A guide to designing electronics enclosures

27th June 2022
Sam Holland

A business’s choice of an enclosure can make or break an electronic product. When designing electronics enclosures, a product team must ensure their section can effectively house product components and withstand the operating conditions that the product will face. You may also need an enclosure that is ergonomic and aesthetically pleasing. Emily Newton discusses the many design facets that should be considered in enclosure manufacturing.

Off-the-shelf enclosures aren’t always a good fit for a new product, meaning you will need to design a custom electronics enclosure in-house. The proper techniques can help businesses smooth out this design process.

What to consider when designing electronics enclosures

No matter the product or its specifications, the designer has to ensure the enclosure is large enough to contain product components, will stand up to likely operating conditions, and can be practically and cost-effectively manufactured. For instance, a device may need to be waterproof, protected against jobsite dust or debris, EMI resistant, or able to transmit wireless signals. Enclosure design and material choice can all help prepare a product for these operating conditions.

Enclosure structure and fit

The ideal enclosure is large enough to secure components – and be ergonomic, in the case of hand-held devices – without wasting space or material. Enclosures that are too large may quickly become too costly to manufacture or too heavy to be practical. Size and unusual product shape can also introduce structural problems that may threaten the lifespan of the enclosure.

In general, the larger the device, the harder it will be for designers to create a cost-effective enclosure with a reasonable weight. Particularly small devices may also prove challenging for enclosure design. Ideally, an industrial designer will be able to spot the potential for design challenges like these early in the design process, allowing them to give advance notice to the product team. The product team can then change the size and shape of the item in response or prepare for a more complex enclosure design process.

Enclosure materials

Common materials for enclosures include stainless steel, aluminium, polycarbonate, and ABS – though many different types of metal and plastic can be useful in the right circumstances. Your material choice will depend on various factors, including likely operating conditions, budget and weight. Designers have a wide variety of plastics to choose from. Many kinds of plastic are cheap, lightweight, less rigid than metal – and readily available. These traits make them a good option for many product enclosures.

Stainless steel is more expensive than plastic, but its hardness and durability make it a good choice for enclosures that need to stand up to harsh operating conditions, falls and shocks. However, metallic enclosures can hinder the transmission of wireless signals, making them less effective for specific applications.

Another popular metal for enclosures is aluminium, a top engineering choice that offers benefits like durability, lightness, and excellent conductivity. Aluminium is also considered 100% recyclable (unlike so many plastics of course), which can make it a good option for product teams wanting to create more sustainable electronics.

Enclosure appearance and visual appeal

In addition to technical requirements, engineers will likely need to consider aesthetic requirements. The product team may want the enclosure to reflect the company brand or be visually consistent with similar products that they offer. A good-looking enclosure can help improve a product’s visual appeal, potentially making it stand out from other products or draw the attention of a larger audience.

Enclosure stickers, laser etching, coloured plastic or metal and protective coatings, can all serve both practical and aesthetic purposes.

The electronics enclosure design process

The process of designing the enclosure can begin as soon as the product team has come together to create a new product. Ideally, the industrial designer in charge of creating the enclosure design should be present from the very beginning of the project. They can provide input into component choices and give their customer or collaborators a sense of what enclosure shapes and styles will be possible.

Early involvement will also ensure that the industrial designer is familiar with the technical requirements of the product enclosure – such as material choice, slots for hardware ports, ventilation, and ergonomic design for handheld devices.

The most time-consuming part of the design process is generally the concept development phase. During this time, the designer will research, create the terms of reference for the project, and then sketch several design proposals for the broader product team.

Prototyping the enclosure

The designer will of course use the best sketch or concept set as the basis for a 3D model of the enclosure. Once the model is ready, the manufacturing of enclosure prototypes can begin. This process can use various techniques: while 3D printing can enable rapid in-house prototyping, many businesses may need to rely on subtractive manufacturing techniques like CNC machining.

Generally, 3D printing is more practical for plastic enclosures, though 3D printing metal objects is possible with the right equipment and software. CNC (computerised numerical control) machining is almost always more expensive than 3D printing at low production volumes – like a production run of one prototype – but machining will make it much easier to create metal enclosure prototypes.

The industrial designer will typically become less involved if the product team is confident in the enclosure design and early prototypes. Prototype testing will allow the product team to ensure the enclosure performs according to design expectations. They’ll generally stress-test the prototype to ensure it’s capable of housing the product’s components, standing up to environmental conditions and functioning appropriately.

Testing may reveal serious design deficits or oversights, which requires a return to the enclosure design process. In this case, the industrial designer will need to return to researching and creating concept sketches until the product team has a concept that looks ready for prototyping.

Best design practices for electronics enclosures

Designing electronics enclosures well can be just as important as the components inside when creating an electronic product. The wrong design can make a product vulnerable to environmental threats, as well as render it aesthetically unappealing or even less functional than it could otherwise be.

Engineers and manufacturers should begin thinking about a product’s enclosure from the beginning of the design process. Ideally, the industrial designer in charge of the enclosure should be involved in the product development process as soon as possible. With early involvement, they and the product team can help to ensure the enclosure design will be practical and effective.

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