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Solving the great design dilemma: ‘Distinctive’ v ‘Discrete’

Thu, 04/26/2012 - 2:17pm
Robert Cox, VP of Marketing, OKW Enclosures, Inc., www.okwenclosures.com

Creating standard electronics enclosures is a challenging process – they have to last 20 years so every design must be a ‘classic’.

Each must stand the test of time in a rapidly evolving sector that can render lesser products obsolete in six months.

Absolutely critical to success is achieving the fine balance between ‘distinctive’ and ‘discrete’ design.

There is one great dilemma – more than any other – that truly tests the designers of any standard electronics enclosure: how strong should it be?

We’re not talking physical strength. If only it were that easy. Resilience is simple to define and quantify using time-honored engineering metrics.

No, the design ‘strength’ at the heart of this dilemma is the enclosure’s distinctiveness; its identity, its individuality, how easily it can be recognized and differentiated from other cases.

No problem! What’s the big deal? Surely, the more distinctive the enclosure, the better – the more it draws attention to the electronics inside.

That’s all well and good if the enclosure is manufactured by one company for one particular product.

But what if it’s a standard enclosure that needs to appeal to lots of different designers and manufacturers all over the world? What if it must house different types of equipment? Scores or hundreds of different products?

Manufacturers of electronics products demand standard enclosures that look great in a classy and understated way.

They don’t want enclosures that are so distinctive they overshadow the products inside – or worse, look exactly like enclosures used to house rival products.

It’s like framing a picture. The frame must enhance the picture, not detract from it.

This is a huge challenge, a massive dilemma for designers of standard enclosures as they juggle the contradictory demands of ‘distinctive’ versus ‘discrete’.   

Designing a standard enclosure can take up to two years from initial concepts to product launch. There are three stages.

Stage one is two to three months of concept modelling – the most creative part for the designers. This is the stage that gives them the most free rein with their designs.

Using 3D modelling, the designers will typically create three or more different design concepts, ranging from the quietly conservative to something a little more way out.

In the past, these models used to be constucted from CNC sculpted foam. Today, computer-controlled modelling machines build them from layer upon layer of plastic. Think of them as 3D printers.

This stage is effectively pre-prototyping. There is much agonizing over the various merits of each of the three or four concepts.

Stage two – again two to three months – involves taking the best elements of each concept model and how well it conforms to the original brief.

It is at this point that the designers will test the concepts thoroughly to ensure they satisfy the vital criteria:
• Design identity – will the concept enclosures pass the ‘discretion’ test or are they too distinctive?
• Longevity of design – the designs must not date; they must work well and look good for 20 years
• Useability, versatility and ergonomics – does each concept meet the brief?

The designers will typically reduce the three or more concepts to two designs that combine all the best elements.

Stage three – usually around four months – is the most pragmatic part of the process.

The designers give the enclosures a long and highly detailed reality check to ensure they will be right for the electronics they will be housing:

• Are the enclosures perfect for the various sizes of PCBs and displays?
• Have any new feature requirements emerged that will need to be accommodated?
• How many different sizes will be needed? Which will be launched on day one? Which will be introduced later?
• What customization options are most likely to be needed? Can any be incorporated as standard to help reduce costs still further for the design engineers?
• Materials – will special materials be needed, such as PMMA for infra-red remote control, or anti-microbial for medical applications?
• Protection Ratings – which gaskets will be needed to ensure the best possible waterproofing?
• Colors – which standard colors will best suit all the possible applications?
• Security – are there any special requirements, such as Torx screws to make the enclosures tamper-proof?

Stage four – the final part of the process and the longest at six to eight months – is the mold tool development. By this point virtually all the design work should be complete but a little fine tuning is not unknown.

During these four stages, the balance between ‘discrete’ and ‘distinctive’ design generally remains steady.

But every so often, enclosure vendors will tear up the rulebook when it comes to the ‘distinctive’ v ‘discrete’ design debate. For example, BLOB enclosures from OKW are instantly recognizable – and therefore a seriously bold move by the designers. These standard enclosures are so intuitively ergonomic that users automatically learn the controls by feel. They don’t need instructions. It is ‘teach by touch’. What makes BLOB possible is the fact that PCBs no longer have to be rectangular. They can be any shape you like.

It’s a classic example of what happens at stage one of the design process when the designers throw off all the industry’s preconceptions and ask the most exciting question of all: “What if…?”

BLOB’s funkiness is immediately apparent, but there are other enclosures which demonstrate the power of detailed design with more subtlety. A recently introduced enclosure aimed at the medical and industrial portable electronics sector features an integrated handle. It can cope with heavier payloads than enclosures that have their handles added retrospectively. It has no weak point.

CARRYTEC’s integrated handle is a good example of modern design that is minimalist, functional and unlikely to look dated in 20 years’ time.

It also proves that sometimes ‘distinctive’ and ‘discrete’ are not always contradictory concepts – sometimes a standard enclosure can be both.

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