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Affordable bespoke enclosures now here

01 December 2017

Bespoke sheet metal enclosures – one-off, batch or more - are no longer an expensive or out-of-the-question option. Why compromise with a standard and inflexible product when you can have precisely what you want? Coupled to getting the specification right, today’s rapid prototyping is the key to affordability, argues ICEE’s Chris Arnold.

Bystronic Xpert 40 press brake (Picture courtesy of Bystronic UK)

In this article we look at bespoke enclosures made from one of the most common materials available today, sheet metal. The use of coated mild steel, aluminium, or stainless steel sheet results in structures that are durable, affordable, easy to fabricate, install and maintain.

Sheet metal enclosures are ubiquitous, from grey shed-like structures by railway tracks and highways to green-painted cabinets on the street, and smaller housings protecting a host of items or systems in the home, office and factory. Extremely flexible in application, sheet metal lends itself to large and small-scale structures, simple and complicated. 

More choice means more issues

Abundance of choice in enclosure suppliers and standard products sometimes creates a problem, namely finding the right option quickly. And another issue may emerge, selecting the right enclosure to meet a particular and demanding requirement, where compromise is simply not acceptable. A standard, off-the-shelf product might tick almost all the boxes, but is just too big and therefore wasteful, or not big enough. Consequently, part of the enclosed assembly may have to be reconfigured or adjusted to fit. Either way, change risks disadvantaging overall performance of the equipment or system. 

In other cases new internet-based service innovations demand similarly distinctive or unique custom-made enclosures, where a standard product rarely exists. For example, look at those banks of cabinets installed in supermarkets or petrol station forecourts so ‘white van’ distributors can leave packages in password-protected lockers, to be collected anytime day or night, at a customer’s convenience. Or highly secure and automated docking systems for the hire of folding bicycles. And new ‘smart highways’ infrastructure systems where it may be vital to house highly integrated control and communication equipment in one cabinet. 

Further, procuring an enclosure may be the tip of the iceberg. What about situations where it also has to be transported and installed, the total asset maintained throughout its lifecycle, and where upgrades to the equipment enclosed have to be made? What about the circular economy and decommissioning parts or the whole network, including enclosures

In these cases, it boils down to specifying not just the enclosure, but looking at the ‘big picture’ or life-cycle. If you can’t find a standard product, then you might be looking for a bespoke but affordable solution from a specialist manufacturer. In short, a more all-embracing and comprehensive support service to get the whole job done right-first-time, reliably and consistently.

A bespoke enclosure containing folding bicycles made by ICEE for the Brompton Bike Hire network

Correct specification is key

The value of a bespoke enclosure is that it should exactly meet all functional requirements, and maybe less tangible features like aesthetics or branding. The result will not be too big or too small. Perhaps being modular it will allow for changes later. Without compromise, it will fully protect or enable the correct functioning of the internal equipment, or the core service it supports, letting those systems perform flawlessly and unhindered. 

This exactness comes from getting the design specification right in every aspect, based on, of course, a thorough and comprehensive requirements analysis. Essentially, an enclosure may seem simple, but will only do its job properly if all relevant factors are addressed. 

For example, what is the function and nature of the equipment being enclosed? Electrical or mechanical controls, scientific instruments, telecommunications signalling and networking, traffic control, and so on? What are the upper and lower condition limits of the internal environment required for safe and reliable operation of the enclosed system? Or does the enclosure simply have to be super-robust to prevent theft or damage to whatever is being protected, which might not require controlled conditions?

Will the enclosure be sited inside or outside (and if the latter, consider extremes of weather). In both cases ideal operating conditions inside an enclosure relate to controlling or allowing for temperature, humidity, vibration, dust, electro-magnetic radiation and other factors. Will air-conditioning be necessary? Will an outside enclosure be located in a flood zone? Does it have to be located a safe height above maximum predicted flood level? 

A risk assessment is another part of the requirements analysis. What other real and relevant risks may occur, such as security against intrusion, vandalism, theft, or severe impact from anything passing by? What kind of material is required to resist corrosion? Extremes have to be considered and not just weather - this is especially important on salt water-lashed sea fronts or in food processing factories, where spray-applied chemical cleaning is carried out.

Vitally important compliance has to be considered including relevant British Standards, or regulations dictated by institutions, or the operating conditions stipulated by an equipment manufacturer. This includes an ingress protection (IP) rating, especially where electrical equipment is involved. A key British Standards IP regulation is BS EN 60529:1992, setting out guidance on protecting electrical enclosures against any form of ingress. 

An enclosure made by ICEE for the utilities industry

IP requirements will differ according to the type of electrical equipment being protected. Generally, this part of the enclosure specification will dictate not only sealing but also hinging for internal access and security locking requirements. Not forgetting ergonomics and health and safety in relation to achieving safe access and speedy servicing by a maintenance contractor. Thorough testing of a prototype is essential, especially where the enclosure is an integral part of the whole system. Further information on all these factors may be found elsewhere, including IP ratings and how to specify electrical enclosures.

Bespoke may not be expensive

Above all, how feasible is it to consider a bespoke enclosure? The popular view is, bespoke is expensive. But thanks to computer-aided design (CAD) plus 3D modelling and testing, with final design data linked directly to computer numerical control (CNC) cutting and bending machines, the timescale and cost of prototyping and subsequent production have been dramatically slashed. 

For example, today’s press brake technology used with advanced fibre laser and waterjet cutting machines, all driven by modern CAD and CNC, is key to rapid prototyping. To save costs and increase productivity still further, press brakes now exist that are relatively small, agile and lean (see picture). This type of machine is often mobile, so it can be moved anywhere within a plant. It can make parts in a local work cell or augment other press brake or lean processes. 

Linked to a CAD system, or operated standalone, its range of functions and flexibility to produce large and small parts makes it ideal for making prototypes rapidly, as well as production quantities. It also encourages experiment. Much can be gained by spending time with an operator of such a user-friendly machine, trying different options, either to reduce costs or simply explore design possibilities.

Companies that manufacture standard and bespoke enclosures based on the approach described here are a valuable source of advice. Use their experience and knowledge to cut corners and get what is required at least cost. In short, before you settle for a standard product that demands a lot of compromise, take a look at how much better a bespoke - and today far more affordable – option may meet your requirements. It may protect better, last longer, be easier to install and maintain, and generally perform more cost-effectively in the long run. 

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