Locally made touchscreens make a name for Dawar Technologies in Pittsburgh

| Tuesday, March 12, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Dawar Technologies Inc. has earned respect from its customers for its touchscreen products.

Not just because they are cool — popularized by Apple's iPhones and iPads — but because Dawar makes them in Pittsburgh.

People say, “Really? You're doing this in Pittsburgh?” said Dennis Fitzgerald, senior vice president of operations, at the North Shore company.

The company manufactures touchscreen sensors — not for Apple or other consumer product companies — but for industrial and medical-device companies that are rushing to bring touchscreen technology into their products.

Dawar, which was founded 130 years ago as commercial printer Davis & Warde, has been making touchscreens for the past year. The transition to touchscreens, one of several incarnations of its business, means growth. But the company is equally proud of its Pittsburgh heritage.

“You need to be competitive worldwide, and if you can be competitive by doing the manufacturing here, you do it here,” said CEO Carl Snyder.

The market for touchscreens is growing fast — ranging from the panels that sense a finger or a stylus, to multi-touch monitors for retail, industrial and consumer markets.

Notebook and all-in-one PCs will drive total touchscreen revenue worldwide to $31.9 billion by 2018 from $16 billion last year, according to researcher NPD DisplaySearch. Tablets are the fastest growing application for touch, with 2011 shipments tripling to 79.6 million units and forecast to more than double again to 190 million units this year, the researcher said.

Dawar makes touchscreens for companies like South Side-based DynaVox Inc. and other medical- and industrial-device manufacturers.

Rick Severa, DynaVox's director of product design, said he's working to incorporate Dawar's latest touchscreen sensors. DynaVox makes computers that improve communications for people with speech and other handicaps — “a laptop that speaks for people,” he said.

Michael Robrecht, Dawar's vice president of business development, said its customers require customized engineering, and buy many fewer units in comparison to consumer products such as tablets or phones made in Asia.

“Our customers need a very tight engineering link to us because they are customizing their product,” Robrecht said. “Having our support here, having the product manufactured and shipped from here can also cut down on shipping costs.”

Consumers began getting used to touchscreens in recent years on ATMs, point-of-sale terminals in restaurants and ticket kiosks at movie theaters. Consumer devices known as PDAs (personal digital assistants) in the 1990s and early 2000s used “resistive” touch technology that used a stylus.

When the iPhone came out in 2007, it put another technology called “capacitive” touch on the map. It enables multi-touch features popular in current smartphones and tablets. So the industrial design was driven to mimic Apple's products and the functional and optical experience.

“Every designer and every marketing person in our customer base wanted their products to have the same feel and look, the touch, the multi-touch, the flick, the expand,” Robrecht said.

“Marketing managers kept saying, ‘I want this to look like an iPhone, I want this to look like an iPad.' “

DynaVox's Severa says there are several advantages to capacitive touchscreens. They are durable, resist scratches, are brighter in sunlight and use less power, saving on batteries.

In the 1970s, Dawar's predecessor transitioned from printing books and corporate annual reports to making printed products for customers in medical and industrial markets, settling on “membrane switches” like those used on microwave oven keypads.

Over the years, Dawar changed ownership five times. The most recent ownership group was formed in 1998 by Mel Pirchesky, president of Shadyside-based Eagle Ventures, and included CEO Snyder. They focused on the membrane switch business, but had a larger vision: Dawar as a manufacturer that helps humans communicate with machines.

Another technology — the touchscreen, using conductive ink printed on glass — was a natural evolution of Dawar's product line, Snyder said.

In 2004, Dawar, until then a regional business, committed to making touchscreen products, starting by reselling a touchscreen sensor that it outsourced from China.

In 2007, Dawar formed a joint venture company with investors in China and opened a manufacturing plant north of Hong Kong that produces a “resistive” touchscreen product. It employs 600 and today focuses on the Chinese market.

Dawar's management then decided to get into capacitive sensor production. The manufacturing line, costing in seven figures, was installed a year ago and is now up and running.

“What's unique about Dawar is its willingness to invest in new equipment, and be willing to take a risk,” said Petra Mitchell, CEO of Catalyst Connection, a Pittsburgh organization that helps manufacturers improve their operations.

“The biggest challenge is nobody knew who Dawar was,” Snyder said. “We didn't have a name, we didn't have product. We had to build brand recognition. We had to create a sales channel to sell the product because our sales force was in a 100-mile radius around our facility here.”

Now, if someone Googles “touchscreens,” Dawar pops up. “We are developing a brand and recognition,” Snyder said.

At Dawar, Snyder said, “We may have a need to expand the touchscreen line before the end of this year because of the demand. We target 20 percent annual growth, and for the past eight years, we've averaged 16.5 percent.”

John D. Oravecz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7882 or joravecz@tribweb.com.

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