Many are surprised to discover that a leading U.S. manufacturer of custom keycaps, Signature Plastics, has been operating diligently for more than 40 years right here in Custer.
A keycap is exactly like it sounds — the plastic cover for each of the keys on a keyboard or instrument panel. Many assume keycaps are only manufactured abroad, but the team at family-owned and -operated Signature Plastics has been making them here in the U.S. for a wide variety of applications, shipping them around the world for more than four decades.
From humble beginnings to global supplier
“In 1978, I started working with the Surrey, B.C.-based plastics manufacturer Comptec,” recalls Bob Guenser, Signature Plastics’ president. “I started in an entry-level position and worked my way up. Then there were only about half a dozen employees.”
Comptec quickly became a leading manufacturer of what are called two-shot molded plastic parts. The term “two-shot” refers to two different plastic resins molded together in a single machine cycle — one for the text on the key and another for the key body. The company’s molded plastic parts were shipped worldwide to computer, telecommunications, electronics, automotive, medical and consumer products markets. It was around 1976 that the location in Custer, formerly an 18-acre farm, was established as the company’s U.S. keycap manufacturing and distribution center. It would eventually become the world’s largest independent supplier of keycaps for the computer industry.
“In 2001, I had the opportunity to buy the keycap portion from Comptec, along with the customer base and Custer manufacturing facility,” Guenser said. “That’s when Signature Plastics LLC became a family business. There is still tremendous demand for keycaps today, more than we can keep up with.”
In the early 1990s, when many people began purchasing home computers, the market shifted, Guenser said.
“Our products are in homes around the world but are also used in commercial settings, like point-of-sale devices, lottery machines, aerospace and airlines, theaters and scientific instrumentation,” said Melissa Petersen, company vice president and Guenser’s daughter.
“You’ll find our products are used all over the world in almost any application you can imagine, wherever custom text and color-coded button is required.”
Petersen joined the company in 2003.
“After graduating from Western Washington University with a business degree, like Bob, I started at the bottom and worked my way up,” Petersen said. “I’ve been able to grow the customer service side of things, understanding our customers’ needs and being the bridge between them and our manufacturing team.”
Petersen’s husband, Randy, joined the family business in July 2021 as a project manager, bringing with him more than 20 years of manufacturing experience. Guenser is thrilled.
“I’m in my early 70s and will probably never retire, but I’m eventually going to let Melissa and Randy take over,” Guenser said. “It’s a father’s dream. Melissa is so immersed in the business. She knows it so well. She’s been instrumental in developing the direct-to-consumer part of our business.”
Signature Plastics has grown steadily. The company has both commercial and retail sectors and has grown its team to more than 30 people working in manufacturing and administration.
“When I formed Signature Plastics in 2001, we were generating about $1.5 million in sales annually,” Guenser said. “Once we got into retail, all of our sales doubled, and they’re still growing. About 25% of our business is return customers.”
Signature Plastics makes custom key sets in a huge variety of colors, shapes and sizes. Shapes of keys are broken into families defined by their height, side profile, size, contour, translucence and mounting method, with customizable variability available in each of those factors. Key sets can be made in more than 250 colors in two types of plastic.
“We do custom orders of almost any size, from 10 sets of keys all the way up to 3,000,” Petersen said.
Because demand is global, the company’s customers are worldwide.
“We sell a lot of our product into Korea, Germany, Australia and Europe, for example,” Petersen said. “With our sublimation process, we can print in any language, from Cyrillic to Farsi to Chinese. The most fun or exotic one thus far has been Aurebesh, which is the language from Star Wars.”
A small portion of Signature Plastics’ business includes local projects as well.
“We do have some local custom molding that we do for smaller companies, like Seattle Manufacturing Company,” Petersen said. “Although it represents only a small portion of our business, much of our custom molding is almost exclusively local.”
Using the business to give back locally, nationally and internationally
When the pandemic began, Signature Plastics developed a charitable giving program called Give Back Tuesday. On the second Tuesday of each month, 75% of sales are donated to a national or international charity chosen for the month. Color of Change, the Human Rights Campaign and the Men’s Health Network are just a few that have received donations in the past year.
“Every year we also make a point of supporting Custer Elementary that is just down the road,” Petersen said. “We’re happy to support their annual Walkathon and their PTA. We are one of the larger businesses in Custer, and so it’s a fun way to contribute right here in the community, too.”
An eye on the future
Signature Plastics is aware that there is a global movement to reduce plastic use, and especially waste, to protect our oceans.
“I struggle with the fact that we are dependent on oil,” Guenser said. “Our product is a byproduct of oil production. We’ve looked into alternatives in the past and continue to explore new options coming to the market.”
“But at this time, the durability and longevity of those alternative kinds of plastics, corn-based, biodegradable and other types, are unfortunately not sufficient or stable enough for the product and application that we supply,” Petersen added. “But it’s definitely something that we’ll always keep our eye on. I’d love to be able to offer something someday that is renewable or biodegradable that’s not hurting the environment, but it’s just not there yet.”
Although touch screen technology is advancing, Signature Plastics customers say that they’re not yet durable or reliable enough to replace the buttons and keys we all rely on in our lives every day.
“The industry is continually changing,” Guenser said. “There are a lot of restrictions on what materials can go into plastics now. Our plastics are very durable and aren’t disposable; they usually outlast the life of the electronics.”
Signature Plastics meticulously recycles all the waste plastic generated during the manufacturing process.
“All of the waste plastic that is trimmed off parts goes into a big grinder and then into big boxes that are sold to other plastics companies that re-engineer and re-extrude it into pellets that are resold to make other post-consumer recycled products,” Petersen said. “So, we don’t generate much plastic waste at all.”
The company also saves defects from the production line, tumbles them and sells them in 3-pound bags online.
“People use them for art projects, to change their own rainbow keyboards at home,” Petersen said. “There’s a whole market of individual resellers and enthusiasts on eBay. They played with Legos as kids, and they love to pour out a bag of our discarded keys. We can’t keep them in stock.”
During the pandemic and even before, hiring has been a problem.
“We currently have manufacturing occurring on four 10-hour shifts each week,” Guenser said, “but we have enough business backlog — into next year — that we could add a second shift and become a $5-to-$6-million-dollar-a-year company if we can just find the workers.”
Signature Plastics has recently raised its entry-level starting wage to $17 per hour, with plans to increase it again in a year or so.
“We also offer medical benefits, vacation, a matching IRA, and a positive working environment that we hope will attract more candidates to the Custer area,” Guenser said.
Plastics manufacturing experience is not required, as on-the-job training is available.
“We look for people with good manual dexterity, eyesight and attention to detail, because our workers do visual quality inspections as they come off the press,” Guenser said. “Our employees are self-motivated to work quickly with an eye on quality. We strive to make our products as perfect as possible because our audience is very particular.”
Signature Plastics is considering future partnerships with keyboard manufacturers.
“We want to explore additional sublimation methods for marking keys, and the next logical step for us is to find a supply of discounted keyboards, and we can populate them with whatever set of keys the customer is interested in and then ship a turnkey product,” Guenser said. “There will always be a demand for the tactile switches and the keys that we manufacture, so we expect to be very profitable by managing our business efficiently without growing too big.”
The company is devoted to quality and the team members who help them achieve it.
“We’re also a family business, and we want to keep it that way,” Petersen said. “We have just a handful of competitors that do what we do, and we stay at the top because we offer superior customer service and quality. We care a lot about our employees, and we want to make sure we’re on the ground, working with our employees and staying in touch with the business.”
Check out solutionsinplastic.com or follow them on Facebook (facebook.com/SignaturePlastics) and Instagram (instagram.com/pimpmykeyboard/) to learn more about this family-owned and -operated business and the incredible variety of keycaps they manufacture right here in Whatcom County.