The story of Signature Plastics
President Bob Guenser sums up the history of Signature Plastics, creator and manufacturer of keycap profiles like SA and DSA, on occasion of preparing for retirement and searching for buyer candidates.
Published January 31, 2024
The story of Signature Plastics begins with a man named John Cavers and a company called Comptec. Cavers came from the transistor industry where he was Managing Director of the General Instrument/C.P. Clare group of companies. He closely watched the evolution of computers from mainframes to minicomputers to microcomputers and quickly realized that, as computers became more accessible and more affordable, a market would develop for keycaps for personal computers.
After visualizing a two-stage injection molding process, in 1969 he established Keytronic Corporation in Spokane, Washington. However, Cavers failed to convince his business partners to adopt his insert molding approach, so in 1973 he left the company and returned to his home near Vancouver, Canada, where he started Comptec. Partnering with a local machine shop, McLean Tooling, Cavers set out on a mission to grow Comptec into the largest independent keycap manufacturer in the world.
Building the foundation
With some of the most talented German tool makers in the industry working with a creative team of elite design engineers, Comptec began developing a unique, cost-effective method to manufacture keycaps for the emerging computer market. Securing contracts with Bunker Ramo, Cortron, Chomerics and Amp Switch, proprietary tooling was designed and built based on Caver’s two-shot, insert molding concept. It proved to be very successful.
Soon after, Comptec began building molds to produce their own keycap profiles. Tooling was designed with quick-change components to simplify molding the keycap mounting stem that allowed the keys to be functional on any switch style. There were over 100 different switch manufacturers competing to dominate the mechanical switch market.
To produce the graphic insert, brass plates were engraved with mirror images of customer specified words, letters, numbers, and symbols using a Gorton Pantograph machine. These legend plates were secured in the cavity side of the first mold opposite a ‘grid pin’ located on the core side of the mold. The grid pin helped form a carrier for the small letters, words, and numbers so they could be easily inserted into a second mold.
The second mold formed the keycap shape as well as the switch mounting detail located on the underside of the keycap. Custom mechanical part loading and removal equipment was installed on small tonnage injection molding machines making it possible to produce tens of thousands of parts a day.
Over the next four years, Comptec would design and build five unique keycap families. The first of these families, SA, was built in 1980. These keys closely resembled familiar typewriter keys with a high profile, a spherical (S) touch surface, and a uniform look across all (A) rows on the keyboard.
Soon after a modified version of the SA family was built which gave each row of keycaps a slightly different tilt, resulting in a sculptured style keyboard profile that many users found more comfortable while typing.
Honeywell, Hewlett Packard, Incoterm, Beehive, NCR, Stackpole and Mohawk Data Science were a few of the first customers to put this profile to use on a variety of business machines, calculators and computer keyboards.
In 1981, the high-profile SS family was introduced. Like the SA profile, this family also had a spherical (S) touch surface and a sculptured (S) look. A year later the DSS family was released. This family adhered to the new industry driven DIN (D) standard, had a spherical (S) touch surface, and a sculptured (S) profile that differed slightly from the SS and SA families. Neither of these keycap styles was as well received as the sculptured SA profile which remained the most popular keycap family at the time.
In 1983, a low-profile keycap family, DSA, was introduced. The DSA family met the DIN (D) standard, had a spherical (S) touch surface, and a uniform look across all (A) rows. This was a very popular style having extensive commercial applications and later widely used in POS systems.
Also released in 1983 was the DCS family. This DIN (D) design had a cylindrical (C ) touch surface and a sculptured (S) profile. This became Comptec’s most popular keycap family. The DCS tooling was designed with thin walls to reduce material costs in an attempt to achieve an industry target of $0.05 per key. Five machines ran 24-cavity molds 24/7 to keep up with the demand from customers like EECO/Maxi Switch, Oak Industries, Wong, Wyse, Xerox, and Wang.
In 1983, sublimation printing was developed as an alternative to two-shot molding. Sublimation printing is a diffusion process where inks, subjected to slight heat and pressure, migrate from a printed paper to a receptive surface. During the process, dyes in the ink transition from a solid to a gas state, much like dry ice, transferring an image to the part. Polyester (PBT) resin is a perfect medium for this process because its crystalline structure allows the dyes to penetrate the plastic part.
Sublimation printing offered an effective solution for marking keycaps with very detailed legends that would otherwise be more difficult or impossible to produce using the traditional two-shot process. And it also allows for multi-color printing in a single cycle. Because the dyes are able to penetrate the plastic part, this process is much more durable than surface printing using two-part epoxy inks. Microswitch and Cherry Keyboards were two of Comptec’s largest customers utilizing the sublimation process on their keysets. Within a short time, this printing method was applied to several other products including bank card readers, calculator keys, and phone dial pads.
The development of sublimation printing would prove to be a life saver for the company following an unexpected downturn in business in the early 90’s.
During the first several years of operation, Comptec quickly expanded its manufacturing capacity to 28 molding machines and 80 production workers. With a talented team of design engineers and seasoned mold makers producing some of the best insert molds in the industry, Comptec was commissioned to design and build proprietary insert tooling for many of the industry giants like Compaq and Rolm Corporation. At the request of several US customers wanting to secure a second, state-side, source of keycaps, the Custer, Washington manufacturing division began operations in 1977. Within four years, this division grew to 90 employees with 26 molding machines. Shortly after, another division became operational in Montauban, France, servicing the growing European market.
Following a building expansion in 1984, the Custer division quickly grew to 160 employees operating 32 molding machines and several sublimation printing lines. Sales exceeded $7M. New customers included Digital Equipment Corporation and Data General. In 1988, Comptec began offering electronic assemblies to customers needing fully functional keyboard sub-assemblies. Capabilities focused on through-hole technology utilizing Cherry switches. By the end of the decade, Comptec had 100 molding machines and employed over 300 people. Sales exceeded $20M. Cavers had finally achieved his goal of becoming the largest independent keycap supplier in the world.
Then the bottom fell out.
Within two years, 70% of Comptec’s sales evaporated as Asian manufacturers began to offer low-cost keysets making it impossible for Comptec to compete. In addition, the more expensive mechanical style switch was being replaced by the less costly membrane switch. It was time for Comptec to revise their business plan. In 1991, a decision was made to abandon keycap production in Canada and transfer all tooling to the Custer facility. The Canadian facility focused on custom molding, building two-shot dial pad programs for telecom giants Comdial, Mitel, Lifeline, Electrospace and Cortelco. Components for magnetic card swipe technologies were also developed for Tandem/Atalla and Magtek. Sublimation printing found new life with customers like Acuson, Grass Valley Group and Symbol Technology. On the downside, attempts to establish a foothold in the highly competitive automotive industry were less successful.
As a cost-saving measure, a corporate decision was also made to stop servicing customers with annual sales of less than $10,000. Most of these were smaller keycap customers that comprised Custer’s core business. The electronic assembly business was also discontinued. As a result, the Custer division was reduced to 36 employees with less than $3M in annual sales.
The beginning of the end
In 1994, Comptec was contracted by Canadian based Nortel Networks to design a manufacturing process capable of supporting a plan to build 100,000 business phone systems a month. This was a huge project requiring over 30 high-capacity molds, multiple at-the-machine dial pad printing presses, in-house sublimation paper printing, vibratory bowl assisted assembly and packaging systems, and a continuous loop sublimation printing line utilizing robotic parts handling and a vision inspection system.
Two years later, at the peak of operations, Cavers decided to exit the business. In 1996, he sold Comptec to a Canadian company that took it public, trading on the Vancouver Stock Exchange. However, frustrated by continuing labor issues in Canada, the new owners decided to move all Nortel production to the Custer facility. A 5,500 square foot extension was built and within three months the division swelled to 266 employees operating 24/7. Sales in Custer at the end of 1997 were $12.8M. The Canadian facility was downsized to a Technology Center and Corporate Office. Two years later, however, once again under new ownership, all Nortel business was transferred back to the Canadian facility. Custer would be left with the decimated keycap business, several dial pad programs, and some custom molding. Manpower dropped to 26 employees. Less than a year later, the Surrey operation would also suffer a blow when Nortel decided to move their phone program offshore. In 2004 Comptec filed for bankruptcy and eventually closed their doors.
A new beginning
Despite all the indecision and chaos that surrounded the final years of Comptec, there is a silver lining. In 2000, the owners approached Bob Guenser about a management buy-out of the Custer operation. Guenser had joined Comptec in 1978 when there were only 13 employees. As Production Control Manager, he implemented effective scheduling and performance tracking systems that helped the company navigate through the rapid growth periods of the 80’s and 90’s. Guenser eventually became Division Manager, leading the company through its most successful years. Historically, the Custer division provided the financial stability the company needed during the chaotic periods that drifted in and out of Comptec. Guenser strongly believed that there would always be a market for keycaps. He also wanted to preserve the legacy surrounding the 30-year-old keycap business. So, in 2001, he accepted an MBO offer and formed Signature Plastics LLC.
Soon he was joined by his daughter, Melissa Petersen. Petersen, who had recently graduated with a Marketing degree, was a perfect fit for the new company. With a natural ability to effectively multi-task, she quickly took over the sales and administration activities. Together they set out to rebuild the business.
Over the next fifteen years, annual sales remained constant allowing the company to turn a modest profit. Roughly three quarters of the revenue was generated through the traditional two-shot keycap and sublimation printing processes for customers in a wide range of industries including POS systems, custom keyboards, inventory tracking systems and other commercial markets. Proprietary keycap tooling for customers in the medical, aerospace, defense, and broadcast industries accounted for 15% of sales. The remaining revenue was generated through a variety of custom molding projects.
Traditionally, commercial customers accounted for 100% of Signature Plastics’ revenue. However, in 2013, the company began to shift its focus to retail opportunities. With patents expiring on exclusive Cherry switch technologies, and keyboard components becoming more available, a community of mechanical keyboard enthusiasts began to emerge with a shared nostalgic interest in the mechanical keyboards of the past that used Comptec’s keycaps. Spurred by some very creative keyset designers and the help of social media, group buys began to gain traction. Taking advantage of volume discounts, enthusiasts would pool their money and trust in a designated ‘reseller’ to place an order and subsequently ship the completed keysets to interested buyers.
Over the next ten years, Signature Plastics manufactured over 300 unique keyset designs for resellers worldwide. Many were truly works of art. During that time, an investment was also made in CNC technologies to enable production of more complex legends for two-shot molding. The Gorton pantograph, with its inherent kerning issues, was left behind. CNC technology also enabled the company to reproduce sublimation fixtures to much tighter tolerances than before, allowing for very precise print registration.
In 2017, the company initiated a program to replace the older machines with new machines equipped with state-of-the-art process controls. Manufacturing capacity doubled with forty molding machines now in operation. Signature Plastics continues to offer new choices in keycap family styles. In 2015, the G20 keycap family was introduced with gamers in mind. Initially designed for sublimation printing, this tooling is now used to produce two-shot keycaps as well. In 2018, the DSS family was reintroduced and quickly grew in popularity. The company recently began skin packing completed keysets to enable a more effective inspection process and offer a more visually appealing product to customers.
Today Signature Plastics is adjusting to several major changes in the marketplace. Interest in group-buys, with their traditional long lead times, is giving way to customers wanting off-the-shelf products delivered to their door the next day, even though lead times for new group-buy keysets are currently only six to eight weeks.
The post-COVID era saw the emergence of dozens of small start-ups eager to capitalize on the mechanical keyboard wave. Unfortunately, this resulted in many of the more popular keyset designs being copied, without designer approval, which negatively impacted the creative spirit that once flourished in the enthusiast community. The future of this unique art form is now in jeopardy as fewer designers are willing to have their creations compromised.
Even though the market is being flooded with low-quality, inexpensive keyset clones, interest in high quality double-shot keysets being produced by companies like GMK and Signature Plastics is still very strong.
One of the biggest challenges Signature Plastics will experience in 2024 will be a change in ownership as Bob Guenser prepares for retirement and Melissa Petersen, the Queen of Keycaps, contemplates new opportunities outside the world of keycaps. It’s been a great ride, and it’s not an easy decision, but we both feel the time has come to end this journey and move on. We are currently searching for buyer candidates who appreciate the role the company has played in the evolution of computer keyboards over the past 50 years, and who are also committed to preserving and continuing the legacy tied to that history.
Published on Wed 31st Jan 2024. Featured in KBD #153.