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I have worked on many electronic DIY projects like MIDIbox (http://www.ucapps.de/), it always was fun and working but at the end, the problem was that I ended with a cool gear, but in a poor casing, for example : wood very roughly cut (by myself!).

What are the best solutions in 2014 in order to make a custom plastic case, with labelling, some round and square holes ?

Example :

enter image description here

Is 3D-printing adapted for this purpose ? Are there other solutions ?

As the desired quantity = 1 unit, are there some companies that propose such a service ?

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A nice software that can be used to design a panel for your controls is Abacom FrontDesigner. –  Cornelius May 25 at 17:41

4 Answers 4

If you're only making one it's entirely reasonable to just order a plastic project enclosure (all sizes are available) and then drill and cut holes yourself.

The issue it seems you're trying to overcome is a lack of craftsmanship, you can help alleviate that problem by purchasing the correct tools for the job. The other keys are practice and patience. Literally measure twice, cut once.

For instance you can buy some corner punches for cutting out nice square holes. These ones, for about $30, will fit in to a small drill press (just for the press portion), which you can get for about $130. For drilling precision I use a cross-slide vice mounted to my drill press. This improves the linearity of the holes I drill significantly.

So, get yourself some of the right tools and the quality of the project cases you build will be much better. You'll also only pay ~$10 for a case rather than a couple hundred for a one-off.

Labeling can be easily achieved by printing a large stick on label (or paper, like this guy image below) that you can cut holes in using the case you've already made.

You can also order some custom stickers with common symbols/markings. Or simply order the case with labels/markings printed directly on to it.

enter image description here

3D printing is a good option too, but is also a lot of design work for a single case.

Take your time, you'll end up making some very quality enclosures that you can be proud of for years to come.

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Thanks for sharing these ideas, very interesting. But I really wanted to know if a profesionnal look (so no hand-made cutting/drilling, stickers, but rather machining) is possible and available thanks to nowadays technology, even in small quantities ? –  Basj May 25 at 19:24
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@Basj Understood, my point is that professional look and hand-made are not mutually exclusive, this is thanks to nowadays technology. Professionally done small quantities have always been available, you just have to pay a lot for them. The key difference between professionally done and hand-made (or home-machined) is not the quality, it's the reproducibility in large quantity. The only reason a difference exists in your mind is most people half-ass anything they make. –  Samuel May 25 at 19:32
    
Yes I understand your point of view, but no, labels with a printed-sticker is not what I view as a standardized product (sorry I should have said "standard product" i.e. products available in big stores, instead of profesionnal products) –  Basj May 25 at 19:40
    
@Basj Then you're doing it wrong. You can buy custom labels if it's a hang up. I have made printed labels before for panel overlays. If you photo print, laminate, and properly adhere them, they turn out very nice. Nicer than the had-to-make-a-million quality of off-the-shelf items. –  Samuel May 25 at 20:00
    
Samuel pretty much summed it up nicely. It can be done, it's always been possible (I have a stereo preamplifier I designed in 1998 with a custom 1/4" thick aluminum front panel made by a company I don't even remember). These guys: polycase.com have been doing customized versions of their off the shelf enclosures forever. I first bought some from them around 1996 or so and I'm still buying enclosures there. The difference is now I have the equipment to customize them myself in-house. –  lyndon May 25 at 20:14

I have used Front Panel Express for custom aluminum panels and boxes. I think they also do some work with plastics. See http://www.frontpanelexpress.com/ There is also an affiliated German company: http://www.schaeffer-ag.de/en/

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Thanks. Do you have a rough idea of the price for a plastic case like the photo in the photo in my question? 100$, 200$, 400$, 800$ ? –  Basj May 25 at 19:28
    
I'd guess around $200 for an aluminum box. If you can find a suitable plastic box, they can machine and engrave that for you - that may be around $100. Their design program will show you the price as you design the panel. –  Peter Bennett May 25 at 19:34
    
I haven't found traditional "plastic" on FrontPanelExpress, but rather anodized aluminium, or things close to plexiglas. Are you sure ? –  Basj May 25 at 19:35

Protolabs can make machine plastics and metals for reasonable cost. I was able to get good looking aluminum parts for less than 100$. They have an interactive quoting tool online, if you have the CAD files for your design.

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Thanks for sharing this link. Have you already used it ? Do you have an idea of the technique (there are several on this website: injection molding, etc.) that could be used in order to make a plastic case like the picture I have put in my question ? –  Basj May 25 at 19:19
    
I already used it. The only service that make sense in term of price is the machining (first cut). The price depend of the material, the size and the complexity (the number of operations). My pieces were simple and rather small, just 4-5 inches, so for large pieces you may pay more. –  pserra May 25 at 19:38

It's no problem getting a 3D printed part made. There are plenty of service bureaus from crazy expensive to quite cheap. Sometimes even the public library or your local hackerspace. The physical characteristics of the printed material and the quality of the printing vary greatly, and often there's a lot of work done post-printing to make it look more like an injection molded part (smoothing, filling, painting). You pay for some combination of cubic cm of material and cubic cm of work envelope or time on the machine (often mostly the volume of material used). One company with lots of information available online is Quickparts.

Designing the part can be done easily if you're familiar with any 3D parametric modelling software. It's way easier than design for injection molding because you can ignore many of the guidelines that are necessary to get a high end part (it is not going to look that great anyway, and many of the rules are related to filling and heat transfer so they don't apply to 3D printing).

You can modify existing 3D models (add holes, etc.). I use a popular professional program (Solidworks) which would be considered not high end by many compared to Pro Engineer or Catia, but it's still out of the range of most hobbyists and some small businesses. Perhaps something like Sketchup could be used (some version of that is or was free). There are probably others. You'll want to produce a .stl file for printing.

You can also consider laser cutting something like acrylic, which again is pretty easy to arrange, but places significant design limitations on your housing, since it's basically 2D, so a .dxf file can be used to describe the cuts.

Printing markings can be done by screen printing (which tends to be a bit messy) or (onto metal) toner transfer methods used for PCB printing.

Electrical specifications and fire retardancy may not be guaranteed, so care should be taken if those are requirements.

For metal cases, where cost is not too important, Protocase does some nice work, highly professional work including color printing of panels (.AI format files are suitable for the artwork where fonts and colors and precision positioning is important). You could certainly put one of their beautifully cut and printed metal panels into an off-the-shelf plastic housing to get a very professional result at a reasonable price.

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