Ask Hackaday: How Do You Make Front Panels?

We’ll admit it. The closer a project is to completion, the less enthusiasm we have for it. Once the main design is clearly going to work on a breadboard, we’re ready to move on to the next one. We don’t mind the PCB layout, especially with modern tools. However, once the board is done, you have to do the case. Paradoxically, this was easier in the old days because you just picked some stock box, drilled some holes, and while it looked terrible, it was relatively easy.

Today, the bar is much higher. You’ll probably 3D print or laser cut an enclosure. If it looks no better than what you did in the 1970s, you won’t win many admirers. We routinely cover projects that could easily pass for commercial products. So how do you do it?

The Parts

The enclosure may even be the easy part. There are plenty of scripts and generators that will make you a nice box that meets your specifications. You can probably even get the holes made as you build. Back in the day, it was a challenge to cut odd-shaped holes for things like serial port connectors. Now, no problem. The printer or laser will just make a hole with any shape you like. You may even want to try a new angle on 3D printing.

Mounting the PCB isn’t that hard, either. With 3D printing, you can create standoffs, but even if you laser cut, you can easily use conventional standoffs. In a pinch, we’ve used long bolts with nuts.

The real problem, it seems to us, is the front panel. Only Star Trek can get away with front panels containing a bunch of knobs and dials with no markings. And although we call them “front” panels, sometimes you need markings on the back or even the sides, too. Continue reading “Ask Hackaday: How Do You Make Front Panels?”

The scope, with new knobs and stickers on it, front panel renovated

Explosion-Scarred Scope Gets Plastic Surgery Hackerspace Style

Some equipment comes with a backstory so impressive, you can’t help but treat it with reverence. For instance, this Hantek scope’s front panel and knobs have melted when a battery pack went up in flames right next to it. Then, it got donated to the CADR hackerspace, who have in turn given us a scope front panel refurbishing master class (translated, original), demonstrating just how well a typical hackerspace is prepared for performing plastic surgery like this.

All of the tools they used are commonplace hackerspace stuff, and if you ever wanted to learn about a workflow for repairs like these, their wiki post is a model example, described from start to end. They show how they could use a lasercutter to iterate through figuring out mechanical dimensions of the labels, cutting the silhouette out of cardboard as they tweaked the offsets. Then, they designed and printed out the new front panel stickers, putting them through a generic laminator to make them last. An FDM printer helped with encoder and button knob test fits, with the final version knobs made using a resin printer.

Everything is open-source – FreeCAD knob designs, SVG stickers, and their CorelDraw sources are linked in the post. With the open-source nature, there’s plenty of room to improvement – for instance, you can easily put these SVGs through KiCad and then adorn your scope with panels made out of PCBs! With this visual overhaul, the Hantek DSO5102P in question has gained a whole lot more character. It’s a comprehensive build, and it’s just one of the many ways you can compensate for a damaged or missing shell – check out our comprehensive DIY shell guide to learn more, and when you get to designing the front panel, we’ve highlighted a few lessons on that too.

Your Home Mainframe

We miss the days when computers looked like computers. You know, blinking lights, rows of switches, and cryptic displays. [Phil Tipping] must miss those days too since he built PlasMa, a “mini-mainframe simulator.”

The device would look at home on the set of any old science fiction movie. Externally, it has 540 LEDs, 100 switches, and a number of other I/O devices, including a keypad and an LCD screen. Internally, it can support three different instruction sets. Everything is run by an ATmega2560, and it has simulated paper tape, magnetic tape, and disks (all via SD cards). The magnetic tapes also have LED simulated reels to show the tape position and other status information (the round displays just above the LCD display).

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This CRT-Style Pi Portable Gets All The Details Right

A quick glance at the “Pi Terminal” built by [Salim Benbouziyane], and you might think he pulled an old CRT monitor out of a video editing bay and gutted it. Which, of course, is the point. But what you’re actually looking at is a completely new construction, featuring a fully 3D printed enclosure, a clever PCB control panel, and some very slick internal engineering.

[Salim] started the design by recreating the principle components of the build, namely the 8 inch 4:3 IPS LCD panel and Raspberry Pi 4, digitally in CAD. This let him design the enclosure around the parts, rather than trying to cram everything in after the fact. After printing the case, which clearly took considerable inspiration from broadcast video monitors of the early 2000s, he then painstakingly post-processed the parts using tips and techniques picked up from prop builders. To really finish things off, he designed his control panel as a PCB so he could have it professionally fabricated, and used heat set inserts to hold everything tight. Continue reading “This CRT-Style Pi Portable Gets All The Details Right”

Improve Your Front Panels

For many of us, the bane of electronic projects is making a professional-looking enclosure. Sure, 3D printing has made it easier to make the actual enclosure, but there’s still the problem of labeling it. [Richard Langner] has the answer with something he calls easy front panels. You can read about it or watch the tutorial video below.

The concept is easy enough. You create your beautiful artwork in your choice of graphics programs. The example uses Inkscape, but you could do it in anything, even PowerPoint. You print it out and cut it to size. You could, of course, print it in color or — as the example does — color it in by hand.

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Reverse Engineering A Topfield VFD Front Panel

Hackers love the warm glow of a vacuum fluorescent display (VFD), and there’s no shortage of dead consumer electronics from which they can be pulled to keep our collective parts bins nicely stocked. Unfortunately, figuring out how to actually drive these salvaged modules can be tricky. But thanks to the efforts of [Lauri Pirttiaho], we now have a wealth of information about a VFD-equipped front panel used in several models of Topfield personal video recorders.

The board in question is powered by a Hynix HMS99C52S microcontroller and includes five buttons, a small four character 14-segment display, a larger eight character field, and an array of media-playback related icons. There’s also a real-time clock module onboard, as well as an IR receiver. [Lauri] tells us this same board is used in at least a half-dozen Topfield models, which should make it relatively easy to track one down.

After determining what goes where in the 6-pin connector that links the module with the recorder, a bit of poking with a logic analyzer revealed that they communicate over UART. With the commands decoded, [Lauri] was able to write a simple Python tool that lets you drive the front panel with nothing more exotic than a USB-to-serial adapter. Though keep in mind, you’ll need to provide 17 VDC on the appropriate pin of the connector to fire up the VFD.

What’s that? You don’t need the whole front panel, and just want to pull the VFD itself off the board? Not a problem. Our man [Lauri] was kind enough to document how data is passed from the Hynix microcontroller to the display itself; critical information should you want to liberate the screen from its PVR trappings.

If you manage to get your hands on one of these modules, it would be an ideal addition to a custom media streamer. Though we suppose simply turning it into a network-controlled clock would be a suitable alternative if you’re looking for something a bit easier.

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A Physical Front Panel For Oscilloscope Software

For hackers on a tight budget or with limited bench space, a USB oscilloscope can be a compelling alternative to a dedicated piece of hardware. For plenty of hobbyists, it’s a perfectly valid option. But while the larger discussion about the pros and cons of these devices is better left for another day, there’s one thing you’ll definitely miss when the interface for your scope is a piece of software: the feel of physical buttons and knobs.

But what if it doesn’t have to be that way? The ScopeKeypad by [Paul Withers] looks to recreate the feel of a nice bench oscilloscope when using a virtual interface. Is such a device actually necessary? No, of course not. Although one could argue that there’s a certain advantage to the feedback you get when spinning through the detents on a rotary encoder versus dragging a slider on the screen. Think of it like a button box for a flight simulator: sure you can fly the plane with just the keyboard and mouse, but you’re going to have a better time with a more elaborate interface.

The comparison with a flight simulator panel actually goes a bit deeper, since that’s essentially what the ScopeKeypad is. With an STM32 “Blue Pill” microcontroller doing its best impression of a USB Human Interface Device, the panel bangs out the prescribed virtual key presses when the appropriate encoder is spun or button pressed. The project is designed with PicoScope in mind, and even includes a handy key map file you can load right into the program, but it can certainly be used with other software packages. Should you feel so inclined, it could even double as a controller for your virtual spaceship in Kerbal Space Program.

Affordable USB oscilloscopes have come a long way over the years, and these days, using one is hardly the mark of shame it once was. But the look and feel of the classic bench scope is about as timeless as it gets, so we can certainly see the appeal of a project that tries to combine the best of both worlds.

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