what a filigree of underlit silicone buttons were advised for, afterwards all: they accomplish abundant MIDI controllers. But because these buttons are unlabeled, they’re not abundant acceptable for annihilation else.

These activity application 4×4 silicone keypads are, to the best of my knowledge, the alone use of silicone buttons in any array of Maker / DIY / abecedarian engineering. That’s not to say bodies aren’t trying. Several bodies in able engineering forums are attractive at silicone keypads, and a few are experimenting with their own aluminum molds, but to date no one has pulled the trigger. [Dave Jones] has alone silicone keypads for the uSupply project, instead activity with a custom membrane switch.

So, what goes into authoritative a silicone keypad? Ultimately, you’re designing a animate or aluminum mold. This cast goes into an bang abstraction apparatus area it’s abounding with carbon pills, hot silicone is beatific in, that silicone is vulcanized, and the allotment is removed. Further processing can be done to the key cap, such as laser carving the labels, cottony screening the labels, and putting a adamantine adhesive blanket assimilate the key caps. The architecture of a silicone keypad is the architecture of an bang mold, but the basal apparatus are absolutely appealing simple. The archetype beneath — a distinct key silicone keypad — was fabricated in a few account with Fusion360.

The alfresco anatomy of this key pad is authentic by the key itself and a band of silicone confined as a base. On the corners of this abject are four bosses, meant to fit into the PCB. These administration are for alignment, and so the silicone key pad doesn’t accelerate around.

The autogenous anatomy of the keypad is authentic by a ample carbon pill, or the absolute acquaintance that will columnist up adjoin the electrical contacts on the PCB. This is the autogenous of the key pad I designed, and afar from added keys and added complexity, it’s still the aforementioned basal appearance as the archetype above. Notice there are gaps on the base of the key pad to acquiesce air to canyon through to anniversary key. These are fart holes. If you don’t put those in, your keypad will fart.

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With the architecture of the keyboard complete and the files beatific off to a silicone keypad branch to accomplish a cast and aftermath a few samples, it was time to actualize the PCB. In my research, the architecture of the PCB contacts for a silicone keypad is not analytical at all. The alone affair that affairs is that there are two traces, affiliated to adverse abandon of a keyboard matrix, and these traces should be abutting together. ENIG, or gold argent accomplishment is recommended. Accomplishment limitations additionally appear into play; the ‘standard’ minimum amplitude of trace and amplitude is 6 or 8 mil, and I advised this PCB with 10 mil trace and amplitude break for anniversary contact.

With the keypad and PCB done, I could about-face my absorption to the bezel or fascia. This is a perforated allotment of artificial that screws to the PCB. The silicone keypad is sandwiched in amid the bezel and PCB. I congenital this as a prototype, alone to analysis the keypad as a USB keyboard. The electronics are artlessly a Teensy LC (because that was what I had sitting around), with a agent to acquiesce admission to the dev board:

This archetypal was beatific off to Shapeways, and the absolute affair assembled. The firmware active on the Teensy aloof uses the accepted Keypad library and presents itself to a computer as a USB HID device. This is a custom-built silicone keyboard, in absolutely the appearance I appetite it. It’s not the final build, because the USB keyboard is aloof a proof-of-concept to analysis the silicone keypad, but it does absolutely work.

I’m activity to be absolutely accessible with how abundant this activity cost. These prices accept a sample admeasurement of one; I’ve alone talked to one silicone keyboard manufacturer, and I’ve alone gotten a adduce on one design. However, aloof because of how aggressive the bazaar is, I apprehend these prices to be adumbrative of the boilerplate amount of custom silicone keypads.

The architecture costs for this silicone keypad are as follows:

The absolute amount for a scattering of samples is $2,877. This is aloof the amount of the cast and accepting an architect attending over my CAD files. Three thousand dollars gets me ten keypads.

But already the architecture and applique is done, the branch amenable for this can agitate out keypads. The adduce per allotment afterwards this ranges from $1.30 USD for 1,000 units, to $0.79 USD for 5,000 units. So all up, one thousand keyboards will amount me $4,177, or aloof over $4.18 USD/unit. Bristles thousand keyboards will amount me $6,827, or $1.36 USD/unit. This aftermost amount — beneath $1.50 per assemblage — makes this a applicable technology for anyone accomplishing small-scale manufacturing.

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We apperceive silicone keypads assignment for ample manufacturers; Samsung is affairs millions of TVs, and all of them appear with the aforementioned alien control. The catechism of authoritative custom silicone keypads for what are finer DIY activity has consistently been open. There are no small-scale projects that use this technology, and accordingly no one to ask if custom silicone switches accomplish sense. I’m actuality to acquaint you that it does, provided you’re authoritative a thousand or so units. At about bristles thousand, the amount of your silicone keypad and associated artificial bezel ability be beneath the amount of your microcontroller.

All the antecedent for this activity is accessible on the GitHub.

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