How Mechanical Keyboard Switches Are Made In Japan!
This all started with an Instagram post, I was in Kyoto and I saw a big Omron sign behind me and I decided to take a picture. And now I’m back in Japan visting an Omron factory. You probably know Omron because of their keyboard switches, but they have a wide product catalog of over 30,000 parts, everything from automotive stuff to game consoles, printers, washing machines, etc. You most likely also have an Omron switch inside your gaming mouse, ranging from 20 million clicks to 50 million clicks, and even the side clicks are probably made by Omron. And most importantly, at least form, Omron are responsible for one of my favorite keyboard switches of all the Romer-G.
You all probably know the Romer-G from these large B3K keyboard switches. Now what Omron are in the process of doing is miniaturizing that. They are coming out with a B3KL and L is for low profile. What they have done is they’ve taken that Romer-G and evolved it, and that evolution means optimizing the fell, giving it a clicky feedback, and making sure that it fits in really low profile devices like gaming notebook, low profile gaming keyboards and just regular productivity keyboards. And that’s really what we’re here visiting the factory for.
What is the B3KL
This is the original Romer-G, which is also known as the B3K and this is the new B3KL. You can actually see how small it is. How did they fit all of that technology into such a small space? Well we’re about to find out, we’re here to check out how they are made, how they’re designed, and finally how they’re tested to failure to make sure that Omron gets the best product possible into your hands.
Let’s begin with a quick overview of the B3KL. It’s a clicky switch meant for low profile keyboards and notebooks. There is no LED built-in to minimize on the bulk of the body. Instead, we have a lens that is centered just like on the B3K or the Romer-G for best possible illumination. The total key height is 6 millimeters, total travel distance is 2.5 millimeters, and the actuation point happens at 1.6 millimeters with an operating force of 55 grams. Right now it’s only being used on the AORUS 17 notebook, but will also be coming to Cooler Master keyboards in the future.
I found that design section to be pretty fascinating because Omron already had the B3K, but miniaturizing all of those main components was not easy. The entire process from that initial design to production took about three years, twice as long as it took to design the B3K. A few reasons for this include the fact that miniaturizing all the components while maintaining quality was difficult, and small components also made mass production challenging and expensive. Extra effort was put into the longevity of the switches which are rated at 15 million clicks.
Now a really cool fact is that, why did they go with the clicky rather than tactile or linear? They learned from the Romer-G that creating linear first and then adding components inside the limited space of the switch for tactile or clicky becomes complicated and expensive. Therefore it’s better to fabricate and perfect the more complicated one like the clicky type and then roll out tactile and linear switches later.
Another challenge was keeping the centered mounted LED position of the Romer-G for even RGB lighting, and here the issue is that with low profile keys it’s hard to disperse lighting because the LED and the key caps are so close. Instead it’s mounted on the PCB and Omron realized that the spring was actually causing a shadow, so they use this concentric optical design on the button to disperse light properly and it now looks really even.
The stability of the switch was also important. The butterfly mechanism is there for balance and also holds the center mounted LED so there’s nothing interfering with that section. They also went through a lot of analysis, focus groups, and the redesigns to make sure the switch feels good. There is the slider that makes contact with the specially shaped gold contact, and this allows the trigger and the click to happen at exactly the same time, unlike on other blue switches. Above you can see the breakdown of the switch itself, and there isn’t that many components, but it still took three years to design the B3KL. That’s the background history of this new switch.
We explained a little what went into the design of the B3KL switch, so now let’s get into some of the behind the scenes stuff, starting with quality testing. The above machine – which makes all kinds of clicks and clacks – is a durability machine. They’re going to run this for 15 days, 1 million clicks per day, which is a lengthy procedure. They have a total of 11 of these machines that run before mass production to verify the durability of something like the B3KL switch and make sure that it meets the minimum requirement of 15 million clicks lifespan. They stop this machine every day after a million clicks to make sure all the switches are running fine. If there is an error discovered, they take it out, they make a 3D scan of it to see exactly what went wrong, and they restart the procedure again from zero. Basically, they do what needs to be done to make sure that the durability of the B3KL is on point for 15 million clicks.
While we are talking about durability, and next to me here are environmental testing chambers. They test the extremes of the switches. The B3KL is actually certified for operation in -40°C to +70°C. Each of these testing chambers will test those switches for 96 hours in the the extreme heat, the extreme cold, and the extreme humidity. This allows Omron to certify them for a wide range of operating conditions. If one of those switches breaks it’s typically brought here to the scanning electron microscope. And what it does is it goes into really fine grain detail to see exactly what broke. Let’s check this out. This is one of the contacts that has sheared off and they can actually go directly in and go sub-millimeter to see if there’s a stress fracture in any of the materials or if it was actually an issue with another part of the material that broke off. Here you can actually see that part of it sheared off, and what they’re going to do now is they’re going to further analyze it to see if they can modify their development process to improve as time goes on. They also have a X-ray machine and what this does is it analyzes the pre-production or post-production switch to see if something breaks inside so they can see the internal components without having to take the switch apart.
We are heading to the production line right now, but a quick note about the mouse switches. The 20 million to 50 million clicks switches are actually manufactured in China, but the entire production facility in-line is made here in Japan, so all the quality assurance is done here which ensures Omron’s quality. So if you see a made in China sticker on an Omron switch for your mouse you now know why. While the production tour was fascinating we can’t show you the switch assembly in detail to protect their know-how and prevent competitors from copying the process. However, they do pump out 2000 units per hour by running for 24 hours a day for 20 days. About a million B3KL switches total was produced in this initial production run. It is quite impressive to see what quality assurance elements they have built into the line, like these tolerance checkers that spit out any out of tolerance switches and also they monitor pressure in the machine. Once the switch is assembled this last step measures electrical conductivity to make sure contact is being made, and it checks for the actuation points and other electrical characteristics.
Now if at any point there’s an issue and the switch is rejected, it is not actually thrown out. All are checked to see what the problem was and then adjustments are made. About 3.5% to 5% of switches are rejected through the process and at the end here we have this module that’s sorts the type of error that they can log. If large quantities are rejected based on one particular error they will analyze it in more detail and adjust the production line accordingly. Once they are packaged in a bag of a hundred, there are random inspections per batch and a percentage from every lot is checked and validated before everything is shipped to the consumer.
This has been an incredible journey coming to Japan, seeing what Omron is all about, witnessing the whole development, and talking to the engineers of that made the B3KL possible. The entire production line is just so interesting, seeing how it’s made, all the little parts, what goes in the beginning and what comes out of it in the end. I hope you guys enjoyed this journey with us as well, and I can’t wait to see the B3KL in more products.