Mechanical vs. membrane keyboards

How do they differ?

Whether you manufacture medical devices, consumer electronics, or industrial keyboards, the choice of keyboard for your user interface is critical in ensuring efficiency, reliability, and user satisfaction. Mechanical keyboards are known for their robust construction and accuracyMembrane keyboards are generally known to be quieter, more affordable, and more portable than mechanical keyboards. As a manufacturer, you need to select the keyboard technology that ensures optimal performance and reliability for your product In this blog, we'll explore several pros and cons to consider when choosing between mechanical and membrane keyboards. 

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ultrasound machine equipped  with membrane keyboard

Durability and ruggedness

One of the primary advantages of mechanical keyboards is their durability. Mechanical keyboards’ lifespans are rated anywhere from 20 to 50 million strokes. In a mechanical keyboard, each key has its own independent keyswitch mechanism that registers when a key is pressed. With the use of high-quality materials and individual switches rated for millions of keystrokes, mechanical keyboards can withstand the rigors of continuous use in demanding environments. Their keys spring back consistently and quickly after being depressed, and their performance doesn’t decline with age. Mechanical keyboards are resistant to debris and spills because the keyswitch mechanism is protected, sealed, or can otherwise be easily cleaned. If one key goes bad, the switch can simply be replaced and the keyboard returned to normal operation. The durability of a mechanical keyboard minimizes downtime and maintenance costs, ensuring uninterrupted operation of equipment.

Unlike mechanical keyboards with individual switches, membrane keyboards utilize a single rubber membrane beneath the keys to register keystrokes. Membrane keyboards are typically less durable than their mechanical counterparts, with their lifespan rated at only 10 million keystrokes. Over time, their keys can either lose their elasticity or, conversely, become overly elastic, creating a discrepancy in how much force is needed throughout the keyboard and slowing down the user’s typing speed. These changes in a membrane keyboard’s performance can be caused by a variety of factors, including built-up debris, rubber dome fatigue, manufacturing imperfections, and ultraviolet radiation. In addition, membrane keys cannot be cleaned or repaired easily.

engineer operating a robot arm using a computer keyboard
traditional mechanical keyboard for computer black and white keys

Tactile feedback

Tactile feedback plays a significant role in the typing experience, determining typing feel and overall user satisfaction. Mechanical keyboards are spring-loaded with physical switches, resulting in a distinct tactile bump and audible click. If responsiveness is important to your product, a mechanical keyboard will provide your end users with a satisfying sensation and precise confirmation of keystrokes. Operators can confidently input commands and data with precision, reducing the risk of errors and improving overall efficiency. This tactile response is particularly beneficial in medical settings, where accuracy is critical for patient care and safety.

Membrane keyboards use a rubber dome or membrane underneath each key, giving them a softer and quieter feel. While membrane keyboards lack the pronounced tactile feedback of their mechanical counterparts, they offer a softer, more subtle sensation, appealing to users who prefer a quieter typing experience. Among membrane keyboards, scissor switch keyboards usually offer the best tactile feedback.  Scissor switch keyboards feature a structure that resembles a pair of interlocking scissors beneath each keycap. When a key is pressed, the scissor mechanism collapses, providing a noticeable tactile bump and audible feedback. This design is beneficial for typing accuracy and comfort, making scissor switch membrane keyboards a popular choice for users who desire tactile feedback without the bulk and noise associated with mechanical keyboards. Additionally, scissor switch membrane keyboards often boast a slim profile and quiet operation, making them suitable for various environments, including offices, libraries, and classrooms.

Customization

Both mechanical and membrane keyboards offer flexibility through multiple customization options to meet the needs of your industry, product, and end users:

  1. RGB backlighting. There are different types of RGB lighting—RGB on each key, RGB side lighting, and under glow —depending on how bright you’d like your user experience to be.
  2. QMK firmware. If you want your keyboard to be programmable so you can remap the keys, QMK firmware is a beneficial option.
  3. USB port. The type of USB port and its location on the keyboard is important. A USB-C is a good choice because it’s reversible.
  4. Integrated pointing devices. To make your keyboard more compact and user-friendly in a space-constrained environment, you can integrate options that the need for a separate mouse or trackpad, like trackballs, touch-sensitive surfaces, or small joysticks located within the keyboard layout. Though this is an option in mechanical keyboards, this feature is more commonly found in membrane keyboards. These pointing devices allow users to move the cursor on the screen, navigate menus, and perform other cursor-related tasks without requiring a separate input device. Integrated pointing devices are often found in keyboards designed for industrial control panels, medical equipment, and other specialized applications where efficiency and space-saving are priorities.
  5. Multimedia keys. Dedicated buttons for tasks like adjusting volume, playing or pausing media playback, skipping tracks, launching specific applications, and controlling screen brightness allow users to seamlessly manage their multimedia experience without having to navigate through menus or use external controls. This enhances efficiency and convenience for users that frequently use multimedia options.
  6. Keycap design. You can customize the keycap design and color scheme to align with your organization’s brand identity and your product’s aesthetics.

Mechanical keyboards allow OEMs to choose from five different switch types based on your desired travel distances and auditory feedback—linear, light tactile, tactile, high audible, and high force/high audible. This flexibility allows for fine-tuning the user interface to optimize usability and ergonomics for different use cases. Additionally, there are many different mechanical keyboard sizes and layouts available, depending on your needs for portability and comfort.

There are also several types of membrane keyboards, including flat-panel, full-travel, dome-switch, scissor-switch, and island style keyboards, depending on which type of tactile experience your application requires.

backlit computer keyboard with neon like colors
membrane keyboard from a laptop
traditional mechanical keyboard for a computer

Cost

When comparing the costs of membrane and mechanical keyboards for OEMs, several factors come into play. Membrane keyboards are typically more affordable due to their simpler design and manufacturing process. The materials used in membrane keyboards, such as rubber domes and flexible membranes, are generally less expensive than the individual mechanical switches found in mechanical keyboards. Membrane keyboards often require fewer components and less intricate assembly, further reducing production costs. In contrast, mechanical keyboards have a higher cost of materials and more complex construction. Each mechanical switch is a precision-engineered component, often made from durable materials such as metal and high-quality plastics, contributing to a higher upfront cost. When you add customized options to both mechanical and membrane keyboards, such as switch types, keycaps, and backlighting, you add to the overall cost.

One of the primary advantages of membrane keyboards is their affordability. They offer a cost-effective option for OEMs looking to optimize costs without compromising quality. While mechanical keyboards usually require a higher initial investment, their durability and customizable features can offer long-term benefits that may outweigh the costs.

Quiet operation and portability

If your product is used in an environment like a medical facility or a manufacturing plant where noise pollution must be minimized, membrane keyboards are a quieter option than mechanical keyboards. Membrane keyboards are also lightweight and slim, making them easy to integrate into space-constrained equipment designs. Their compact form factor and simplicity make them ideal for applications where a small footprint is important.

Mechanical vs. membrane keyboards: choosing a keyboard technology

Summary comparison table

DimensionsMechanical keyboardsMembrane keyboards
CostHigher cost of manufacturingLower cost of manufacturing
CustomizationKey travel, actuation force, and clickiness. Easy to custom keys, or change the keycaps to a different style.Limited post-purchase
Durability30 million to 100 million keystrokes~ 5 million keystrokes
IdealFrequent/heavy typing, computer gamingLighter workload, medical, harsh environment
MaintenanceMore frequent maintenance (clean, lubrication in some applications)Lower Maintenance, easy cleaning and disinfection
NoiseNoisy when typingQuiet Operation
ResistanceLower resistance to dustDust and water resistance
Tactile feedbackHigh because "clicky"Lower because "squishy"
Typing speedBetter for typing quickly and accuratelySlightly slower
WeightHeavierLight weight

When selecting keyboards for products, key factors such as durability, tactile feedback, customization, noise pollution, and cost need to be considered. Whether opting for the precision and tactile feedback of mechanical keyboards or the cost-effectiveness and quiet operation of membrane keyboards, it’s essential to select the right keyboard technology for the specific user experience your product requires.

At Nelson Miller Group, we offer a range of custom keyboard solutions tailored to the unique needs of industrial and medical equipment manufacturers. We’d love to partner with you to help you choose the best option for your next project.

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NMG has more than 85 years of experience partnering with organizations to bring their industrial, IoT, lighting, medical, telecommunications, consumer, and aerospace products to life. We solve your most complex challenges in engineering design, manufacturing, and supply chain management.  

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