Analogue, Mixed Signal, LSI


Professional housing and enclosures, the PMP easy way

26 Jan 2000 Analogue, Mixed Signal, LSI

If you thought that technology was at standstill when it comes to boxes and enclosures, then think again, as a new high-tech facility in Pretoria, K-Box is offering a totally new solution to the problem which provides the luxury of using plastic materials without the the expense and hassle of conventional moulding. K-Box is a member of the Perfecta group, which itself offers more conventional enclosure solutions, and has been in the business for some thirty months and has a growing number of clients.

K-Box is one of the partners of Munich-based TTK, the name K-Box being registered by the German company. TTK holds patents on a unique customised enclosure manufacturing process (called planar modular production or PMP) which allows everything from 'one-offs' to series production. K-Box in Pretoria holds a licence from TTK to design and manufacture in Africa, and is one of a growing number of 'partner' companies throughout the world, facilities existing in the UK, US, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and, of course, Germany itself. The modus operandi is that each partner sets up his own independent business infrastructure, while TTK provides the licence, technology and support, and the computer-controlled manufacturing equipment as a 'turnkey' package. Each of the partners has their own defined market into which they can sell, but there are no restrictions on the interchange of new product designs or production capacity. TTK itself has been in business for more than eight years and has itself a 'library' of more than 8000 enclosures.

The K-Box facility in Waltloo, Pretoria, is incomparable to the usual 'metal bashing' operations. The modern factory is clean and quiet, computer-controlled milling, sawing, bevelling and heat-bending machines operating unattended, while a small skilled work team carries out the more labour intensive task of solvent welding. The welding process makes use of grooves cut into the plastic materials and effectively produces a melted joint which is as strong as the original polystyrene or ABS material. While most of the parts and enclosures produced are 100% plastic, Gunter believes that they are the only company in South Africa that can combine metal and plastic together. One novel enclosure has a metal base which clicks tight into the grooves created in the polystyrene enclosure. Of course metal (brass or other material) threaded inserts can also be inserted into the final housings, allowing use of conventional screws for access panels.

One of the major advantages of the technology is that the time from design to a final finished part can be less than 24 hours. This is not another rapid prototyping exercise as the one-off produced is identical in all respects to the final product in full series production. As everything is computer-controlled, changes to the design are as simple as modifying the software program and, for example, holes can be filled, changed in size or moved to a new location. At any stage in production changes can be made and K-Box has found that many clients, who had used them just as an interim measure until they could afford to have a mould made, have decided that the latter is an unnecessary expense and keep coming back for more K-Box products.

While the enclosure itself is constructed from ABS or polystyrene (with metal plates if required), the process also lends itself to the use of transparent materials in acrylics or polycarbonate. Windows for LED or other displays can thus be built in, and in fact a major product line for K-Box is custom enclosures for flat screen computer displays. While not yet implemented at the Pretoria facility, the plastic enclosures can be manufactured complete with a metal shielding grid. While the final parts could be spray painted, the raw material itself comes in a wide variety of modern colours (including a metal impregnated mottled grey) which are permanent, and can be mixed and matched with ease.

The range of products that K-Box has made locally using the patented process is immense and includes card readers (swipe and proximity), tachometer housings, card dispensers, consumer product dispensers, mechanical engineering parts, housings for handheld measuring instruments, display stands and even promotional items such as desk tidiers. With the custom-designed display and advertising tools, companies' stands can be made to look unique as one is not using the off-the-shelf mass-produced moulded product.

Both ABS and polystyrene are very malleable, so although the starting material is in sheet form, all sorts of shapes can be produced using heat and stress bending. The laptop housings made by the German parent look (and feel) just like the original from the large manufacturers, but can be customised to provide space for special-purpose boards which obviate the need for separate enclosures and flying leads.

The agreement with TTK includes full on-going support and K-Box is on line to Munich through an ISDN connection. In the unlikely event that a customer has a design problem which cannot be solved locally, help is only a phone call away, in the form of the highly experienced German designers. As Pretoria's plant is 100% compatible with Munich and its other partners, the manufacturing software program can be directly downloaded. Note that all the local designers and operators have been trained at TTK, and regular visits to the principal ensure that South Africa is kept up to date in both technology and design trends.

One of the key objectives of K-Box is to let the electronic system design people get on with what they know best, while K-Box will design and provide an enclosure which will optimally meet their needs in terms of size and shape, with styling features which match the required application. While in the past the metal enclosures used for small production runs have made many sophisticated electronic systems look like mere prototypes, the PMP process provides an unrivalled professional finish. Gunter stresses that where plastic housings are used, without any changes, in quantities of 10 000 or more, moulding may be more economical, depending again on the complexity of the part. On the other hand PMP leaves you free to update the housing as the product itself develops. In the electronics industry the move from through-the-hole to SMT dramatically shrunk the size of electronic boards, but capital investment in tooling has restricted smaller companies from developing new enclosures that match the reduced volume required. With PMP, the enclosure can be continually adapted to changes in the size or shape of PCB boards or accessories, such as switches, connectors and displays.

In many other cases, boxes for controllers or data recorders as an example, the numbers could be in the hundreds or a few thousand, and using PMP, these can be tailored (shape, colour and volume) to meet the needs of customers, creating a much more professional job, and one worthy of the innovative electronics that have gone into it. Naturally K-Box will also handle the finishing touches to the enclosure, including membrane keypads, screen printing of company logos, model type and switch identification.

In today's world where product life cycles of high-tech products are short, and where competition is forcing electronic development companies to keep cost down, PMP appears to be an optimal solution to the hassle of sourcing custom enclosures, and ensuring that your final product looks as unique as it indubitably is!





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