When Toshiba Corp. entered the desktop personal computer market last month with its Infinia line, the computers came equip-ped with keyboards from Key Tronic Corp. of Spokane, Wash. Key Tronic, one of the largest independent manufacturers of keyboards, recently announced its partnership with Toshiba to manufacture both custom ergonomic keyboards and the universal serial bus-driven peripheral, the InTouch Module multimedia control device for Toshiba's Infinia computers.
The InTouch module is a control box with either interactive light-emitting-diode or liquid crystal display resembling a car radio that fits into the computer monitor. It allows users to access the television, radio, CD-ROM, answering machine, speaker phone and volume control.
Craig Gates, general manager for Key Tronic in Spokane, said the Toshiba project represents a good example of a new business sector that the company started.
Gates stressed that although Key Tronic has in-house injection molding capabilities, the firm is not trying to be a custom molder.
``We can't compete with those guys,'' he said. ``They'd eat our lunch.''
Gates said that Key Tronic's engineered device customers tend to be companies that primarily focus on software and electronic hardware, such as Toshiba.
``They do the design mechanics [of the plastics hardware] as a necessary evil,'' Gates said.
``This provides an opportunity for us to offer design and engineering services for [original equipment manufacturers] needing fast-to-market, high-volume subassemblies for products that tend to be heavy on the mechanical and electrical design content,'' Gates said. ``Typically our customer wants Pacific Rim prices, but U.S. logistics for shipping and just-in-time deliveries.''
Key Tronic has spent the past three years overhauling its various operations in an effort to become more profitable. Part of that has been to expand manufacturing in Juarez, Mexico, by adding injection molding to the assembly operations there.
Gates said as volumes of its various products rise, the firm has been taking advantage of the lower cost to manufacture in Mexico. Juarez molds the large keyboard bases and bezels, but Spokane still molds keycaps and smaller components that are shipped to Juarez for assembly.
The company stopped molding at its Dundalk, Ireland, facility because of the high cost of that operation. Units now are shipped from Juarez to Dundalk, where the keycaps are imprinted with country-specific legending.
The firm produces keyboards in more than 100 languages.
``The European market won't support manufacturing in Europe anymore,'' said Gates, explaining the decision to stop molding in Ireland. ``They can't afford to pay the extra money to support nationalistic pride, so they'll take products made in Juarez.''
Key Tronic employs 1,500 at the Juarez facility, and more than 2,500 worldwide. The company also subcontracts about 35 percent of its molded parts volume to custom molders.