SPOKANE - A computer-keyboard maker is staking much of its future on the idea that computers should engage the hands and wrists as painlessly as they do the mind.
Key Tronic Corp.'s investment in ergonomic keyboards seems to be paying off, in part because of a new product that is piggybacking on Microsoft Corp.'s new Windows 95 operating system.
The new keyboards have helped the Spokane-based company climb out of a financial tailspin that reached its lowest point in late 1991.
Key Tronic, which bills itself as the world's largest independent maker of keyboards, believes consumers nervous about repetitive-motion injuries from keyboard use will increasingly demand computer equipment that is ergonomic - adapted to the worker.
The unconventional keyboards - which separate the keys into two clusters, one for each hand - are designed to accommodate the human physique and encourage natural typing positions that reduce stress on the hands and wrists.
Key Tronic sees itself as an industry leader in the rush to develop ergonomic keyboards, now joined by NMB, Chicony, Alps and other East Asian competitors.
"I think they'll become a larger portion of just about everybody's business," said Craig Gates, Key Tronic's vice president of engineering.
Key Tronic won't say how much of the company's business comes from sales of keyboards with ergonomic features, but financial analyst Bob Toomey estimates the figure at about 15 percent.
Toomey, a Seattle-based regional vice president of research for Piper Jaffray Inc., rates Key Tronic stock as a "strong buy."
"Ergonomic keyboards are making an important contribution to the company's return to health," he said.
One of the company's biggest successes is a keyboard produced for Microsoft. The Microsoft Natural, introduced late last year, is designed to complement Windows 95 and sells in retail stores for between $89 and $99. More than 1 million of the boards have been produced, making it the fastest-selling keyboard in company history, Key Tronic's Gates said.
"The demand has been just phenomenal," said Sue Barnes of Waggener Edstrom, Microsoft's public-relations firm.
The keyboard has 104 keys, a layout Gates expects will eventually replace the industry-standard 101-key design. Two of the Natural's extra keys are designed to make Windows 95 easier to use; the third is a programmable applications key that can be assigned to a particular task in another software application.
The board's left- and right-hand groups of letter keys are split and angled to encourage a more natural typing position. A built-in palm support offers a resting place for the hands when not typing.
The Natural was developed in part by the keyboard division of Minnesota-based Honeywell Inc., which Key Tronic acquired in early 1994.
Other Key Tronic products with ergonomic features include:
-- The Butterfly, a keyboard for IBM's ThinkPad 701C that folds out and expands when the notebook computer is opened. The keyboard is larger than those of other notebook computers, which makes for easier typing. Sales have been strong since the computer's introduction in February, Gates said.
-- The ProTouch, a conventionally shaped keyboard designed to soften the impact on the fingertips at the bottom of the keystroke. When pressed, the ProTouch's keys activate a pivoting lever rather than a conventional round plunger. The board has sold "reasonably well" since its introduction last year, Gates said. It is sold to computer manufacturers and retail customers.
Key Tronic's most radical ergonomic design didn't fare nearly as well as the other boards.
Production of the FlexPro, which retailed for about $400, was halted recently because of sluggish sales. The board, introduced a year and a half ago, features adjustable wrist rests and twin letter-key sections that rise from the base and can be adjusted vertically and horizontally.
Surveys indicated consumers were unsure where to position the adjustable keypads and feared they might become more susceptible to repetitive-motion injuries if they adjusted them incorrectly, Gates said.
Other manufacturers have had comparable experiences.
"There are a lot of adjustable keyboards on the market, but none of them have enjoyed the success of the Microsoft Natural," Gates said. "It doesn't intimidate people. It makes the choice for them what angle they use."
Success was much harder to come by just a few years ago.
Fortunes plummeted in 1990 as founder Lewis Zirkle retired and handed over leadership to his son Alfred. Competitors began offering new products at lower costs, eating into Key Tronic's market share and driving down its stock price.
Stanley Hiller of The Hiller Group, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based corporate trouble-shooter, took over Key Tronic in 1992 and began a restructuring effort that has returned the company to profitability. Hiller stepped down as chief executive officer in September but remains chairman.
During the restructuring, the company closed a plant in Cheney, southwest of Spokane, and shifted the manufacture of some of its product lines to a plant in Juarez, Mexico. But the company employs more people in Spokane County today than before the Cheney closure.
Key Tronic now has 2,925 employees, with additional production facilities in Spokane; Dundalk, Ireland; and Las Cruces, N.M.
Fiscal 1995 net sales reached $208 million, the first time sales have exceeded $200 million. Key Tronic stock, which hit a low of $2.50 in late 1991 is now trading at about $11 on the Nasdaq Stock Market.
In hopes of maintaining that growth, the company is increasing research into new keyboard designs.
Studies also are under way to determine whether the new ergonomic designs actually help prevent repetitive-stress injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, Gates said.
The company is betting that mainstream computer users will eventually want ergonomic products. Much of the current demand is from the comparatively small group of hard-core users who are always first in line for the latest development, whether it's Windows 95 or ergonomic keyboards, Gates said.
"If it's a good idea, it will catch on among the broader segment of society," he said.