How to Build Beautiful Enclosures from FR4 — aka PCBs

Most hobbyists say that it is easier to build a functional prototype of an electronic device, than to make the enclosure for it. You could say that there are a lot of ready-made enclosures on the market, but they are never exactly what you need. You could also use a 3D printer to build a custom enclosure, but high-end 3D printers are too expensive, and the cheaper ones produce housings which are often not robust enough, and also require a lot of additional treatment.

Another way is to build the enclosure out of FR4, a material which is commonly used in PCB production. Such enclosures are low-cost, with thin walls but yet very strong, nice looking, pleasant to the touch and have excellent thermal and moisture stability. FR4 offers some more possibilities – efficient wiring with no wires inside the housing, integrated UHF or SHF antennas or RFID coils, capacitive switches, electrical shielding, selective semi-transparency, water or air tightness, and even integration of complex mechanical assemblies.

Here I shall explain the process of building those “magic” enclosures. It is based on nearly fifty years of personal experience and more than a hundred enclosures, built for most of my projects. Here are two examples – this case for a hardware password manager is just a few centimeters long, while the other one (protective transportation cover for my son’s synthesizer) measures 125cm (about 49 inches), and yet both of them are strong enough to withstand a grown man standing on top of them.

The global approach is simple – you take the sheet of single-sided copper clad FR4, cut it and solder the parts together. That sounds simple, but there are a lot of details which should be met if you want to get top results. Please read about them carefully. You might be tempted to skip some of the steps described here, but if you do so, you will most likely end up being disappointed with the results.

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Behold! The Most Insane Crowdfunding Campaign Ever

Hold on to your hats, because this is a good one. It’s a tale of disregarding the laws of physics, cancelled crowdfunding campaigns, and a menagerie of blogs who take press releases at face value.

Meet Silent Power (Google translation). It’s a remarkably small and fairly powerful miniature gaming computer being put together by a team in Germany. The specs are pretty good for a completely custom computer: an i7 4785T, GTX 760, 8GB of RAM and a 500GB SSD. Not a terrible machine for something that will eventually sell for about $930 USD, but what really puts this project in the limelight is the innovative cooling system and small size. The entire machine is only 16x10x7 cm, accented with a very interesting “copper foam” heat sink on top. Sounds pretty cool, huh? It does, until you start to think about the implementation a bit. Then it’s a descent into madness and a dark pit of despair.

There are a lot of things that are completely wrong with this project, and in true Hackaday fashion, we’re going to tear this one apart, figuring out why this project will never exist.

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Designing And Printing A Custom Enclosure

enclosure

So you know how to design a circuit board, assemble the parts, and have a functional device at the end of a soldering session. Great, but if you want to use that device in the real world, you’re probably going to want an enclosure, and Tupperware hacked with an Exacto knife just won’t cut it. It’s actually not that hard to design a custom enclosure for you board, as [Glen] demonstrates with a custom 3D printed project box.

[Glen]’s board, a quad RS-422 transmitter with a PMOD connector, was designed in Eagle. There are a vast array of scripts and plugins for this kind of mechanical design work, including the EagleUP plugins that turn an Eagle PCB into a 3D object that can be imported into SketchUp.

Taking measurements from Eagle, [Glen] designed a small project box that fits the PCB. A few standoffs were added, and the board itself was imported into SketchUp. From there, all he needed to do was to subtract the outline of the connectors from the walls of then enclosure for a custom-fit case. Much better than Tupperware, and much easier than designing a laser cut enclosure.

Once the enclosure was complete, [Glen] exported the design as an STL, ready for 3D printing or in his case, sending off to Shapeways. Either way, the result is a custom enclosure with a perfect fit.

 

Designing a Front Panel for a DIY Project

DIY Front Panel

 

When building a one-off DIY project, appearances tend to be the least of our priorities. We just want to get the device working, and crammed into some project case. For those that like to build nicer looking prototypes [JumperOne] came up with a slick method of building a custom front panel for your DIY project.

The first step is to get the dimensions correct. You CAD tool will generate these from your design. [JumperOne] took these measurements into Inkscape, an open source vector graphics tool. Once it’s in Inkscape, the panel can be designed around the controls. This gets printed out and aligned on a plastic enclosure, which allows the holes to be marked and drilled.

With the electronics in place, the front panel gets printed again on a general purpose adhesive sheet. Next up is a piece of cold laminating film, which protects the label. Finally, holes are cut for the controls. Note that the display and LEDs are left covered, which allows the film to diffuse the light. The final result looks good, and can provide all the needed instructions directly on the panel.

[Thanks to Ryan for the tip]

Cobalt RaQ Retrofit Help Geek Up Your Entertainment Center

cobalt-raq-jukebox

Even network engineers who toil away in hot server rooms (which aren’t actually all that hot because they’re well climate controlled) deserve nice things. That’s why Cobalt came out with these gorgeous front bezels for their rack mounted equipment… around twenty years ago. [Geekmansworld] is reviving the look, but he’s not hiding it away in a server rack. He scrapped the guts and used the front bezel and controls as part of his media server.

His first new addition to the case was a pair of hard drives which connect to an eSATA hub also stored in the enclosure. He buttoned it up and gave it a test run. Everything worked smoothly and he hopes that it will continue that way without overheating when the summer rolls around again.

Of course a dead front bezel is no fun so he cut off the portion of the original circuit board which hosts the buttons seen on the right. These buttons now connect to a U-HID board which turns the button presses into mouse or keyboard inputs using a USB connection. The original display was swapped out for a backlit character LCD. The LEDs to the left are a refit which turns the status indicators into a VU-Meter. See the entire thing at work after the break.

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Hackaday Links: February 2, 2014

hackaday-links-chain

[Michel] was in need of a 9V battery connector, and in a brilliant bit of insight realized 9V batteries will plug directly into other 9V batteries (just… don’t do that. ever.) Taking a dead 9V, he tore it open, was disappointed by the lack of AAAA cells, and soldered some wires onto the connector.

Sometimes a project starts off as a reasonable endeavour, but quickly becomes something much more awesome. [Wallyman] started off building a hammock stand and ended up making a giant slingshot. We’re not one to argue with something that just became a million times more fun.

We’ve seen solder stencils made out of laser-cut metal, photoetched metal, plastic cut on a vinyl cutter, laser-cut plastic, and now finally one made on a 3D printer. It’s a pretty simple process – get the tCream layer into a .DXF file, then subtract it from a plastic plate in OpenSCAD.

Apple loves their proprietary screws, and when [Jim] tried to open his Macbook Air with the pentalobe screwdriver that came with an iPhone repair kit, he found it was too large. No problem, then: just grind it down. Now if only someone could tell us why a laptop uses smaller screws than a phone…

[Victor] has been playing around with an RTLSDR USB TV tuner dongle for a few months now. It’s a great tool, but the USB thumb drive form factor wasn’t sitting well with him. To fix that, he stuck everything into a classy painted Hammond 1590A enclosure. It looks much cooler, and now [Victor] can waterproof his toy and add a ferrite to clean things up.

RasPi “Inception” CD-ROM Case Mod

raspiInception

At first glance, [John’s] CD-ROM RasPi case may not seem all that unique, but we like both the implementation as well as the end-result functionality it provides. His goal was to use the Pi as a torrent downloader, and to store the downloaded files on a shared network drive. The Pi drive would slide into a bay in the server’s case—hence the Inception reference: a computer in a computer—allowing downloads while putting another step between the server and the outside world keeping, as well as guaranteeing that the network share would be available, because the server and the Pi would use the same power source.

[John] gutted the CD-ROM’s internals to leave only the PCB, which he stripped of most everything save for the power connector in the back. He then used the base of his old RasPi case as a standoff, mounting it to the top of the CD-ROM’s PCB. He soldered the power lines to the ROM’s power connector and temporarily hooked up a 5V adapter until he gets the server running. The final step was to carve out the back of the case for access to the Ethernet and USB ports, which [John] accomplished with a dremel, a hacksaw and a file. The front of the case still looks like a stock CD-ROM drive, and [John] has plans for future mods: re-purposing the LED to show network activity and modifying the buttons to serve as a reset, pause, or start for torrent downloads.