Protoplates Front Panels

Front Panel Designer

Front Panel Designer is a simple and free CAD tool by Front Panel Express. Front Panel Designer is a good basic program for students and hobbyists making one, or a few panels. While Front Panel Designer is a good starter program, I'm sure that even Front Panel Express would acknowledge its capabilities are limited to creating simple front panels, and it is not intended as a comprehensive CAD tools. Front Panel Designer was really created to reduce the effort required by Front Panel Express to manufacture panels by guaranteeing that they receive front panel data in a simple and predictable format.

In our experience, designers and engineers who require front panels in the scope of a complete product or prototype design do not require Front Panel Designer since they create their designs with standard CAD tools, either in 2D with programs like AutoCAD, or as we are finding ever more frequently, in 3D with programs like SolidWorks and Alibre.

When we receive a data files, we can recognize designs that originate from a 3D packages. In this type of design, the customer has modeled devices like switches, buttons, connectors, LCD's, indictors etc. and we can recognize that the designer has carefully laid-out their front panel, and knows exactly what the final assembled product will look like.

It is common for our customers to repeat their panel orders, making minor tweaks as they adjust the design after receiving their prototypes, but after helping many customers with a large variety of panels, we recognize that those using the more comprehensive CAD tools generally have fewer problems.

A large number of our customers order their panels either with a custom graphic overlay, or silk-screening, and this is another limitation of the Front Panel Designer software. For graphic overlays, it is important to create the graphic design files in exact conjunction with the mechanical design, and it is important that the mechanical design can be transferred from the CAD design to the graphic design and back again. Our graphic overlay equipment has what is essentially a CNC cutting tool that very accurately cuts the overlay. If for example, a front panel design has a set of d-shell connectors, we will cut the d-shell cut-outs the exact same size in both the aluminum front panel and on graphics overlay front panel design files. When the two meet at final assembly, there is always a perfect match.

What is the design sequence that we use when we create a complete design for our customers? From experience this is our typical front panel design method:

1. Layout the design using a 2D CAD package like AutoCAD from the customer's basic front panel design requirements.

2. Import the front panel design mechanical data into Adobe Illustrator which is a powerful vector based graphic program.

3. Create the front panel graphics in Illustrator, having the mechanical cut-outs and the overall shape of the panel on a separate layer, using the mechanical layer as a guide for locating the graphics elements of the front panel design.

4. Send the front panel design proof to the customer: make any changes based on their comments and suggestions. We often send 3-4 proofs to fine-tune the panel to the customer's exact requirements, and this is included in our basic costs. We take pride in our panels and work to create the best looking front panel designs possible. Each and every front panel design is unique, and our front panel designers work to make each one be accurate and look great.

5. Transfer the mechanical front panel design files into our CAM package. Program our CNC tools to cut the front panel exactly to the design files. The trick in milling, clean, accurate front panel designs is in the holding of the panels as they are being cut. Over many years we have created a number of effective techniques for custom front panels. For standard front panels, like the Hammond series, we have created a number of custom tooling fixture for holding the front panels during milling. These tools insure that the panel cut-outs are located accurately in relation to the outside edge of the panel, something that is important when aligning the graphic overlays over the aluminum in the front panel design.

6. At the same time that the mechanical department is creating the front panels, the graphic design files are transferred to the graphics department. The Illustrator design files are exported in an EPS format which are then imported by the graphics equipment. All colors are checked by the graphics operator who will make any adjustments based on his experience creating overlays. The graphics operator also programs the cutting tool: this is an important step in the manufacturing process.

7. Once the aluminum front panel and the graphic overlay are complete, they are inspected and assembled. In larger production orders we typically test one complete front panel before proceeding with the entire production to insure that everything fits perfectly, and that our customers will be satisfied with the end product.

Front Panel Designer program, is a good program for simple basic designs. We can except customer's .fpd files, and will transfer these front panel designs to the format we can use in our complete panel design process.