Here is a February 2016 interview about the Brand New Model F Keyboards project. Here are my replies in the interview. You can see the published press articles on the Press/Forums page.
First time bringing a product to market? Nope – I handled two group buys for xwhatsit’s keyboard controller PCBs (one in late 2014 and one last year). I worked with xwhatsit (Deskthority and Geekhack) to confirm the recommended parts for his open source designs and then found a great partner in China to work with, a partner I am using with the current project to bring back the IBM Model F keyboard. This initiative was the first one that mass produced xwhatsit’s PCBs. Xwhatsit’s controllers were the first widely used controller replacements that enabled the original metal case Model F keyboards to work with modern-day computers. This is the first major project I’ve been involved with though. I could not have undertaken this project without the help of so many community members from a variety of professional and enthusiast backgrounds including product design/engineering/manufacturing, circuit board design and programming, as well as fans and users of original Model F’s who helped with good advice throughout the project, which started around April of 2015 and was announced publicly at the end of June 2015.
I am a collector of Model F and Model M keyboards so I used my own collection to gain an understanding of how they work and to do the CAD measurements. I actually had a few F77s and F122s (77 key 4704 F’s and 122 key Model F’s) whose parts were analyzed for this project. Fortunately the Model F design is so easily disassembled, reassembled and repairable that no keyboards were harmed in the process. I paid for the molds and tooling from China, which is where manufacturing and assembly of the brand new IBM Model F reproductions will take place.
Manufacturing of China – yes this is definitely an adventure. The important part is to make sure you have the right partner there – one that is responsive, has excellent attention to detail, manufactures a great product to spec, and stands by their work (guarantees to re-make any out-of-spec parts). Another key is to produce working prototypes and then make any small adjustments from there – some of the great advice I received from someone heading up another manufacturing project in China. Yes it was a challenge getting the right materials and learning all of the terminology involved with manufacturing, including tolerances (how different from your drawings a part can be before it becomes out of spec and is not acceptable in the product). Thankfully there were a lot of great project advisers, including those experienced both professionally and on an enthusiast basis with product design/engineering/manufacturing, circuit board design and programming, as well as fans and users of original Model F’s who helped with good advice throughout the project. This project and determining proper materials and production processes could not have moved forward without their understanding of and experience with manufacturing. Another difficulty in determining the right partner in China is of economies of scale. With such a small project, many of those in China I spoke with showed little to no interest in taking it on because they knew of all the months of back and forth that would be required to go over specifications, the hours of their engineers’ time to review CAD files, and the hours needed to tool and produce prototypes. Unless you are making thousands of units it is a major challenge to manufacture inexpensively in China. The issue is definitely of cost, even in China. Tooling costs involve paying the factory for materials, labor, and the opportunity cost of “machine hours” to set up and customize a number of their factory’s machines in a way that will make your product. Every production run requires re-tooling the machines because after your parts are made they need the machine to be set up again for another project. Mold and tooling costs run in the tens of thousands of dollars total for this project. Also getting the plastics right was a challenge and major risk for the project. Model F keyboards use capacitive buckling spring technology, which requires specialized plastic that can act as an electronic bridge on the matrix PCB even though it never physically touches any exposed metal contacts. Fortunately I had a lot of help from some professional engineers and product designers who advised me on which resins (specific types of plastic) would be a good choice for this project. We got the plastic resin right the first time for both the major plastic parts (the “barrels” upon which the keys attach to and “flippers” attached to buckling springs – these flippers flip down when the spring is buckled and form a capacitive bridge). I’m not sure these technical descriptions are 100% correct but here’s a link to xwhatsit’s project page which may prove a better resource if you’re interested.
Setbacks? Because of the months of communication back and forth in discussion with potential suppliers as well as the great support network of mechanical keyboard enthusiasts on Deskthority, GeekHack, and R/MK (Reddit.com/MechanicalKeyboards) any problems were minor at most and corrected quickly (e.g. the foam they used for the packaging was not the one I had specified – they quickly fixed it and re-made the prototype foam pieces shown with the F62 and F77 on the Brand New Model F keyboards web site). I did need to redo some measurements that were about 0.1mm or 0.2 mm off from IBM specs and believe it or not that made a noticeable difference in the functionality of the parts (it also cost me four figures for mold adjustments!). The biggest surprise/setback was that PayPal decided to freeze all the project funds [now we use a major credit card processor, Authorize.
Electronics – All electronics and software for the Brand New Model F keyboards project were conceived, designed, and programmed by Deskthority forum member xwhatsit. It is my understanding that he completely disregarded IBM’s original controller design and went back to the 1970s buckling spring patents (now long expired and in the public domain) to redesign the software and hardware from scratch. The capacitive PCB (the big PCB underneath the keys that contributes to the extra clickness of Model F keyboards over Model M keyboards) has a very similar layout to the originals. Yes this project just uses xwhatsit’s open source Model F USB controller soldered by ribbon cable (like the original Model F’s) to the capacitive PCB. I may not end up using xwhatsit’s controller, however, as I am considering another design currently in development on the keyboard forums.