Smart purchasers prioritise enclosures

Circuitry is the beating heart of your product, but enclosures have a major impact on component layout. Putting enclosures first keeps you one step ahead, says OKW Enclosures’ marketing director, Robert Cox.

Every PCB needs an enclosure; even those left open to the world require some form of mounting solution, which means that at some point, every electronics manufacturer will have to consider enclosure selection. Inevitably, much of the debate will focus on design and technology, but this means it’s all too easy to forget the purchasing challenges that are also involved and how much they can affect the final outcome.

Congratulations then if you’ve prioritised enclosure sourcing at the beginning of your project. Many companies put the PCB first, and it’s an understandable mistake, because circuitry is the beating heart of a product. It’s what makes the technological magic happen.

But as marketing director of Hampshire-based, OKW Enclosures, Robert Cox, explained: “It’s important to think ‘enclosure first’ because it has such a big impact on component layout. That means addressing some
vital purchasing decisions early on.

“Will you be manufacturing the enclosure in-house? This will be an option for big original equipment manufacturers that occupy prominent positions in their chosen markets. But just because you can, should you? Bringing in an enclosures specialist doesn’t just reduce the headaches involved with creating a case from scratch, it opens up a whole new world of thinking.

“A good enclosures partner will offer refreshing ideas and innovation that can solve problems you may not otherwise have discovered until much later in the project.”

Besides, although some engineering companies are happy to fold and machine their own sheet metal cases, moulding a plastic enclosure involves significant upfront tooling costs. Diecasting aluminium is an even larger undertaking and, of course, not everyone has their own foundry on-site.

Customisation is king
Instead, purchasing a standard enclosure customised to precise specifications is the smartest decision for most small to medium OEM electronics companies. To meet this demand, OKW manufactures a range of plastic enclosures for handheld, desktop and wall mounted applications, plus metal cases under its Metcase brand for rack mounted electronics and desktop instrumentation. OKW is also the UK partner of Rolec Enclosures, which manufactures heavy duty industrial electronic enclosures from diecast aluminium, stainless steel, GRP, Luran and ABS.

Both OKW and Rolec offer a range of customising services, meaning that each can provide a complete enclosures solution, from start to finish. This helps satisfy another key purchasing criterion, which is to choose a single-source supplier wherever possible.
In many cases, there’s no point in stringing together a chain of small suppliers, each of whom tackles their part of the project piecemeal. After all, do you really want one supplier to mould the enclosure and another to machine it, while others add various finishes?

In this scenario, each supplier takes time to add their particular chunk of value, before passing your enclosure on down the chain. Time and money can be wasted while enclosures are transported from one sub-contractor to another, while in-house accounts teams will be tasked with trying to sort out all the paperwork.

It’s also possible that one supplier in this chain could mess up. If they damage a batch of half-finished enclosures, you could end up with nothing to show for your efforts but some damaged enclosures and a series of invoices from suppliers at the start of the chain who got their part of the process right.

Single-source supplier
Robert Cox continued: “It’s much easier to use one specialist supplier who can provide all the machining, finishing, special materials, electromagnetic compatibility shielding and so on. That company will then be solely accountable for delivering your customised enclosures perfectly finished.”

For complete confidence in this arrangement, you also need to be sure the supplier you choose can source components such as cable glands and interfaces as well as providing more sophisticated elements such as membrane keypads.

Robert added: “Will your chosen supplier carry out installation and assembly? Can you simply send your PCBs and outsource the entire manufacturing process?”

Complete outsourcing can be advantageous if the product in question is non-core. It can be tempting, from a cost reduction point of view, to offshore production to the Far East or other low-cost manufacturing centres, but this can be a double-edged sword. Using suppliers from emerging economies raises questions about quality, consistency, and the ability to meet delivery deadlines.

As a further concern, there’s also the issue of intellectual property. Your product may end up being copied and your only recourse would be litigation, which is never easy, or cheap, especially when international borders are involved.

Robert concluded: “Venturing to the other side of the world, either for enclosure supply or for full assembly, makes sense only if you’re talking about volumes of at least 1,000 units. And then, only if you use a supplier with a long and exemplary track record. For small and medium sized UK manufacturers, it pays to stick with a trusted supplier closer to home.”

Whichever supplier you choose, you’ll need to ensure the packaging they use is up to scratch, and that they can deliver your enclosures without damage. Each enclosure should be packaged individually and each box should arrive in pristine condition. This ensures you can put your company branding on the packaging boxes and reuse them as containers for shipping out your finished products.