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Redesigned for manufacturing

Redesigned for manufacturing

Waukegan, IL--What's the primary way you interact with your PC? For most of us, it's by using a keyboard.

About 30 years ago, keyboards were a major part of the manufacturing mix at Cherry Electrical Products. Today, after decades of building keyboards at Cherry Mikroschalter, a German subsidiary, keyboard manufacturing is returning to Cherry's headquarters.

"There's virtually no one left making keyboards in the U.S.," says Eric Olson, key accounts manager for Cherry keyboards. "People keep asking us why we're doing this here instead of Mexico or Thailand." His answer: After modifying the German keyboard design and implementing an automated production system, Cherry can be highly cost competitive.

In fact, the $49 "Business Line" keyboards rolling off the $3.7 million pallet transfer line at a rate of one every 70 seconds are the lowest-cost series the company sells.

Driving out cost. The Business Line keyboard needed changes to drive the cost out of the U.S. version. Cherry engineers in Germany helped in the redesign--although some friendly competition was involved. The keyboard remains a German design, and the German facilities do the development and testing.

First, Cherry engineers in the U.S. decided to use General Electric liquid-injection-molding (LIM) technology for the internal mat of domes that transmit keystrokes to Mylar membrane switches.

In Germany, what the Cherry engineers call the "gummie mat" is molded from a liquid rubber. "Each of the 111 domes has an individual gate above it that injects the material," says Cherry design engineer George Barker. "It's a very sophisticated tool design."

For the U.S. design, instead of injecting the material into each individual dome, equipment injects it in only four locations--as opposed to 111. That, says Barker, required a higher-flow, quick-setting material that would experience less sheer degradation by flowing through the mold.

"We saved about 70% of the price because we can make the mats faster and the equipment is a little less sophisticated than that in Germany," boasts Barker. "And, we tooled this up for about 50% of what the Germans paid."

The U.S. engineers did have to redesign the dome geometry because the rubber and silicon materials have different characteristics. But with the new silicon material, they were able to achieve exactly the same dome characteristics as the German mat.

"The domes are the heart of the keyboard," notes Barker. "Each dome is designed to fold in on itself, and this action is a function related to the molding material."

Another key design change was the molding of the keycaps. In Germany, all the light-colored keys are molded in one 69-cavity mold at the same time. Then, the top housing comes to the assembly line already stuffed with keys.

For the U.S. design, Nypro, in neighboring Gurnee, IL, molds the 21 different key shapes the keyboards require. (A standard keyboard has 101 keys. The Windows 95 version has 104. Two keys bearing the Windows flag and an "Apps" key account for the three extra keys. These keys provide shortcuts to finding documents, performing system functions, and accessing applications.)

The unmarked keycaps ship separately from the top housing. Five Sylvania robots pick and place the keycaps in multiples from 21 bowl feeders.

Laser printing. Another money saver was the use of laser imprinting of the keycaps. According to Cherry designers, laser printing produces a high-quality image without the heat and gases other sublimation processes generate.

Automated laser printing also allows operators to "internationalize" the keyboards. One software instruction can change the keycap printing from English to one of 21 other languages. Laser printing also lets Cherry print a customer's logo at the top right of the housing.

Bring on the robots. Primarily responsible for a keyboard's fast 7-minute round trip on the assembly line, the automated pallet transfer system can run seven days a week, spitting out 4,000 keyboards every 24 hours.

The multi-robot line is highly accurate and versatile. "We do all of our assembly operations right on the line," says Keyboard Operations Manager Randy Schindler. "We also do all of our own software interfacing."

The first station on the line uses a Panasonic robot to pick and place top and bottom housings on a pallet. Next is an automated grease and oil operation on larger keys, such as the space bar, to reduce noise.

After the Sylvania robots pick and place the keycaps, the pallets arrive at stations where the membrane, gummie mat, pc board, and DIN cable are installed. Robots working as cover snappers, screw machines, testers, optical inspectors, and packagers finish the job.

Get it local. The DIN cable is from Taiwan, but all the other components are from local U.S. vendors or other Cherry divisions. "Also, the design is fairly simple," adds Schindler. "Besides the 101 or 104 keys, there are only 10 components."

USB keyboards debut this fallEngineers at Cherry Electrical Products are busy designing a series of three keyboards that will offer the plug-and-play features of the emerging Universal Serial Bus (USB) computer industry standard. Look for the first to hit the streets this fall.
USB is a 4-wire bus designed to connect up to 128 serial peripherals to a PC in a star topology. Data rates are 1.5 or 12 Mbps. USB connectors are surprisingly small and almost impossible to plug in wrong. A consortium that included Intel and Compaq helped define the standard, and products--in addition to Cherry's keyboards--should be available by year's end.
"USB is a big step forward that we think consumers will like," says Cherry Marketing Manager Brad Taylor. "They now will be able to connect, disconnect, and reconnect peripherals like joysticks, CD-ROM drives, scanners, and archiving drives. They can move them around where they're needed--with easy access and without waiting."
Cherry's USB keyboards will function as hubs--so not only will they have USB connectors, they'll have ports for two other USB peripherals such as a mouse and scanner. Plug a peripheral in, and it'll work right away--no more blindly reaching around to the back of a PC; fiddling with connectors, adapters, and different ports; then rebooting and reconfiguring software or hardware.
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