Enclosures – 3D Printing’s Killer App (Part 1)

This is a multi-part series on designing electronic enclosures specifically for 3D printing and will feature some of the enclosure designs I did for my speed climbing timing system at Twin Dolphin Timing.

TwinDolphinEnclosure9

Practical 3D Printing

There’s a lot of hype around 3D printing, but one of the most practical things I wanted my LulzBot AO-100 to do was to print custom electronic enclosures.  When you get bitten by the electronics bug (thank you SparkFun), you quickly move from breadboards, to perf-boards, probably skip etched copper and jump straight to real PCBs made through services like BatchPCB, or GoldPhoenix and any number of other PCB fabricators.  It doesn’t take long before you have to take your debugged masterpiece off the workbench and put it into the real world – you need an electronic enclosure.  

It was the dearth of enclosure choices between bench and real-world that led me several years ago to start the ESawdust brand and with the help of my business partner, Steven Fontana, design three lines of sheet metal electronics enclosures made explicitly for the DIY maker crowd.  The first was the Chameleon with interchangeable faceplates for various popular development boards.  Next came the Dog House for Beagle Board, and finally the Crib for Arduino.  Sheet metal is great, tough, functional, but it’s still not something you can easily make in single unit quantities.  It’s out of the DIY budget to iteratively prototype with sheet metal with a real manufacturer.

Existing Alternatives

You can always do what most makers do, find the closest size you can from Hammond or PolyCase, then Dremel or nip your faceplates and wedge your project into the best fit.  Sometimes this is all you need and that’s fine.  Before evolving to better enclosures, I did this, too, but I always ended up with something a lot more like a jack-o-lantern for Halloween than an enclosure I was proud of.

The problems with existing, general purpose enclosures when you are trying to fit a custom board include:

  • Exposing connectors to the edge of the case
  • Cleanly cutting openings for LCDs and buttons for interaction
  • Exposing LED status indicators to the face of the device
  • Creating power facilities in the enclosures – jacks and batteries
  • PCB mounting hole positions never match your board 
  • You need to design the PCB around the selected enclosure, so you have to pick your enclosure, then hope everything will fit

Unless you’re working for a big company with an industrial design team and coordinated packaging efforts, these are hard problems to tackle by yourself when you want to fit your custom circuit board into an existing, one-size-fits-all enclosure, but this is where 3D printers really shine.

Where 3D Printed Enclosures Fit in the Grand Scheme

There’s a gaping hole in the electronic enclosures market which is between the one-size-fits all approach of a Hammond or Polycase, the jack-o-lantern-dremel specials like RadioShack project boxes, and a full-blown custom injection molded or sheet metal custom enclosure.  

I want something that is a custom enclosure, but I don’t want to pay injection molding or sheet metal prices – for many things I simply don’t have the volume to justify the manufacturing expense.  It doesn’t have to look like a design gallery piece or iPhone, but I don’t want it to look like I hacked up something and wedged it in, either.

I suspect many DIY’rs have similar needs – they don’t need an enclosure to gleam but don’t want it to look like road-kill either.

Even though I recognize the need for more electronic enclosures for DIY’rs, and I have existing products on the market, and I have the design and manufacturing path to get to sheet metal enclosures, I still find myself wanting and needing very small quantities of custom enclosures.

 A 3D printer is the first device available to make a single unit, custom electronic enclosure without breaking the bank.  Even now,  you don’t have to look far to get access to a 3D printer.  High schools and hackerspaces have them.  They’re becoming affordable in the same way that the first laser printers became affordable for home use.  Places like Club Workshop in Denver where you can pay a day fee will get you started. Finally, you can always ship your designs off to Shapeways and have them printed and sent to you.

Where To?

This article establishes the motivation for using 3D printers for single unit to small-run custom electronic enclosures.  The limiting factor from here on are CAD skills, so the subsequent parts in this series will focus on design techniques and CAD skills you need to master to design enclosures.

Check out Part 2 of this series to see how to make a simple, clam-shell style enclosure that you can 3D print.

Jump ahead to Part 3 which delves into enclosures with front-panel and faceplate designs to expose circuit board connectors

Landon Cox 

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