Friday, February 2, 2018

Protocase: Full Coverage Chapter 1

Chapter 1: Designing and Ordering an Enclosure


Gumstix is a leader in embedded and IoT hardware, having delivered the first Linux-powered computer on module (COM) over 10 years ago. The company has come a long way since then and has come to introduce Geppetto to the world of embedded hardware development. Using this online tool, customers can quickly design prototype expansion boards or SBCs and have them delivered in weeks, instead of months, with no experience in electrical or electronics engineering.

As far as hardware is concerned, the circuit board design and fabrication is more than half the battle, but if you’re looking to deploy your prototype in the field, you’ll likely want to protect the delicate components and wiring that make your product great. You’re going to need an enclosure.

Picking an Enclosure

VIA Mini-ITX Form Factor Comparison
Some common ATX form factors

When it comes to housing or mounting your hardware, you have some options. The first one is to design your hardware to conform to some kind of standardized form factor, like micro-ITX, for example. This approach guarantees that there is a commercial product out there that will accommodate your device. The problem with this is you are limited to the manufacturer’s design choices. The port holes or standoffs may be in the wrong place. You might require additional cooling or weatherproofing. Or it might just be the wrong colour.

Another popular option is desktop additive manufacturing. 3D printers. I happen to be assembling my own Kossel-style delta printer at home and will likely print more than one device housing with it. This is a cheap and easy option. Design a 3D model that accommodates your device, slice it, hit “Print”, and wait. You get what you pay for, though (Filament costs pennies per print). Flimsy plastic construction, inconsistent results, and questionable resistance to the elements make most 3D-printed cases a poor option for industrial prototypes.

Until recently, my weapon of choice has been an ad-hoc approach. I wander around the office looking for cardboard and plastic boxes, leftover standoffs and screws, electrical tape, duct tape, and anything else lying around that I can smash together to give me something workable. I sometimes like to glorify it by calling it “In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU)” but I’m not fooling anyone.
My Ad-Hoc "air cooled" rig (Derelict LCD display keeps it from tipping)

When I decided I was going to deploy an Overo Conduit gateway outside, I was given another option. A company that, given a brief description of my needs, a simple 3D representation of my device components, and a fistfull of cash, sent me exactly what I needed - a beautifully realized, black-on-black silkscreened, folded and welded metal case, complete with standoffs, accurately placed and cleanly cut port holes, and enclosure screws. That company is Protocase.

My Protocase Experience

From website to delivery, working with Protocase has been easy, fun, and rewarding. This is what it was like for me:

Welcome to Protocase:


The Website

The Protocase website is clean and easy to navigate. I immediately found my way to product and service descriptions, browsing through the wide variety of case configurations. I investigated the consolet and machined enclosure tabs, marveled at the selection of finishes, and ogled at the 2-3 day turnaround and lack of a minimum order requirement. Now that I was properly introduced to Protocase, it was time to consider my design options.

Enclosure Design

Protocase Designer

The first and fastest method of designing a case is to submit your own CAD drawing. For most engineering firms, this is probably the best scenario. They review your design and send you a quote. Done.

Second, there’s Protocase Designer. Start from their case templates, place cutouts, standoffs and screw holes based on real parts, visualize it in 3D, and get instant quote from a cross-platform desktop application. I gave this one a spin but quickly realized that, with the gateway module attached, the Overo Conduit was a real challenge to design for this way.

An early model of my case

So I took my project to their design team.  one of their designers would take my hardware specs and ideas and create a CAD model for me at an hourly rate.  

I put together a rudimentary 3D model of my board combined with the RHF0M301 concentrator
module with OpenSCAD and sent them an e-mail describing what I was looking for. In no time at all, I was looking at an early eDrawing of my case. One short email, with a few answers to questions, and a half-day’s wait and I had the final draft in my inbox. I approved the design and it was off to the shop.

Now, with the case designed and off to manufacture, it was time to deal with aesthetics. Lucky for me, I already knew what I wanted: Matte black with glossy black silkscreen. If I hadn’t already decided, it would have been a real challenge, seeing as how there are over 30 powdercoat colors, 7 anodizing options, 3 bare-metal finish options, and chem film coating to choose from. There’s also 30 silkscreen colors, a digital printing option, and custom machined cut-outs for logos and branding.

I emailed a vector graphic to the team and (im)patiently waited for my enclosure.


Yes, I am not a patient person - especially when it comes to getting a new gadget. That’s okay though, because the folks at Protocase were very much so with me. My repeated email requests for status updates were met with swift and enthusiastic responses, letting me know how things were coming along. 

The Takeaway

 So what do I have to say about my designing and ordering experience with Protocase?  Great things!  Here's my gist:
  1. They have a wide variety of materials, methods, and finishes
  2. They have an equally impressive list of finishes, coats, and graphic design options
  3. You can design your case however you choose, including their own desktop application, or you can conscript their competent designers as I did.
  4. The staff are fantastic!


Stay tuned for my next post when I will build, connect and deploy my LoRa gateway out my bedroom window in a rainy Vancouver winter!

No comments:

Post a Comment