Industrial Electronics

Reimagining PCB design: The advantages of a box-first approach

26 March 2024

Figure 1: Traditional printed circuit board (PCB) design methodologies often leave the enclosure as an afterthought. Source: PixabayFigure 1: Traditional printed circuit board (PCB) design methodologies often leave the enclosure as an afterthought. Source: Pixabay

Electronic product development requires efficient design and processes to keep projects on time and under budget. Traditional printed circuit board (PCB) design methodologies often leave the enclosure as an afterthought, leading to both inefficiencies and design challenges. Solving these issues requires a revolutionary approach: considering the "box-first" in PCB design. By shifting the paradigm to prioritize the enclosure at the very earliest stages of development, designers and engineers can unlock new efficiencies, streamline supply chain management and reduce overall costs.

The shift in methodology

Historically, electronic hardware designers have focused primarily on the functionality and layout of PCBs, with the enclosure often selected or designed only after the board's completion. This traditional approach can lead to multiple design iterations, increased costs and prolonged time-to-market. In contrast, the box-first methodology advocates for incorporating the enclosure into initial design discussions, fundamentally transforming the design process.

By considering the enclosure at the beginning of the design phase, engineers can ensure compatibility between the PCB and its housing from the start. This alignment not only simplifies the design process but also enhances the overall functionality and aesthetics of the final product. Moreover, it can lead to better supply chain management, as the choice of enclosure impacts material availability and lead times.

Hammond Manufacturing, a leader in the enclosure market, exemplifies this approach with their 1591 and 1591XX series enclosures. These products are designed with PCB integration in mind, offering features that cater to the specific needs of electronic hardware designers. Selecting the box first provides designers with an easy constraint for the design while ensuring both supply chain disruptions and enclosure development costs are minimized.

Advantages of box-first in design efficiency

Adopting a box-first approach simplifies design choices significantly. Designers can quickly determine the constraints and opportunities presented by various enclosure options, reducing the number of design iterations required. This approach is particularly beneficial in managing project budgets, as it minimizes the risk of cost overruns associated with late-stage changes to accommodate an enclosure.

When using a custom enclosure, the enclosure must be designed once the PCB design is locked down. The custom enclosure must then be prototyped to ensure it will work as expected before tooling is cut to produce that enclosure. Multiple trials are often needed to ensure the tool is dialed in correctly before production runs of the enclosure occur. Once the tooling is ready, the supply chain has to ensure a sufficient supply of these custom enclosures is produced and held in inventory to prevent a shortage during production. With a custom enclosure, all of these costs are added to a project and, if something happens to the supply of enclosures, there is nowhere else to go for more.

The use of off-the-shelf enclosures, like those in Hammond's lineup, further reduces the need for extensive testing and qualification requirements. By selecting a standard enclosure early in the design process, designers can leverage pre-validated designs, ensuring compliance with industry standards and reducing the time and resources spent on testing.

An additional advantage of using an off-the-shelf enclosure design is knowing that the enclosure’s design validation has already been done. Hammond offers a line of ergonomically designed enclosures that are comfortable in a user’s hand. These additional design features can be quite subjective and can require many iterations to get just right. By using a design that is already known to work well, hardware engineers can focus on the other aspects of the design that they need to get just right.

Figure 2: ABS plastic tablet enclosure. Source Hammond ManufacturingFigure 2: ABS plastic tablet enclosure. Source Hammond Manufacturing

Solving supply chain challenges

Supply chain disruptions are a significant concern for electronic product development. Difficulties in recent years have pushed designers to think differently about fortifying supply chains and reducing overall time to market. The box-first approach offers a strategic advantage in mitigating these challenges. By aligning the design with readily available enclosures, such as Hammond’s 1554 series, designers can avoid delays and ensure timely product delivery.

Hammond’s commitment to supporting the box-first methodology is evident in their extensive $38 million finished goods inventory, which facilitates immediate implementation of designs. Having enclosures easily accessible and in distribution speeds up every stage of development from prototyping to production. This ready availability of enclosures allows designers to be more agile and responsive to market demands.

Technical considerations and best practices

A key aspect of the box-first approach is understanding the technical considerations of enclosure selection. Size, shape and material are critical factors that impact the design and functionality of the final product. Hammond’s 1557 and 1556 series are examples of sleek, modern designs, offering both aesthetic appeal and functional benefits that work well in many different designs.

Best practices in design alignment include utilizing Hammond’s digital catalog and resources. These tools provide valuable information to aid in the selection of the most appropriate enclosure for any given PCB design. One notable feature of Hammond's offerings is the inclusion of max PCB outlines in their enclosure drawings. These outlines provide clear guidelines on the maximum dimensions of the PCB and the placement of mounting posts, eliminating guesswork and simplifying the design process. The availability of these outlines is a testament to Hammond's commitment to supporting efficient, effective PCB design.

Hammond Manufacturing: Enabling better design

Hammond Manufacturing stands at the forefront of enabling a box-first design approach. Their extensive range of enclosure solutions is complemented by a wealth of documentation and resources, making it easy for designers to integrate standard enclosures into their designs. The availability of detailed drawings with max PCB outlines is a significant advantage, streamlining the design process and enhancing the overall efficiency of product development. Hammond Manufacturing makes it easy for engineers and designers to easily access the documentation and drawings they need to further their own designs.

Figure 3: Modern general purpose enclosures. Source: Hammond ManufacturingFigure 3: Modern general purpose enclosures. Source: Hammond Manufacturing

A new paradigm in PCB design

The box-first method simplifies the new product design process, reduces the need for multiple iterations, and aligns product development with efficient supply chain management. By considering the enclosure right from the start, designers are better positioned to create products that are not only cost-effective but also technically robust.

Hammond's commitment to supporting designers is evident in their comprehensive product range. A key aspect of their support is the availability of documentation and enclosure drawings that designers can easily access. Including a max PCB outline in Hammond’s enclosure drawings exemplifies their understanding of designers' needs, helping to streamline the design process and ensuring a clean fit between the PCB and its housing.

In a world where supply chain challenges are increasingly common, adopting a box-first approach can provide a strategic edge. Aligning design decisions with readily available enclosures enhances the resilience and agility of the product development process.

The box-first approach is more than a methodology; it's a call to practical innovation in the field of electronic design. Electronic hardware designers and engineers are invited to consider this approach not just as a theoretical concept but as a viable and beneficial practice. Hammond Manufacturing offers the tools and expertise to make this transition seamless and rewarding. In embracing the box-first approach, designers are not only optimizing their current projects but are also taking a step toward shaping a more efficient and innovative future in electronic product development. Contact the experts at Hammond Manufacturing today to learn more about optimizing your next design project.

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