The Challenges of Enclosure Design

Recently a talented designer friend of ours lamented that he has “spent years just designing boxes for things”.

As simple and mundane as that sounds, each enclosure project poses unique challenges for product designers. Teams developing benchtop instruments or electronic appliances of course want something that will set them apart from the competition. They want an enclosure that will somehow communicate to the world just why months or even years of effort were spent developing the tech that is inside the box.

We’ve had more than one product manager tell us: “I don’t just want a shoebox” while showing us their team’s prototype, housed in a generic, off-the-shelf enclosure.

The challenge of creating a visually compelling enclosure that effectively communicates the product’s use category while meeting all technical, budgetary and time constraints usually falls on the shoulders of product designers. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we do not.

In our experience, the major driving factors that influence the final look of any enclosure, beyond the basic technical and size requirements, are of course, target unit cost and project deadlines.

Curvy, glossy product designs tend to be more expensive and time consuming to develop and require more ramp up time when it comes time for mass production.

Rendering of Precision Instrument designed by Zaic Design
Enclosure Design Concept by Zaic Design

Here is an example of an enclosure concept we presented several years ago. While the enclosure design was functionally sound, built to fit over an existing cast aluminum frame and to direct air flow over thermally sensitive components, the curvy bits would have required tooling for RIM molding. While molded cover sections were expected and budgeted for, it turned out that there was just no time in the product development schedule for creating and refining molds!

Within a few days, we presented an alternate design, shown here:

Rendering of 2 precision color measurement device designed by Zaic Design
Enclosure Design Concept 2 by Zaic Design

The new design was optimized for fastest possible time to market, with powder coated sheet metal housings requiring minimal tooling, and a billet CNC machined front panel, requiring no custom tooling at all, that would structurally replace the old cast aluminum frame. If sales volumes permitted, this front panel could be eventually be redesigned as a die-cast part to save costs.

Eventually this second option was chosen by the client because it met the functional, cost and lead time parameters, while still retaining some unique styling features. The client’s engineering team went to work and produced a modified version of this design, which became the Spectravision product shown here.

Credits: Zaic Design, Datacolor AG

Spyder 5 by Datacolor being used on a computer monitor to calibrate monitor color.
Spyder 5 Datacolor

Mechanical Engineering

We joined the Spyder5 project after the original industrial design company dropped the project midway through. The task in front of us was to fit a newly developed optical module into a housing design that had been worked over for months with the industrial design firm and already had buy-in from Datacolor’s key decision makers.

A major obstacle was that the newly developed optical module would not fit into the designed housing without significant adjustments. Injection molds for the optical module were already completed and a tooling change so late in the timeline was out of the question. 

On the other hand, the product management team feared the Spyder5 housing that had been so carefully designed would be compromised if it were changed to accommodate the large optical module. 

No work had been done yet to engineer the housing for manufacture. It only existed as a CNC machined foam shape. A host of small but potentially time-consuming engineering challenges still lay ahead:

A method to create the correct amount of drag on the USB cable to allow it to be adjustable for hanging on center vertically on a wide range of monitor sizes needed to be proposed and refined. The team had several ideas, none were immediately practical considering the time constraints. 

A dust cap was a key feature of the housing concept, but there was as yet no good way to affix the dust cap onto the housing reliably. 

There were various other small questions that commonly appear in enclosure design:

How would the enclosure be fastened together?
If screws would be used, how would they be concealed?
How would strain relief be handled? 

At the time of this project, Zaic Design had only recently been incorporated, and my wife and I were based in south west China, in the Yunnan Province. We took a series of flights to New Jersey and got to work. 

Within four weeks and several rounds of prototypes, all the issues in question had been resolved and we had a solid mechanical design ready for injection molding. 

Precision color calibrator Spyder 5 in an exploded view to show internal design.
Spyder 5 Exploded View by Zaic Design

We returned to our home in China to work on the engineering drawing package. To ensure that the molding process went smoothly, we flew to Shenzhen for a first article inspection. Within a few days we were able to work out all remaining details related to fit and cosmetic quality, so that the design could be released to pre-production assembly on schedule. 

Color Calibrator Spyder 5 renderings from different angles.
Spyder 5 Alternate Concept Rendering by Zaic Design

Spyder 5 had a worldwide release and enjoyed a very successful product life until it was recently replaced by the completely redesigned Spyder X product. 

Credits: Zaic Design, Datacolor AG

Rendering of DC200 by Datacolor, a spectrophotometer. Exploded view rendering by Zaic Design to show internal design.
DC 200 Exploded View

DC200 Enclosure Design and Mechanical Engineering

We were contacted about this project while in the middle of a move from Yunnan, China, to Tokyo, Japan.  This would be the first of several projects that made us realize the need to invest in prototyping machines to minimize downtime. 

We flew to New Jersey for a project kickoff meeting with Datacolor. The task was to design a housing for Datacolor’s DC200, a new benchtop instrument that would replace the popular but aging workhorse, the DC110.

The challenge was to replace the old housing and extruded aluminum frame with a more modern looking injection molded plastic enclosure over a sheet metal frame, while at the same time keeping the COGs at or below that of the older unit. This was especially challenging because overseas labor costs were rising year over year by multiple percentage points.

On the left is a photo of DC110 by Datacolor. On the right is a rendering of DC200 designed by Zaic Design.

We returned to Tokyo and got to work, using local Japanese 3D printing and sheetmetal vendors for prototyping, with my wife Yumi as translator. We found very few tradesmen in Tokyo who could communicate at all in English. We were also frustrated by the fact that any prototyping work in Tokyo would have multiple week lead times, which was far longer than what we were used to, albeit with flawless quality. 

These unexpectedly long delays forced us to spend long hours adjusting prototypes with hand tools the best we could, and a decision was made to purchase our first CNC milling machine and 3D printers to enable same-day prototyping whenever needed. Despite unexpectedly long hardware lead times, we delivered completed prototypes on schedule and got to work creating a full drawing package for manufacture. The DC200 quickly moved to production with minimal surprises and is currently an active Datacolor product. 

Credits: Zaic Design, Datacolor AG