Interview and Community Spotlight: Melissa of Signature Plastics
Signature Plastics makes some of the finest and most recognizable custom keycaps within the enthusiast community. Pulse, 1976, Granite, Calm Depths, Deep Space, and the original Hyperfuse all were manufactured by Signature Plastics, with new sets going to the group buy stage monthly. Over the years I’ve seen how much demand for their community designed sets has truly grown. The first 1976 set, for example, sold around 200 units on the Pimp My Keyboard buys page, and the original Jukebox sets sold right under 200 sets on Massdrop. Within a year and a half both sets would go on to sell nearly 10x as many sets with their second runs, with other first time sets like Carbon shattering sales numbers with their initial run.
PULSE SA- Image by: /u/techmattr
I had the pleasure of working very closely with Melissa during the initial creation of Jukebox SA, and must say I was immediately surprised at the level of personal attention that I received in the numerous emails that were exchanged during the process. Initially I had assumed that Signature Plastics was a massive organization based somewhere overseas, and that I had just gotten lucky with my customer support contact. Little did I know that I was actually working with a small family business based within the US.
Deep Space DSA
With the enthusiast keyboard community growing at such an exponential rate, I thought it would be great to get the general public and enthusiast community a bit of a glimpse inside of a company that really goes out of their way to provide great products for us.
1. How long has Signature Plastics been in business?
Signature Plastics started in 1976 as Comptec Inc. In 2000, there was a management buyout of the keycap division in Custer Washington. 2. How long have the profiles we all know and love (SA, DSA, DCS) been in production?
The SA family was the first keycap family produced by Comptec in the 1970's. The DCS and DSA families followed shortly after in the 1980's. 3. Tell us a little about Signature Plastics.
Signature Plastics is a small family owned company in Custer Washington. Since the company's inception, we have focused our time on growing the commercial side of the business, dealing with keyboard re-sellers and companies that create their own boards for a variety of purposes. Over the last few years, we discovered the world of what we call retail and consumer sales, where we are dealing directly with the end user. We are constantly surprised at the level of interest in keycaps and are always excited to see new ideas coming from the keyboard enthusiast community. 4. Have you ever produced other profile keycaps or have plans for any new profiles in the future?
We have produced several other keycap families, some of which we have since discontinued (for a variety of reasons). We also make several keycap families for other keyboards, like the Cherry ML, Cherry G86 and the KT2000 keyboards. 5. What is your personal keyboard, and what keycaps do you have on it?
Bob is currently using a CM Storm TKL board with our G20 keys. Melissa is using a Rosewell keyboard that was a gift from a group at Geekhack.org. 6. Let's say you just got a big order for a new keycap set from Massdrop. This includes a few custom novelties, sculpted profile double shots. What is the process like for you guys from the time you receive the order to when you ship them out?
The process is pretty much the same regardless of the where the order is coming from. When we get a new order, we review with production on the time frame and scheduling, the order is then processed for production.
When an order is received, we talk with production to get an idea of time frame and completion. The order is then entered into the computer and a ship date is assigned. Work orders are then generated based on the images received from the customer, legends are assigned from our legend library, which has over 100,000 legends per keycap family in our Gorton Font. It is critical that images received from customers are exactly as they anticipate the set looking as we have a variety of legend options available for all our keycap families. A sample board is also created at this time from the customers supplied image. As keys are produced on the production floor, they are compared to the sample board and then placed on double sided tape to indicate the item's completion. Once work orders have been created and legend numbers assigned, the order is moved to the production floor where it is placed in the queue based on the keycap family and size. New legends are also cut at this time and tested prior to production to ensure moldability. Many people are under the impression that new graphics require a new ‘mold’. New graphics are engraved in a brass plate. These legend plate are interchangeable inserts used in the first shot molds.
Once they keys have been produced, they are routed to QC and then to shipping where they are either collated into sets or bagged in bulk and shipped to the customer.7. Do you ever see an order for a set come through that you really must have for yourself?
We see so many sets come through here, that it is hard to stop and say yep, I need to have that for myself. 8. Ever since Massdrop started running sets you produce on a somewhat regular basis, how has business changed for you, it at all?
The biggest shift we have seen has been since we started running 'retail' sales in general. There has been a great demand from the consumer side of things, much more than we could have anticipated. For us it is a balancing act with our existing commercial accounts and the newer consumer side of things. As we don't know when this keycap fad might end (we are hoping never), we try to give priority to our longstanding commercial accounts, but still try to give realistic time frames to the consumers. 9. A lot has changed in the past few years for you. I know you've added the G20 profile and very recently ICE Caps (PBT SA Caps), along with completely revamping the PimpMyKeyboard.com website and group buy/interest check systems. Is there anything else you have planned for the future?
We are working on a few things to hopefully help out the ortholinear/planck community, but don't have specific details we want to share yet. We are also constantly working to improve our lead times and capacity.1976 SA
EDIT 10/15/16 - Response from Bob of Signature Plastics
After asking a few more questions I received this information from Bob of Signature Plastics in regards to some of the quality issues that have happened in the past and what some of their other clients are:
It’s my responsibility to listen to their complaints and take action to correct them when we can. We did have several quality issues with Granite regarding print registration, clocked cores and incorrect mount locations. But we have since identified the causes and fixed those issues resulting in a higher quality part today. Unfortunately warped keys, where the sidewalls bend in as the part cools, is something we can only try to minimize with the existing tooling. The DSA tooling was designed for insert molding. When run as a blank i.e. without a first shot insert, which we do for sublimation printing, the sidewalls are thinner which causes them to cool and shrink more quickly than the thicker top portion where the first shot would normally be. The same shrinking effect occurs on the longer keys where they tend to ‘banana’. We now place these keys in a bending fixture before they cool to help flatten them out.
On another note, someone asked about our other clients. We have repeat business with around 150 different commercial clients annually. Many of them have been keycap customers for over 20 years. They are located worldwide and their products span a wide variety of markets. Our largest customer assembles POS systems in China. Other markets include custom keyboards for retail, finance and airline terminals (England); broadcast video editing systems (Australia); airline “Attendant” and “Reading Light” buttons; flight deck keyboards; industrial control panels; and a variety of custom data input devices. A few years ago we provided nearly every state in the US with keycaps for lottery machines.Thanks Bob for taking the time to reply to us!
Thanks to Melissa and Bob at SP for taking the time to answer all of my questions, and thanks to the MD team (Kunal, Alex, Yanbo) for supporting the mechanical keyboard community as much as they do! Also thanks to all the people active of the discussions here, this has been such a great positive place to hang out right out of the gate!