Alps Electric’s Switches to Play an Important Role in Digital Products

According to “Statistics about Exports of Electronics from Japan for Fiscal 2006 (from April 2006 to March 2007)” released by the Japan Electronics and Information Technology Industries Association (JEITA), the total shipment value of Japanese component manufacturing companies was ¥4,734.4 billion.
Electronics components are largely categorized into passive, connecting and other parts. Principal items in each category are condensers and coils; speakers and motors; and tuners, respectively. The total shipment of switches, one of the connecting parts, amounted ¥439.3 billion, which accounts for approximately 9% of total product shipments of all Japanese manufacturers.

As an operating part, switches exist everywhere in everybody’s life, supporting communications between people and electronic devices. Users press a power switch to start the operation of a device and then give the machine other instructions. In addition, users “acknowledge” their action of “pressing the switch to give a machine instructions” just through the sensation in their finger.

Since its commercialization of rotary switches for radios in 1948, Alps Electric has developed, produced and sold various types of switches. Today, we produce approximately six billion switches annually (*1).
Times have changed from those days when we watched analog broadcasting on CRT TVs to an era now where we can enjoy terrestrial digital broadcasting (one-seg broadcasting) on mobile phones. As our lifestyle changes, switches are developed to meet the new functions of electric products and changing consumer needs (*2).

On this occasion, we are going to introduce Alps Electric’s proprietary technologies and show the relationship between the needs of the age and switches, as well as the various roles and types of switches.

Alps Electric’s first (left) and the latest (right) rotary switches

Alps Electric’s first (left) and the latest (right) rotary switches

(*1) Alps Electric Known for Red Box

Alps Electric’s S-type Rotary Switch is registered at the Center of the History of Japanese Industrial Technology overseen by the National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo as the first rotary switch for consumer use to be manufactured at the time when ordinary people were assembling radios by themselves, soon after the end of World War II. From the appearance of the package used in those days, we were known as “Alps of Red Box.” In addition to the S-type Rotary Switch, our “six-channel rotary tuner for TV,” which was created as a switch tuner when TV broadcasting was commenced in Japan, was also registered at the same institution.

(*2) “Braun,” not “Brown”

A German-born, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics, Carl Ferdinand Braun, invented the cathode ray tube (CRT) in 1897. Often referred to as a Braun Tube in Japan, its popularity lasted for more than 110 years, mirrored by TV broadcasting. Currently in Japan, the production of CRT TVs and displays is nominal due to the emergence of liquid crystal and plasma displays, and this trend has extended globally.

>Functions and Roles of Switches Necessary in Our Daily Life
Switches Serve as an Interface Between Humans and Machines

Each morning, we stop the alarm clock when we wake up, turn on the lights and then the TV, perhaps to watch the morning news. Switches are key components in every facet of our daily lives, including telephones, mobile phones, fax machines, personal computers, automobiles, washing machines, microwaves, video game controllers and more.
We, the people of modern society, are surrounded by a variety of electronic devices, and switches are the tools that connect us to those devices. Switches give devices users’ instructions, such as to turn the power on or off or adjust the audio volume. At the same time, switches serve as an interface to inform users of operating conditions by the clicking or movement of knobs (*3).

Switches developed and produced by Alps Electric are largely classified into two domains: those for use in changing the electric circuit and those for use in detection.
There are three types of switches that change the electric circuit: (1) for AC power lines to change the power of the electrical current to 100 or 200 volts, for TV switches; (2) for small DC electric current in mobile phone keypads and for volume control in music players; and (3) for data entry operations on personal computers.
Switches for detection use identify object locations or existence inside machinery.

Alps Electric supplies a wide variety of switches in different shapes that also provide different operational methods for diverse applications.

[Types of switches made by Alps Electric]

[Types of switches made by Alps Electric] enlargedimage


[Digital camera and its representative switches]

[Digital camera and its representative switches] enlargedimage


* Not all digital cameras in the market use the above switches. The use of switches is not limited to those mentioned above.

(*3) Virtual Switches

Switches are not only limited to touchable ones. A number of “switches” appear on the computer screen. Regardless of the computer operating system, they play a role in passing on our instructions to the computer. Many of them look just like real switches, simulating the pressing of a switch when we click them with the cursor, and even making a clicking sound. These examples show us how switches work as an interface between machines and humans and how familiar we are with the sensation and sound of them.

Ever-Developing Switches

Currently, Alps Electric produces and sells approximately 250 types of switches and creates 25 new types of switches every year, on average. Switches are continuously developed on the back of changing applications and point of use.

For example, one of the representative digital devices is the mobile phone. In addition to the ongoing introduction of thinner and smaller models, new functions are added one after another, including high-definition cameras, one-seg broadcasting and full-screen-browser viewing. The most challenging part in producing switches for mobile phones is to make them fit into very compact spaces.
There are 12 buttons on mobile phone keypads. Therefore, 12 switches are required when installing 12 buttons. Particularly for slim and small mobile phones, we are required to place buttons in a limited space. Given such needs, Alps Electric developed Contactsheet™. With dome-shaped flat metal springs arranged on an adhesive sheet, the product is meant to serve as a switch when it is attached to a circuit board. Although we usually need to install one switch per button on a product’s circuit board, the Contactsheet™ enables us to cut out the step of installing switches one by one, while also enabling the creation of thinner mobile phones.



In addition, the data storage functions of mobile phones and portable music players are also being advanced. Particular numbers or tunes are often selected and picked up from “lists.” In this case, switches are required to perform the two functions of scrolling up/down the list and then picking an item from the list. It is more convenient and comfortable for users if these operations can be completed with just one finger, rather than by pressing a number of buttons or pressing one button several times.
Given such potential needs, Alps Electric has created a number of devices with compound functions. For example, the SRBE series is comprised of both encoder and push-type switches and serves as a compound-type device. By dialing the encoder, users can scroll up-down the selection screen and choose what they want by pressing the push switch.
Given the overall functions in consumer products like mobile phones, it may look like a small thing to conduct both screen scrolling and selection of an item with one finger. However, Alps Electric places great importance on such a “small things” in developing user-friendly electronics devices in terms of convenient product operations.

SRBE series

SRBE series

Key elements for small digital devices such as mobile phones are “light, thin, short and small.” In addition to those factors, some functions that make effective use of operations in electronic components are expected as “added value.” For example, we developed a switch that can be installed on the side of slim mobile phones that acts as an automatic focus function for the camera. Switches are usually pressed downward from the upper side of the machine body. However, when a button is positioned on the machine’s side panel, force is applied to the button horizontally to the circuit board inside the machine. In such a narrow space, Alps Electric’s switches enable three different actions: “lateral pressing” to make a horizontal movement to the circuit board inside the machine; “halfway pressing” to bring the camera into focus; and “complete pressing” to release the shutter. These actions are fulfilled in an almost microscopic space of 24.4mm3: 1.22mm in height, 4.0mm in width and 5.0mm in depth.

The size of the SPEE series is equivalent to the hole in a 50-yen coin (4mm)

The size of the SPEE series is equivalent to the hole in a 50-yen coin (4mm)

Molding Technology to Mass Produce Small Goods with Accuracy

Alps Electric manufactures a wide variety of switches, with a daily production of 20 million units, totaling six billion units per year. Alps Electric’s expertise lies not only in creating new switches but also in mass production (*4).
Molds are a key tool in mass production. Given the fact that the majority of switches are made from plastic and metal, we need to prepare molds and press molds in order to create products made from such materials in large quantities.
In the molding process, we first make switch parts by pouring resin into molds. As for molding technology, our longstanding know-how, including the technique to control pressure when pouring resin into molds, as well as the precision of molds, significantly contributes to production optimization. On the other hand, press molds produce switch parts by stamping out or folding metal plates.
One of our smallest switches is about 2 mm square. Needless to say, parts for minute switches are much smaller than the switch itself, and we need to pursue accuracy in such minute spaces. Furthermore, the processes of stamping out and folding parts need to be carried out rapidly in order to produce 20 million units per day.

While engaging in production operations, Alps Electric also continues to study technology for manufacturing a wealth of products that function accurately, as designed. Based on our steady efforts, our press technology today has succeeded in realizing accuracy at the submicron level.

[Press technology: Realizing accuracy to a thousandth of a millimeter in molds]

[Press technology: Realizing accuracy to a thousandth of a millimeter in molds] enlargedimage


(*4) World-Class Brand from Japan

Almost everything in our daily lives is manufactured through the molding process. Enjoying a strong reputation on a global scale, Japanese molding technology has long supported the domestic manufacturing industry. Though it is hardly known on the consumer side, Japan boasts the world’s most advanced molding technology, creating high-performance, advanced-function electronics devices, automobiles and cameras. With the aim of further developing these technologies, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry commenced the Japan Brand Development Assistance Program to back up development efforts and nurture the molding industry.