domingo, 19 de abril de 2009

Making a custom PC enclosure with Protocase



PC customization has exploded in recent years, but it's important to remember that computer customization has always been around. It's just that today, it seems to be more for style's sake than it ever has been before.

Before style was much of an issue, in those long-forgotten days of the one-color-fits-all beige PC cases, there were still compelling reasons to customize a PC. For instance, let's say you wanted a PC enclosure to fit in the trunk of your car to host an elaborate MP3 playing system. There wasn't too much out there in terms of enclosures that you could buy "off the rack" to suit your needs. This is just one scenario, of course; there are an infinite number of other reasons people would need a specialized enclosure, and they still apply today.

So where do you turn to, when you need a PC case designed and machined for your specific requirements? You go to a company that specializes in custom manufacturing of PC enclosures. Enter Protocase, a custom PC enclosure designing and manufacturing company with multiple offices in North America.

Review Of Design Process

When I was asked to work with Protocase to design a completely unique PC enclosure, I was immediately intrigued by the idea. Here was an opportunity to truly create something different, to show a little creativity and watch something transform from an idea into the tangible. Once I came up with a unique idea for a THG-themed cylindrical case, I couldn't wait to take it to the next step!

Later, once I began to think about all of the variables that have to be taken into account when designing something that has to function properly, I began to feel a little intimidated by the project. Sure, I've been putting PCs together for over a decade, but what do I really know about the nuances of PC case design? What are the little things that I was bound to forget?

After my first glance at the Protocase website, I really started to sweat. Don't misunderstand me: the Protocase site offers excellent in-depth and informative articles on enclosure design, fasteners and silk screening. There are even links to a free download of Protocase's in-house design tool called Protocase Designer .

For an actual engineer, all of these tools must be wonderful; I can imagine that with the right skill set, a person could mold their brainchild conveniently on their desktop PC at home. But I'm no engineer, so I became even more intimidated. What had I gotten myself into? I have a background with a little CAD program experience, but mostly I'm a 3D visualization guy, not an engineer.

Not knowing even where to start, I decided to abandon my cylindrical THG dream case and go for something a little more realistic. The good people at Protocase provided me with a simple ATX case template, so I contented myself with creating a pattern for cutting the THG logo into the side and front of the case. I made a 3D model of the idea and rendered a prototype image in 3DStudio MAX; I thought, hey, this is no revolution in PC enclosures, but it's not so bad after all.

Our first not-so-lofty try at a custom PC design

Pretty nifty, huh? I thought so, and decided it was time to submit this humble case design to Christa, my contact at Protocase, for manufacturing.

Review Of Design Process, Continued

Christa's response was a bit sobering. She seemed surprised that I'd submitted something so simple and wanted me to reconsider the design, suggesting that the folks at Protocase could perhaps design something a little more exciting for our article if I gave them some input.

The Protocase team was willing to hold my hand through the process, and fill in the blanks that I could not. All I really had to do was submit my idea to them and they'd flesh it out. This is one of the strengths of working with a company like Protocase: if you can do it yourself they're happy to simply manufacture your well thought out plans - but if all you have is a rough idea and no experience making a PC case, they will help you from start to finish.

Excited at the prospect of resurrecting my original cylindrical design, I excitedly sketched it out on a scribbled piece of paper, and faxed it to Protocase.

Attempt number 2, the scrawlings of a madman

Christa thought this idea was pretty cool, and even more importantly, doable. Armed with the new design idea, she went to work to make it happen. It turns out that I had been experiencing anxiety about this project for no real reason, as all I had to do was send them a sketch of my idea and the folks at Protocase were happy to work out the rest.

A couple of days passed, and Christa sent me images showing how the design was coming along. I was impressed at how quickly it took shape, and was given the opportunity to make comments and give input every step of the way.

After a few iterations, when we finally thought we were finished the design process, Christa sent me files that could be viewed with Solidworks' eDrawings software, a freeware 2D and 3D CAD viewer. This is what it looked like.

The second design, translated to CAD by Protocase's staff

Looking good! I gave Christa the official stamp of approval, and go-ahead for the case to begin manufacturing. The Protocase team really came through for me as far as fleshing out the design, but then the question became: how close would the final, actual hardware come to the design?


As you can see, not only was the final result faithful to the design, it was also extremely well made. The fit and finish of the case is excellent, and the powder-coated paint job top-notch and durable. Well done, Protocase!

Side view of the finished case

Front view of the finished case

Check out the detail they achieved with the intricate Tom's Hardware logos and fan cutouts.

The THG logo cutout on the front of the case, making the intake fan a little prettier.

The THG logo cutout on the side of the case, also masking an intake fan.

Results, Continued

In addition to being stylish, the case is also utilitarian. It's quite large and comfortable to work with, sturdy, and everything fits in it just like it should.

The case shown with the side panel removed and an installed motherboard.

The rear view of the case with a PSU installed.

Optical drive mounts on the inside of the case.

Handles on the top of the case (this touch was included by Protocase, by the way!)

The only thing I could possibly complain about here is that Protocase does not supply any electronics at all with the case. While this seems like common sense, it would have been nice if they had included a power button for the front; I'm sure other clients would value that service as well. But that's nit picking, really; what matters is that Protocase delivered an amazing physical realization of a simple sketch. The possibilities are endless, and I have no doubt that the folks at Protocase can deliver on whatever they promise.


To conclude, let's have a look at the financial costs of building a custom case like this one.

The actual manufacturing and painting of the case came to about $1130. In addition, there was about $330 of set-up fees, so the total invoice was about $1460.

Frankly, that sounds about right to me. Keep in mind that the staff spent quite a few hours with me designing and revising the case, and all of that was included in the set-up fee. I'd imagine that if I had been experienced enough to design it from the ground up in the format that they required, the fee would have been less.

As for the manufacturing, Protocase's pricing seems to be the going rate, if not a little low. It's hard to judge because I couldn't find a lot of competitors in this field, but from what I did see, you could spend a lot more than $1130 on manufacturing a completely custom case.

In the final analysis, Protocase provided a really well-built case, completely to my specifications, in a timely fashion, and at a reasonable price. I can say with absolute confidence that if you're considering getting a custom case manufactured, you owe it to yourself to consider Protocase for the job.

Author's Opinion

I wish all companies were as much of a pleasure to work with as Protocase was during the course of this review. Thanks to Sagar and Christa for their patience; it was a really interesting experience, and thanks for making that spiffy THG case for us to enjoy.

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