Sometimes it takes more time and energy to make the project box (case, enclosure) than it takes to actually design and build the electronics. For a final product or a production version, that might make sense. But sometimes you just want something that will do the job, not take too much time, but still look good. Over the years I have watched hundreds of engineering students use laser cutters and 3D-printers to make their project boxes. That bothers me sometimes, especially the mess of cut acrylic sheets surrounding the laser cutters and the knowledge that most of these projects will find their way to the dumpster soon. It seems wasteful and ecologically unsound. Not to mention, this is an expensive way to make a temporary box. 3D-printing has its own problems, one of them being that it is a really slow way to make box. Taking four to six hours to print out an enclosure, when there are dozens of other students in the queue desperately waiting to print their parts, doesn’t seem consistent with the concept of unleashed productivity that 3D-printing is supposed to bring.

All of this waste and inefficiency is made worse by the fact that the project box might have to be remade a few times because of measurement errors and design changes. However, over the last few months I have been working on a system that uses small 3D-printed pieces, in combination with decorated foamcore panels, to make serviceable and attractive enclosures cheaply, quickly, and easily. Better still, these enclosures are quickly and easily modified if there are measurement errors or design changes. And a further advantage is that the 3D-printed pieces can be made up ahead of time, before the dimensions of the enclosure are known. Then, when the dimensions are set, the foamcore panels can be cut and the case put together in a manner of minutes.

I’ve worked out several different methods of building these boxes, which I’ll describe in upcoming posts. For now, I’ll introduce what I think is the best approach for small boxes. It basically consists of two plastic (3D-printed) endcaps which contain slots into which four foamcore panels fit into. A couple of pictures say it all:

Small-box-exploded

Small box

Of course, the box need not be quite so plain. Here is rendering of something edgier:

Small box with stripe

In my next post on this subject I’ll provide some construction details. I also think I’ll have an OpenSCAD program available that generates the STL files for the endcaps.