Creating custom electronic enclosures comes with its challenges. Thankfully, there are a variety of manufacturing solutions available to fit any budget, project timeline, quantity, level of complexity and aesthetic. This article highlights a range of technologies and materials you could consider.
When it comes to choosing between plastic and metal enclosures for electronics, there are several factors to consider. For example, for handheld shells such as remote controllers, plastics enclosures are generally the safer option. But non-metal enclosures are poor conductors. So if you are trying to trap or keep heat in, opt for metal enclosures.
Plastic enclosures are light in weight and easier and cheaper to manufacture than metal ones. They are also less likely to cause interference with nearby electronics – making them suitable for use in medical applications. On the other hand, metal enclosures are stronger and more durable. They are also better suited for harsher environments and applications that require good protection from extreme temperatures, moisture and dust.
When it comes to making metal enclosures, sheet metal fabrication is the most common method. Sheet metal enclosures are found everywhere—common examples include desktop computers, junction boxes and control panels. They tend to be picked for durability reasons rather than aesthetic appeal.
Sheet metal fabrication is often a significantly cheaper option than CNC machining because with just three bends, a sheet can be transformed into an open-faced housing. Punch and stamp a few holes in, and you almost have a nearly fully functional enclosure. Aluminium, stainless steel and carbon steel are some of the most commonly fabricated sheet metals for enclosures.
CNC machining can work with a wide selection of plastics (like PMMA, ABS, PC) and metal alloys (including aluminum and stainless steel).
While CNC machining is often a more expensive option for creating enclosures, you can achieve tighter tolerances and more complex geometries that may be difficult or near impossible to make via sheet metal fabrication. This makes the CNC process an ideal choice for specialised parts and enclosures requiring stricter or more specific requirements.
Plastic injection moulding is the main method for creating production quantity plastic enclosures. It is used to create both simple and complex enclosures from rigid plastics like ABS, PC, PMMA and PBT. Common examples include controllers, speakers, sensors, and many other products.
Injection-molding manufacturing scales well but can be costly and time-consuming to prepare. As a result, creating individual products, prototypes, or small-volume production runs is often impractical. However, when production volumes become large enough, it is extremely efficient and incredibly cost effective.
Speed is one of the biggest reasons for using 3D printing to make electronic enclosures — especially for one-offs. Additive manufacturing allows for greater geometric design freedom. You can print enclosures with intricate details and even fully assembled, multi-component parts in a single build, which can eliminate the need for additional assembly.
Do take note that while many enclosures start life as 3D printed parts, the technology cannot support the higher quantities economically and a transition to moulding is frequently required. This should be considered in your design early on for a smoother transition.
The primary industrial additive manufacturing processes used to make enclosures include: Stereolithography (SLA), Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), and Multi Jet Fusion (MJF). Common materials used include Nylon, ABS-like, and PP-like materials.
Vacuum casting or urethane casting produces parts that are comparable to injection-moulded components. The process is a quick and more affordable option than injection moulding for obtaining 10 to 50 production-like plastic parts in five to ten days. With vacuum casting, you can easily case large enclosures and housing — this is especially great for full-size robot enclosures and medical devices.
When deciding between which technologies and materials to use to create an electronic enclosure, it is always good to establish these few points:
Not sure which manufacturing process is a better option for your project? Get in contact with our team of experts here. Whether you need a prototype or fully-functional enclosure, HLH can help you with all your manufacturing needs.