By Eric Peterson | Jun 25, 2017
Membrane and tactile dome switches
Industry: Electronics & Aerospace
Products: Membrane and tactile dome switches
Tatman's father, Earl Tatman, founded Snaptron after serving as president of KB Denver, a Frederick-based manufacturer of keyboards and switches used in keyboards.
After KB was acquired by Chicago-based Square D in the late 1980s, Earl saw an opportunity for a standalone switch manufacturer. "The Square D executives and my dad didn't see eye to eye," says Brett, noting that Square D made switches for its own keyboards as well as competitors'. "That was problematic."
As a result, Earl founded Snaptron to focus solely on membrane and tactile dome switches.
Square D soon moved its manufacturing to Asia and went out of business after a spate of mergers and acquisitions. Most other domestic switch companies followed suit and moved manufacturing offshore.
But not Snaptron. The company now supplies manufacturers of everything from gaming platforms to medical devices, including companies in the consumer, military, medical, automotive, and other spaces.
Brett went to work for his father at Snaptron in 1997 and built the company's first website. "All of a sudden, we started getting huge leads," he says. The company supplied switches for Palm Pilots and other PDAs, then later landed the contract for the controllers for Microsoft's Xbox One, a gaming system that's sold about 10 million units.
"Those come and go," says Tatman of Xbox-sized orders. "We service those jobs, we like those jobs, but our bread and butter is in the base. We want repeat customers with small- to medium-sized jobs."
That typically means about 200,000 units, but Snaptron has fulfilled orders in the "tens or twenties or hundreds of millions," including flexible switches for Hewlett-Packard printers that come into contact with inkjet cartridges.
"Because we focus on domes, we've become a custom company, a company with the ability to do things that aren't quite standard," says Goodrich. "New markets pop up all the time."
Because of the ability to customize, Snaptron's switches are now on wearable electronics, laser gunsights, flashlights, and even shoes. "They’re adding electronic features to these things," says Brett.
Snaptron has developed new switch sizes and functions, including a popular dome with a center hole that allows for LED backlighting. "Our product breadth has increased significantly," says Brett.
Goodrich has helped the company automate a number of manufacturing processes since joining the company in 2004. He's also helped Snaptron's customers do the same thing. The company makes a wide range of manufacturing and measurement equipment. Debuting in 2005, the SureShot robotic placement system allows manufacturers to place domes at "10- to 15-fold" the speed, says Goodrich.
Snaptron's Sapphire switch tester performs a tricky task. "If you want to quantify what a switch feels like, that's not easy to do," says Brett. "It gives you readings so you can quantify that feel."
Goodrich says speed is a big differentiator for Snaptron. Whereas some competitors take years to develop domes, "We can create prototypes in three days," he says. "A lot of our competitors refer projects to us. That's a good sign."
Growth has been "unbelievably good" in recent years, says Brett, declining to disclose Snaptron's revenues. "Even when the economy was down, we were still seeing significant growth."
Since the advent of the touchscreen smartphone, many observers have predicted a bleak future for tactile switches. "I get that quite a bit," says Goodrich."'The way the world has gone with touchscreen, you're going to be out of business. Aren't you worried?'"
His short answer: not one bit. "People still like the feel of a button," he says.
Adds Brett: "We're human. We want that feedback."
Challenges: Selling premium products in a commodity market. "The problem is maintaining our market share while not having the least expensive products," says Goodrich.
"It's not an easy sell," explains Brett. "To walk into a customer and say, 'We're the most expensive guy on the block and you should use us.'" It's a big difference -- "a penny versus eight cents” -- but it's often more than worth it, he adds.
Opportunities: Europe, says Brett "We see a lot of growth in Europeans manufacturing their products, whether it's electronics of automotive or medical," he explains
Because of International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), the U.S. military is another good market. "There's a need to be made in the U.S.," says Goodrich.
There's also a catalog expansion in the works. "We're really investigating other markets, not dome switches, but what could be the next dome switch for Snaptron," says Brett.
Needs: "Space is always an issue," says Brett. Snaptron moved into its current 40,000-square-foot facility in 2009 and owns adjacent parcels. The plan calls for a multi-phase expansion over the next five years.
Talent is another ongoing need. "Workforce is always an issue," says Brett. "Finding skilled laborers is tough." It's not just Snaptron, he adds. "I think America in general is having difficulty finding skilled laborers. Auto mechanics -- you can't find them anywhere. Everyone wants to be a lawyer."