@Charles: I'm thinking that if you did this via a Kickstarter project, you could raise the money to create an intuitive and easy-to-use design feature on your website.
Here's the way it could go. First, the user enters the outer dimensions of the cabinet they want to create (the used can specify units of inches or mm/cm).
Taking the dimensions of the extrusions into account, the system uses the user-provided dimensions to automatically create the outlines/templates for the top, bottom, side, and end panels.
In the case of expert users with access to 3D mechanical CAD packages, these users could take the generated panels and modify them to their heart's content. In the case of novice/hobby users, you could provide a drag-and-drop feature to create holes in the panels -- you could have circles, ellipses, rectangles, rectangles with rounded corners, etc. After dragging one onto a panel, the user could specify dimensions (e.g., D diameter, W wide, T tall, etc.; also X-Y offsets from the lower-left corner of the panel. You could also provide cut/copy/paste type facilities -- also shapes for common connectors and suchlike. Maybe do something similar for the silkscreen/annotations... Just a thought...
I'm pretty sure that a very similar design is commercially available (at least all of the structural elements, not including customization). I have several "test benches" (actually simulators) built using COTS extrusions etc. The supplier is almost certainly German so the stuff might be quite a bit pricier than your projections. I'll try to get a photo or two that show the structure without revealing any proprietary info of the test benches proper.
I looked everywhere for extrusions like the ones shown in my sketch. Could not find them. The closest are used for making glass display cases. They only work with panels 1/8" or thicker. I have looked through Maytec's catalogues for other projects. I associate them with alternatives to 80/20. I did not know they had an extrusion that could accomodate a 0.050" think panel without some kind of spacer. If they have something similar to the one I propose could you provide a part number or link? The extrusion that I propose costs from $0.80 to $4.00 per foot depending on how much you order from a US extruder. Anodizing is extra of course.
I'm not an expert on these parts; I just Googled Maytec today based on the name on one of the plastic corner plugs on my bench and looked at a couple of part numbers. There is a "part chooser" app on their site, and also a US$ price lst. I was surprised at the relatively low cost for these German parts. The small cross-section extrusions comparable to yours (and used on my benches) run between US$5 to 10 per METER in unit quantities. I have seen similar stuff from several suppliers in the past, and in fact have a mid-size portable equipment chassis in my basement that bears a very strong resemblance to your sketch. I bought it surplus many years ago for a few $.
I tried to post an image that compares the extrusions that you mentioned plus another with what I am proposing. I cannot seem to be able to place it in this reply but I have placed it on postimg.org for others to see.
I can see making the MayTec parts work, but they seem a compromise. One costs significantly more because it requires a machining operation. The other still seems more expensive than what I propose (~$3.90/ft). They are made and stocked in the US.
I own a hacksaw (along with lots of other metal-cutting devices) and a bench vise. I'd just buy one (or 2) meter of the extruxsion with ONE slotting charge, and cut pieces to length myself. That gets the cost down to very reasonable.... You could also specify the slot width as 0.053" for 0.050 inch panel thickness. Personally, i prefer heavier gauge front panels if several controls are mounted on it, except for very small sizes of panels. Lighter gauge for sides is fine as long as nothing is affixed to them.
I have a jigsaw and a drill as well. It always has that "professional" look when I am done (holding up sarcasm sign). The intent of what I propose is that for essentially the same amount of work and likely overall cost you could have a pretty cabinet if a services such as I proposed existed. I have butchered my share of LMB boxes over the years using the jigsaw and drill. Unless I put a full size sticker on the front it looks like hell. Even then it looks hokey to me
When Advanced Circuits and Eagle finally came into existence I never did another wirewrap proto again. Now it is even less expensive. For the same amount of work and cost I had a functioning circuit and could easily make another if needed and it looked professional.
From an out of pocket cost and EMI perspective you cannot touch Jim Williams' described cookie tin approach compared to die cast aluminum boxes. LMB and Hamilton interlocking U type boxes do not have the EMI shielding capability unless you use copper tape with conductive adhesive. Then you have the problem of opening up the box to fiddle so your back to die cast or cookie tins. As a quick test one day I placed my cell phone in an LMB U type box and screwed it closed. The phone still rang when called.
If you do not count the cost of your time then overall you cannot touch the cost and functionality of a cookie tin even if you have to buy a full one and give away the cookies.
Lastly the MayTec extrusions where the slots are cut not extruded, no matter what the width they charge $10/foot per slot so a total of ~$30/foot for that extrusion. Looks like such a deal compared to $0.80/foot. I would not want to attempt this myself on a table saw for wood. I also know people who will drive 10 miles to save $0.05/gal on gas.
Really like the GUI idea. Coding up a panel generator based on overall cabinet seems straightforward. However, dxf file format scares me. The examples I have looked at show lots of dendrite. Do not know what is important for reliability/compatibility. Cadenas Part Solutions? DesignSpark?
I am not sure if what you are offering is the low cost machining of the housing or the housing itself.
If it is the housing then I am afraid I am going to rain on your parade. There is at least one manufacturer of simlar housings (and they offer machining as well) Rose Bopla. Here is their offerening in extrusions. It seems that the BOS Ecoline is similar to what you are proposing, if I understand you correctly. One range had endplates that allowed for an octal relay base.
Some years ago we produced a "bulletproof" switchmode power supply in a one piece extrusion which made for easy IP rating (except for the end plates). Have you considered whether this is a market you want to support.
We also had a customer who designer an "L" shaped extrusion which when one side was flipped gave you the rectangular cross section. It was held together with the endplates which were in fact heavy duty connectors like these shells and a sutiable multipin insert.
In all of these however, I have found debugging when the unit is inside any extruded housing to be difficult to say the least.
I am trying to solve custom maching of the housing, total cost (except NRE) and turn around time. I am trying to address prototype designs where you just need one maybe three.
Everytime I have looked at the extrusions you mentioned I find minimum and stocking issues. In addition, the ones that you provided a link to appear to still need a front panel machined at a minimum. If you need any additional holes cut into the side panels for a one-off I imagine the cost are significant. If you do not need holes in the cabinet for connectors etc. then off the shelf cabinets seem like the obvious low cost option. I always seem to need holes in my cabinets.
The housing is not extruded just the corners. It alows making cabinets as small as 1.5"x1.5"x1.5" to rack mount monsters using the same corner extrusions. You just cut the six side panels to the dimensions needed. The extruded housings you mentioned are usually restricted in one or two dimensions.
This design also solves the debugging problem. You can remove as many sides as you need if you mounted your PCB to the base using standoffs. I feel it is a very flexible system.
This is a neat service. They also offer free software for creating the graphics. Unfortunately, they charge $45 to ship to the US. More than the apparent cost of a typical printed panel from them.
I finally found a shop in the US that can print full color on anodized aluminum for a reasonable cost if I handle integrating all the artwork. It looks like this will add ~$15 to the total cost of one cabinet. Anodizing will add another ~$7.50 per cabinet. I do not know if you can do one without the other.
Thank you for your feedback. It has provided much needed insight.
In my efforts to find other options I discovered one vendor that currently offers a service similar to what I proposed, Front Panel Express in Seattle, WA. However, their price point appears only slightly less than current prototype sheet metal vendors. I would argue that their cabinets look better and include front panel labeling. They also sell extrusions separately that are similar to what I propose and what antedeluvian had referenced from Bopla amoung others.
They also offer a software tool that appears focused on front panel layout and incorporates their pricing and ordering functions. It appears to offer much of what Max suggested. It is not clear how well it implements the spectrum of connectors, switches, etc. to test for interference and fits. I have not tried it. I think that is a lot to ask of a free tool sponsored by one vendor of this size. It appears you must order the extrusions through this tool to get pricing.
For those with an immediate need I hope this helps.
I like the idea of being able to purchase the extrusions in longer lengths and cutting them to size myself, along perhaps with a selection of standard-sized panels (metal and plastic panels would both be useful).
I'd also add that a lot of my projects could get by nicely with nylon extrusions rather than aluminium. Copper tape is inexpensive and can be used to enhance shielding where needed. It would be a big step up from my usual resorts (my last project went into a sardine tin :-)
I use my inexpensive CAD software to draw my front panels, and then plot or print them in color. IThe plots get mounted under an acrylic panel (storm window stuff) to keep them clean. It works for me, and you can't beat the price.
An aside: you can buy a 4" electrical grinder and a set of metal cut-off wheels for it from Harbor Freight Tools for under $20 I think - and it beats the heck out of a hacksaw when the workshop temperature is in the high 90s. Build your own table for it. The cut-off wheels work great on fiberglass copperclad too (avoid breathing the dust).
At the risk of stating the obvious, you need a certain volume of orders to make any of it work even if you just broke even.
I have no problems with plastic extrusions. In fact the case pictured in the blog piece is intended to use stock vinyl right angle extrusions in an attempt to solve the sharp edges of the aluminum panels on four of the corners. But there are still eight left for the front and back panels. I eventually came up with a solution for that using plastic extrusions and molded corner pieces but ..., dies, molds, etc.
I did not pursue the cost of plastic extrusion dies. I imagine they are in the ballpark of aluminum extrusion dies if they have to be cut with EDM. Injection mold dies start at $3K, maybe half overseas, then there is setup and run costs. You can cast plastic parts for short runs but you run into a labor issue that seems to make it a wash.
You could also coat the plastic extrusions to assist with EMI and probably look better than copper tape. Again, yet another setup cost to make this viable.
Laser cut arcrylic with a can of conductive shielding paint may be the cheapest EMI shielded custom construction you can get now that looks descent. You can see examples here:
Looks straight forward to incorporate the plots mentioned for the front panels.
Oh I love my HF grinder and cut-off wheels. Just don't like the sweat under the ear protectors (ear plugs need clean hands). Little scared with Al. Do not know if the cheap HF cut-off wheels have explosive tendencies like non-Al rated grinding wheels do?
The inspiration for this cabinet construction was finding an industrial laser CNC job shop that charged straight setup and cut time. The vendor before that was charging me three times this cost. I then did the numbers to see what a service based on this fabrication method might cost. Could not find the stock extrusions till recently so I designed one and costed that out. Looked promising.
The end design intends to be a reasonable compromise attempting to satisfy a broad base (colored by my skewed perspective) of applications. Mechanically strong, adaptable to a wide range of sizes, some amount of EMI protection and safety grounding, not dramatically more than low end stock cases, customizable and looks professional.
While a conductive coated plastic case solves many EMI issues (they use it all over laptops) it presents a safety concern. Not a great path to an earth ground if you bring AC power into the case. Plastic, especially what you can get easily and cheaply, is relatively weak. Yeah, I know polycarbonite, but unless you glue it you will use mechanical fasteners and it cracks on me all the time.
I greatly appreciate the input. I love being reminded of the practicality, cost effectiveness and ingenuity of food containers for electronic prototypes. Makes me crazy. I wish I could come up with an even cheaper solution to bridge this apparent $50 or better gap to making it "look good."
I've not had any of the inexpensive 4" metal cutting wheels from HF explode Charles, and I've cut all sorts of stuff up :-) Turned an old hot water heater into a rain water cistern with them, cut pipe, rebar... Good reason to remember to wear the safety goggles though.
I don't have any concept of the costs of a tool for any sort of extrusion, so trust your comments entirely on the economics of such things. I CAN tell you that you can make the equivalent of very simple corner extrusions out of wood on a table saw or router (although I've only done this for boxes made of 1/8" plywood and fiberboard). It makes a box that looks better than some alternatives I've tried, but of course not useful in your basic home radar project.
Can you give me a pointer to the stock plastic estrusions you mention?
Anyway -- I think your onto something if you can make the numbers work, and I hope you'll keep us posted if you go forward.
Never had a dremel type cut-off wheel explode with Al either. I just remember the stern warnings (or worse) of a couple shop teachers. Something about the Al melting into the abrasive of the wheel and causing stress cracks from expansion and contraction. Cut-off wheels may wear too fast to matter. I felt I should be a nervous ninny to remind folks. And thank you for the Safety Glasses.
Wood cabinets are the best aesthetic and flexible. The tools and material are readily available. Remember all those 60's "high end" (ha! ha!) console tv/stereo combos. Max is into these for some of his projects. However, for most of my protos I worry about some boneheaded error on my part and sparking things (fire) and EMI. Also protecting others who eventually use it. I have done a lot of low noise analog and needed the shielding.
McMaster has a good selection of extruded plastic of standard profiles. (I made a PMT housing from PVC pipe. Got a few laughs on that one.)
I appreciate the support. I will keep folks posted. Still appreciate the continuing feedback.
Replay available now: A handful of emerging network technologies are competing to be the preferred wide-area connection for the Internet of Things. All claim lower costs and power use than cellular but none have wide deployment yet. Listen in as proponents of leading contenders make their case to be the metro or national IoT network of the future. Rick Merritt, EE Times Silicon Valley Bureau Chief, moderators this discussion. Join in and ask his guests questions.