Most electronic products, appliances or machines have some sort of a housing or enclosure that protects and holds all the internal components together. For consumer electronic products, the enclosure needs to be much more than just a simple off-the-shelf box that holds the printed circuit board.
In today’s competitive market, for a product to be successful, it is important to have a custom designed, sleek and user-friendly product enclosure that also does the job of enticing and delighting the consumer. The technology inside your product may be the most advanced, but if it fails to visually entice the buyers, you may be hindering the chances of your success.
You may be a hardware startup with an Arduino prototype housed in an off-the-shelf plastic case or an established brand with products needing a refresh to suit the current trends, a custom designed enclosure can help you differentiate your products and provide a great user-experience to your customers.
Enclosure Design Service by Outdesign Co
At Outdesign, we design custom product enclosures that are aesthetically pleasing while being reliable and easy to manufacture. We work on a variety of products like consumer electronics, machine enclosures, instruments, handheld products, wearables, IOT and more. Get in touch to discuss your requirements.
Custom Enclosure Design Process
The enclosure may seem to be a comparatively less complex aspect of an electronics device or a machine but designing an enclosure which is aesthetically pleasing and meets the technical requirements requires a great deal of experience in design, engineering and manufacturing processes. Below is an overview of the enclosure design process of a typical consumer electronics device.
1) Forming the Product Requirements
The process starts by forming the requirements of what environment the product needs to operate in, what functionality it has, what are the standards it needs to meet and many more. All the information is contained in a document called PRD or a Product Requirements Document.
Each product has different requirements and therefore needs an appropriate enclosure to meet those requirements. A consumer electronics device or an IOT enclosure will have very different requirements from a product enclosure that has to protect the electronics from water ingress at 100 feet depth in a sea.
2) Industrial Design
The look and feel of a device are especially important for consumer products, therefore the product’s casing has to be something that achieves that purpose in addition to forming an emotional connection with the target audience. This is achieved by industrial designers.
Apple’s products are a great example of how much impact a product’s design can have on consumers and how design can help a brand stand out. The flip-side of designing products like Apple, however, is that it is impossible for smaller companies and even relatively huge companies to replicate it due to the manufacturing constraints.
Product design has a very direct impact on manufacturing costs and therefore, it is important to design products that are feasible to manufacture.
Once a design concept is finalized, the engineers work on turning that concept into an enclosure that can be manufactured while meeting the technical and functional requirements.
The technical requirements can vary from product to product. Enclosures that need to protect the internal electronics from dust and water need to meet the appropriate IP rating standards, some enclosures meant for industrial purposes have another rating system called NEMA rating.
Some enclosures need to be highly robust and impact resistant, so they need to meet appropriate impact testing standards, some require thermal management and heat dissipation solutions and so on. Engineers integrate the pcb with the enclosure and make sure that the product is robust, reliable and manufacturable.
Prototyping is an essential part of the new product development process. Each type of prototype has a specific goal of what it needs to test. Appearance prototypes test if the product enclosure has the right finish and surface treatment as specified by the industrial designers.
Functional prototypes ensure that the parts all fit together and the product functions as expected. Engineering prototypes are close to the final product in terms of the surface finish as well as functionality, these are used to test the robustness and reliability of the product.
Common Manufacturing Processes for Enclosures
1) Plastic Molding
Plastic is the most commonly used material for electronics enclosures, especially in the consumer electronics industry. Plastic housings can be manufactured using a variety of process like 3D printing, vacuum casting and laser cutting at low volumes. At high volumes, injection molding is used to manufacture plastic enclosures starting from small batches of 500-1000 all the way to millions of casings. Injection molding provides tight tolerances and great surface finish without much need for post processing. However, due to the high upfront investment in molds, it is a process suited for high volume manufacturing.
These types of enclosures usually come with a main aluminum extruded body with 2 plastic or sheet metal covers having custom holes for ports and switches. Aluminum provides a robust yet light-weight solution to house electronics but the extrusion process doesn’t allow as much freedom as plastic in the shape and form of the overall product. When used creatively in conjunction with secondary processes like CNC machining, extruded aluminum enclosures can provide cost-effective, sleek and premium looking enclosures like the Apple’s Macbook.
3) Sheet Metal
Sheet metal enclosures are built from folded sheets usually of carbon steel, stainless steel and aluminum. Sheet metal enclosures are widely used both in industrial as well as consumer product industries. These are cost effective at low as well as mid to high volumes and for a variety of form factors. Computer cases, set top boxes, appliances, instruments, outdoor enclosures, medical equipment are just some areas where sheet metal enclosures are used. One drawback for these enclosures is that they should not be used if the electronics need wireless communication.
Common Enclosure Considerations
1) Water/Dust Protection
Enclosures requiring protection against ingress of solid and liquid particles are designed to meet specific IP ratings. IP (Ingress Protection) ratings are recognized worldwide and the go-to standard for consumer electronics industry to define what level of protection an enclosure has against water and dust. NEMA is another standard similar to IP code but primarily used for industrial enclosures.
2) Suitability for outdoor use
If a product will be exposed to sunlight, rain, extreme temperature variation, snow etc depending on region, then those conditions need to be taken into account while designing the enclosure and selecting the materials. Metal enclosures with durable surface finishes are the norm for products that have to face harsh outdoor conditions, though plastic enclosures are not unheard of. UV protection additives and coatings can be added to plastics, but they are not as durable as metals.
For consumer electronic products that have to be held in the hand like test instruments/game controllers/remote etc or worn by people like smart watches, heart rate monitors etc have special design considerations.
These types of enclosures need to be designed for ergonomics and user-friendliness. For wearables like fitness trackers that have to make direct contact with the skin and sweat for a long time need to have materials with non-reactive, anti-microbial properties.
4) Industrial use Enclosures
Enclosures that have to operate in an industrial environment need to be designed keeping in mind the industrial environment. These enclosures need to be rugged and be able to withstand corrosion from various chemicals, grease, oils, gases and dirt. The NEMA rating defines the level of protection an enclosure offers for such use-cases.
5) EMI Shielding
Electronic components that need to be protected from Electromagnetic Interference (EMI) and RF need to be encased in enclosures that provide such protection. Metal enclosures inherently provide EMI shielding and are a good fit for this use.