What is a capacitive switch and how does it work?

Enhance your user interface with a capacitive switch.

Capacitive switches are used in a wide range of applications, including medical devices, portable devices, human machine interfaces (HMIs), industrial controls, appliances, infotainment centers (kiosks), and more. 

Capacitive switches offer some exciting possibilities for user interfaces. Direct contact with a conductive object (touching the flat surface to operate with your finger) creates an electrical charge that disturbs the switch’s own electrical charge; thus, causing a change in capacitance. Because of this change, the switch can identify when and where the touch occurred and respond with the appropriate command. Nelson Miller Group (NMG) is a leading custom switch maufacturer.

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The layers of a capacitive switch

Most capacitive switches feature three layers: an upper graphics overlay layer, a circuit layer (flexible printed circuit or printed circuit board), and a backer layer. Normally, the overlay layer is made of a durable material like plastic or glass. Nelson Miller Group has deep expertise in manufacturing and assembling all three layers of your custom capacitive switches.

The overlay 

The graphic overlay is the layer featuring the icons or graphics for the switch’s buttons. The overlay is made of non-conductive material – typically of plastic, acrylic, or glass due to their durability and versatility. The choice of material is dictated by your requirements and constraints: plastic overlays are inexpensive and long-lasting; acrylic overlays offer a superior level of strength and durability; glass overlays offer the highest level of optical clarity. Overlays also come in different thicknesses based on the demand of the application. To learn more about graphic artwork, finishes and texturing options for your overlay, check out our blog on overlays.  

The circuit layer

The circuit layer is the most complex layer of a capacitive switch consisting of the circuits, capacitors, and connective reflexes of the system. When a user touches the switch their finger's electrical charge changes the capacitance between the electrodes, which is then detected by the panel's controller. The circuit layer is either a thin flexible printed circuit or a pad laid on a printed circuit board. The FPC’s bendability and flexibility allows for curved switches. 

While optional, many capacitive switches feature backlighting. Backlighting is typically installed between the graphic overlay and the backer. It’s used to illuminate the graphic overlay so that it’s easier to see in dark and low-light environments.   

The backer

The backer – the final part of the capacitive switch - holds the capacitive switch together. It may or may not include an adhesive that must bond to a specific substrate. The backing material could be a metal back plate, glass, plastic, or can be adhered to part of the final product. 

Features and finishes of capacitive switches


  • Sensing. Intricate proximity or sub-surface sensing.
  • Backlighting. Possibilities include light-emitting diode (LED), electroluminescent (EL), fiber optic, or light guides.
  • Enhanced functionality. Unique switch functionalities such as sliders, wheels, locking keys, and other features.
  • Display windows. Can be incorporated into a variety of shapes and sizes and can be tinted or clear.
  • Shielding. Capacitive switches can be built with EMI, RFI, and ESD layers to protect your product.
  • Multi-Touch capability.
  • Waterproof design. Options include P67 or NEMA4.
  • Compatibility. They are compatible with backlighting technologies.
  • LEDs. Side fire LEDs with light guide film and top fire LEDs to light small areas.
  • Overlay customizations. Custom graphics, keypad layout, colors, and text.
  • Metal-Over-Cap switch. A metal-over-capacitive switch is a unique solution that allows the use of aluminum, steel, or other conductive materials in front of a capacitive switch or sensor. This can allow a product to maintain an all-metal look to it while still utilizing capacitive technologies that give the ability for very finite sensing options. 

Custom finishes

  • Color matching. Custom color matching and intricate graphical layer design.
  • Tactile feedback. Can be achieved on a capacitive switch using haptics and other methods.
  • Embossed keys. Key areas can be embossed (pillow or ring emboss), or raised or lowered, to give a feel guide to where the key is.

Benefits of capacitive switches 

Capacitive switches have no mechanical components which results in a longer lifespan in some applications, a stronger ability to withstand some of the harshest environments, and the prevention of intrusion of dirt, dust, or moisture. 

  • High durability no moving parts to wear down leading to a long-life span
  • Anti-interference ability 
  • High actuation life
  • Proximity or sub surface sensing
  • Protection class IP65 and higher - extremely wear-resistant, scratch-proof, dust-proof, and resistant to common cleaners, oils, moisture, and liquids 
  • Thin construction that can be applied to curved surfaces
  • Intricate backlighting possibilities
  • Sleek appearance and strong graphic clarity
  • Lightweight
  • Energy efficient
  • Easy to clean
  • Optional haptic and/or audible feedback

Design flexibility

Flexible design is a key feature of standard membrane switches . They can be made in various shapes and sizes, and with completely customized graphic overlays. are suitable for applications where aesthetics and design flexibility are important. Because of the rigid substrate, PCB membrane switches have some design limitations. However, they’re still customizable to a significant extent. Their design is best suited for applications where durability and consistent performance are the primary concerns.


Standard membrane switches are often more cost-effective than PCB membrane switches, making them a popular choice for budget-conscious projects. PCB membrane switches are typically more expensive due to the higher cost of materials and the manufacturing process. However, their extended lifespan and superior performance make them a cost-effective choice in the long run for applications that require durability.

The choice between a standard membrane switch and a PCB membrane switch depends on the specific requirements of your manufacturing project. While standard membrane switches offer flexibility and affordability, PCB membrane switches excel in durability and consistent performance. By understanding the key differences between these two options, manufacturers can make informed decisions that align with their application's unique needs and performance expectations.

Looking for the right membrane switch to support your next project? NMG can help design and source the switching solution that works for you. Contact us today!

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About NMG 

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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