A Short History of Membrane Switches

How long have membrane switches been around? While the first real membrane switch panel came to market in the early 1980s, it was the previous decade that kicked off the membrane innovation. The very first iterations of the membrane switch panels were actually screen-printed graphic overlays. Their sole purpose was to improve the appearance of the mechanical keyboards underneath them.

By the 1980’s, the membrane that came to market was polycarbonate. Although they made the membrane switch panels more modern, they were difficult to use and didn’t provide tactile feedback causing common mistakes. They were based on resistive technology and were eventually dismissed because the material was brittle, leading to cracks around the keys.

Engineers switched to using polyester as the base material and changed the membrane switch panel design in regard to composition and structure, which eliminated the problems of the early years. Then in the late 1980s, the first membrane switches with domed keys were made.

Over the course of the next few decades, a number of innovations made the membrane switch panel an even more desirable product. It has become increasingly compact and can be integrated into products without constraints and allows for customization. Its flexibility and slim profile also allow for it to be installed on a curved surface. Another major step in the evolution of membrane switch panels was the addition of LEDs. At first, LEDs were simply used to backlight keys. The advent of LED and more sophisticated optical fibers further advanced the design possibilities, all while facilitating the use of these interfaces. Today, they provide a wide variety of interesting and effective display options for membrane switches. The biggest breakthrough, however, was the increase in switching cycles to over one million operations when gold-plated metal snap domes came on the scene.

Through the years, membrane switches have also become easier to add to designs. The back of the keyboard can be fitted directly to a custom circuit board. Directly mounting them like this on a printed circuit board makes for much more compact designs. Display, touchscreen, mouse pad, analog potentiometer—all of these elements can be added quite easily. The custom design possibilities are virtually unlimited. For more a longer detailed history of custom membrane switches, see the link here.

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