Your new industrial electronic product has been designed and the board components specified. It has been prototyped, either on a development board to check functionality and performance or laid out on a final PCB design. It has been debugged, tested, tweaked, tested again, and finally signed off for production. So far, so good. Now all that has to be done is to decide on the enclosure. In the ideal world, the enclosure would have been selected far earlier in the process so that, in particular, the size constraints of the PCB would be known. In the real world, the first question is normally, “What size box do I need?”

1455 Series aluminum enclosures offer flexibility and ease of assembly.

Listed below are the criteria that need to be considered when specifying the enclosure. These relate to standard or modified standard enclosures, which are normally the best choice for low- or medium-volume applications. For consumer-facing products where volumes are expected to be far higher, a fully custom enclosure is normally the best approach.

1. Size

Size-related questions are the most fundamental. How big is the PCB? Is it to be mounted horizontally or vertically? Many plastic enclosures have slots molded into the sides of the enclosure for direct vertical mounting and PCB mounting bosses molded into the top and base for horizontal mounting. Extruded aluminium enclosures will typically have full-length slots in the sides for horizontal PCB mounting. How much space, if any, does there need to be on the external surfaces for any indicators, switches, connectors, cable entries, and similar components that are required? What height is required for board-mounted components or multiple horizontal boards?

2. Installed Environment

Where will the product be used — inside, outside, or possibly both? For outside installation, UV stability is a potential issue for plastic enclosures. For mobile applications such as road and rail, is shock and vibration likely to be a concern? Will the ingress of dust and water need to be considered (see #4)? Are there likely to be contaminants present such as oils or chemicals? Is resistance to impact damage a possible problem? If so, metal enclosures typically offer better resistance than plastic. Are particularly high or low temperatures expected?

3. Material

Environmental sensor enclosures designed for IoT.

For small enclosures, material choice is typically among plastic, aluminum, and GRP. The most widely used plastic materials are ABS and polycarbonate. Fire resistance is a consideration; the relevant standard is UL94, which specifies a vertical or horizontal burn. The more stringent test is the vertical burn test. Material will be classified as V0, V1, or V2 where V0 is the highest performance. Polycarbonate or GRP would normally be specified for outdoor use because of better resistance to UV embrittlement and color fading than ABS.

Factory-modified enclosures provide a turnkey solution.

Aluminum enclosures are either die-cast or extruded. Both are robust, provide good impact resistance, and are intrinsically electrically conductive, although painted or anodized finishes must not cover mating areas to preserve continuity throughout the enclosure. Some designs of extruded enclosures offer features such as multiple fins to significantly increase the surface area to improve heat dissipation. Die-cast aluminum housings are strong and robust; they do not corrode, are electrically conductive, have an intrinsically high level of electromagnetic attenuation, and are easily machined. With a suitable gasket fitted between the lid and the base, environmental sealing to IP68 can be easily achieved. Such enclosures can be cast with relatively thin walls, although they will always be far heavier than the equivalent sized plastic molded one. For applications where protection against shock damage is important, where EMC is likely to be an issue, or where high temperatures, dust, or water are expected to be present, the die-cast enclosure is the ideal low-cost choice.

4. Environmental Sealing

Sealing typically relies on a tongue-and-groove construction between the mating halves; for higher levels of sealing, a compressible gasket will also be used at the interface. The relevant international standard is IEC 60529. Typically, enclosures rated at IP54 are suitable for general-purpose use; for installation in environments where dust and water are likely to be present, IP66, 67, or 68 would normally be specified. The highest rating is IP69K, which gives protection against steam cleaning at high pressure. In North America, enclosures’ environmental sealing is normally defined as a NEMA (National Electrical Manufacturers Association) number. NEMA ratings also require additional product features and tests (such as functionality under icing conditions, enclosures for hazardous areas, knock-outs for cable connections, and others) not addressed by IP ratings.

5. Appearance/Styling

Handheld enclosures with soft sides and battery compartments.

This is the most subjective of criteria. Plastic enclosures offer a choice of opaque and translucent materials in a variety of colors and can be molded in a transparent material. Styled lids with recesses for membrane keypads and displays are available. Die-cast aluminum enclosures can be painted in a variety of different finishes and colors. Extruded enclosures can have a clear or colored anodizing finish.

Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the September, 2019 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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