Ink Inc

Xymox Brings Expertise to the PE Field

By David Savastano, Editor | 08.01.14

In many ways, the membrane switch field was the original printed electronics (PE) market, and it is only natural that leaders in the membrane switch industry have brought their expertise to the PE segment.

Xymox Technologies, Inc. is a perfect example of this. With its emphasis on industrial control, medical and appliance applications, Xymox is well positioned for the PE market.

The company has already made headway in the PE field. Working with Eastman Kodak Company, Xymox designed and manufactured a custom projected capacitive sensor that is a cost-effective alternative to ITO. The company also has developed a series of conductive silver inks, conductive epoxies and clear encapsulants, and in February 2014, began manufacturing Enfucell’s SoftBatteries for the North American market.

Originally a division of the WH Brady Company in Milwaukee, WI, the Xymox group started as part of an R&D project within the Nameplate Division in the late 1970s.

“A number of Nameplate Division customers began asking about the new functional overlay technology that was developing (aka membrane switches), and Brady set up an R&D team to develop a membrane switch product,” Bob Heidenrich, vice president of sales and marketing for Xymox Technologies, Inc., said. “The Lite Touch project was the original R&D program, and then became the Electronic Products Division for a brief period before becoming Xymox in 1980.”

Heidenrich noted that Xymox became a leader in the market as membrane switches became a more common interface throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

“Xymox was one of the first in the industry with metal dome and polyester dome switches for tactile feedback, and also a pioneer with integral LEDs on board a printed switch,” he added.

By 1993, the Brady Company decided to refocus on some of its core divisions that produced more standard catalog products, and Brady spun off a number of divisions that were of a custom nature. Xymox was purchased by a private equity firm, Horizon Partners, and is still part of the Horizon portfolio. Xymox is well placed to offer its expertise in membrane switches to the PE segment.

“As the total printed electronics market has expanded beyond membrane switches over the last five to 10 years, Xymox has maintained its foundation with membrane switches and looks towards other printed electronic markets as a growth vehicle,” Heidenrich said. “Membrane switches are a flat market and opportunities for growth are difficult, given the fragmented market consisting of more than 200 membrane switch manufacturers. A number of years ago, we decided that we needed to take existing capabilities (engineering, printing, diecutting, lamination, etc.) and branch out into adjacent segments of the printed electronics market in order to grow.

“In a membrane switch market with 200 competitors, we believe we offer an advantage in providing membrane switches that are used in difficult environments,” he added. “We can be a valued partner for customers who provide early involvement in the design cycle.”

Heidenrich said that one key is knowing the questions that need to be asked in order to design and produce the PE system.

“Xymox will ask the key questions as we work to understand the application in order to design the optimum layer construction and utilize the right materials,” he said. “The end result is a membrane switch that will offer the preferred user experience and that will stand up to the environment for the life of the OEM product.”

One area of opportunity is backlighting for touch panels.

“Recently we have focused on enhanced backlighting,” Heidenrich noted. “We see more and more customers that want to improve the interface on their product by lighting keys and icons to make the interface more intuitive to the user. In addition, we continue to make improvements with our in-house conductive ink to move towards narrower traces and finer spacing for applications where space is at a premium. For those projects, we also provide a printed through hole process that is similar to a plated via on a circuit board. This allows us to use both sides of the polyester for routing circuitry.”

Heidenrich is optimistic about the printed electronics market and Xymox’s role in this growing field.

“We expect continued growth for the segments outside of the membrane switch segment,” Heidenrich concluded. “Our outlook for the PE market is positive. There are new applications and developments occurring frequently. While the growth has been slow, we remain optimistic about PE providing growth for years to come.”