Friday, November 2, 2012

Test Driving Front Panel Express

Front Panel Express manufactures custom panels and enclosures for electronics. We recently test-drove their service by making a sample panel to mount our GLO-216Y and BPI-216L displays using the BEZ-216 self-adhesive faceplate and hardware. The whole process was smooth and even fun, and resulted in the panel shown at the right.

The panel is 2mm anodized aluminum (bronze finish) with custom screw holes and cutouts to precisely fit the displays. It cost $41.98 plus $4.95 for ground shipping. It took 7 days from submission of the file to completion of the job. Here's how it went:

Front Panel Designer Software

 Rather than work from sketches or CAD files, FPE provides free software for designing panels and enclosures. The advantage of this approach becomes clear immediately: The software is designed around FPE's machining capabilities and materials inventory, and the program provides instant price quotes as you work. For example, as I laid out my panel, I found that the incremental cost of the engraving was trivial, but I could save the cost of a tool change if I were to eliminate it altogether. I split the difference, and saved a few cents by turning off "infill" (filling the letters with paint), relying instead on the contrast between the anodized surface and the raw aluminum beneath.

Front Panel Designer Screenshot with Pricing Window.
I laid out the display mounts in two different styles, a recessed/flush mount for the GLO-216Y and a surface mount for the BPI-216L. By flush mounting, I mean that the self-adhesive faceplate of the mounting kit (BEZ-216) would fit into a recess, making its front surface level with the front of the panel. The top-mount version had no recess (called a "Cavity" in the Designer); the faceplate would adhere directly to the aluminum panel (sticking up about 0.025", 0.64mm).

Although the flush mounting looks great, I might forego it in a cost-sensitive application. Machining the cavity cost almost $10. And it entails a slight complication: The outside corners of the cavity are rounded, an artifact of being cut with a router bit. The corners of the BEZ-216 faceplate are square, so an additional step was required to clip the corners.

Installation with BEZ-216 Mounting Kit

The BEZ-216 comes with flathead screws designed for use in countersunk holes. The self-adhesive faceplate that is applied over top conceals the screw heads completely.

BEZ-216 Parts.

Taking this into account, I used the designer software to specify the precise size, angle and depth of countersink. When I received the panel, I was delighted to see that the specs translated into perfect holes.

Countersunk Holes.
Using the BEZ-216 hardware, I mounted the displays to the panel. Spacers ensured the proper relationship between the display, the panel and the faceplate.
Bolting on the GLO-216Y.
Installed Displays.
Finally it was time to install the faceplates. These have a peel-off backing and industrial-strength acrylic adhesive. Although they can be repositioned (if done quickly), it's best to get it right the first time. For the flush mounting, I left the backing in place and held the faceplate against the recess/cavity for a test fit. It looked good, but I was bothered by the strip of raw aluminum visible around the edge. Grabbed a black Sharpie marker and traced the perimeter inside the cavity. Much better. Then I used a nail clipper to trim the corner points off the faceplate, removing just a tiny speck of material from each corner. Peeled and stuck--perfect.

Repeated the process with the second, top-mount display (leaving the corners intact). If it hadn't been for fussing with the camera, the process would have taken five minutes.

Summary and FPD File

This quick test-drive only scratched the surface of FPE's capabilities. In addition to flat panels, they can make complete enclosures from a system of interlocking aluminum extrusions. In addition to their standard stock of aluminum and acrylic materials, they will accept customer-provided materials for machining.


  1. Thank you so much its a wonderful sharing tips.

  2. You can save yourself a few bucks by using the "rectangle within rectangle" shape when you insert a "cavity". This will avoid all the machining of the inner rectangle which will be cut out anyway.