Of course the title has two meanings. Today we’re going to look at how to build a physical case for an SBC as well as make a few arguments in support of their use in businesses. I suppose we should start with the physical case, and to do that we should look at the environment you’ll be using the device in. Factors worth considering include:
- Distance from outlets
- Material costs
- Heatsinks and fans
- Pins for project access
- Crush resistance
While this may not seem like a major consideration, it certainly can be if you were going to use the case in environments where electrical discharges can destroy your device. Such environments can include rooms with laundry machines, close proximity to heating systems, and similarly circuit boxes. This would restrict your material use to non metals, and only rubberized platics, vs wood, or perhaps something similar with an anti static device protection.
Distance from outlets
If the device won’t be on your desk, how far from the wall will it be and what situations will it encounter? Should the case be situated in a case that mounts to the wall? Or will it sit between other devices near an outlet, and what considerations will be needed to protect the device under those conditions?
I’ve built two cases from wooden craft sticks, but the reason wasn’t just material cost. Admittedly my options included aluminum, plastic, acrylic, and even chemically welded metals. The determining factor was ultimately weight and durability. My cases didn’t need to be crush proof as I’ll have them on my desk in reasonably close proximity to the monitor. The lower profile uncolored box is being used to house an Asus TinkerBoard, while the taller box is housing a DFRobot LattePanda 64, and a fan underneath. This is why it is stacked for ventilation. Both boxes could be just silly arts and crafts projects in appearance, but remember Google’s first server case was made of Legos. The upside of this design is it could be the template for an aluminum case, or even be spray treated quickly to a brass or copper exterior for less than $15. While that may fix the superficial appearance issue for some, it isn’t an ideal solution if what you need is crush resistance.
Heatsinks and fans
Case design should leave room to incorporate modifications should the need arise, and while many SBC do not require any cooling, most users feel a bit more comfortable with at least some passive cooling measures. It should be noted that Without my fan the temps on the board do rise to around 75 c under moderate load, which is justification enough for a tiny fan. With the fan in use it sees about 10 degree improvement.
Accessing pins for projects
Most case designs either include this by default for makers, or can be easily modified. My cases can be run lidless for pin access, but could b easily cut to allow constant pin access which of course is a bit easier than doing so with acrylic. I’m not suggesting my simplistic design is superior, but it has a few inherent advantages (like the ability to modify with scissors.)
Reinforcing a case may be the smartest design factor to consider, and while there are ways to pad the inside to some small degree (i.e. trim up a mousepad and get some glue) making it crush resistant will ensure some degree of defense against drops, or mishandling other objects in proximity. A solution can include cell phone case materials, or fabricated using caulk and air drying it to similar effect. Reinforcing the inside can be done with long screws, bolts, or anything else that can cross span. Cross spanning might not be exactly what I mean, but inside picture rectangles, with x shapes, all fitted together and you get the general idea.
The Case For SBC’s In Business
Not long ago many businesses tried to make use of “Thin Clint Hardware” often by companies like Hewlett Packard, and the idea was to have partial computers sharing resources. They acted a bit like terminals on mainframes and large scale businesses used them for awhile. Some companies still use them, notably companies with training centers, like Wal-Mart. The original idea fell a bit flat for higher end use cases though, as partial operating systems which could be used for data entry and basic office software didn’t live up to the needs of evolving businesses, and eventually became relegated to menial tasks… like the training area of a Wal-Mart. Many of these companies would have given anything to have the resources of a LattePanda, TinkerBoard, or Raspberry Pi3 on one of those thin clients.
Not because of resources – though that is a factor
In a business that has programmers, engineers, automation technicians, IT specialists, designers, or really anything office related, and SBC is a solution to so many problems of scale it is indescribable. An Engineer can pop a design onto a board and send it downstairs to be previewed in it’s context on it’s own platform. If the programmers see a flaw they can edit the code and send it back up for review. An IT member can pop one into a server rack as an interim while they fix a high volume raid issue, and a secretary can take her office with her on leave in her purse, allowing any temporary replacement a fresh desktop and email schema to avoid confusion. An automation specialist can plug in his board to run an example of what he/she was describing either on a model, or in a production setting. It takes a bit of planning to incorporate this kind or portability, but once in place it’s one of the more versatile tools a company can employ. Resources on SBC’s range from paltry 256 Mb of Ram with questionable mobile processors, up through 8 or more Gb Ram and 9th Generation Intel Chipsets. Inexpensive EMMC SSD drives, SD cards, and connections for SATA and SSD drives are among the options offered by many SBC manufacturers.
Aside from having HDMI monitors everywhere you want to use them, the costs are actually tiny compared to outfitting a whole team with laptops. If you have 20 programmers on a team, and an existing infrastructure of workstations, for very $800 laptop you could buy and implement probably 4-6 SBC’s. More if you already have the android style chargers and hdmi monitors. The only real factors in the price are the accessories, for many tasks will be suited to sbcs, and many will not, at least not yet. Video editing? Not a good plan on an sbc, it is possible to do, but painfully slow. Meanwhile it’s a bit shocking how many tasks don’t require a $5000, or even a $500 laptop, or desktop.
Certainly there will be exceptions, and not all solutions are created equally. If I were the CEO of a multinational business I’d investigate further though, because as we get closer to an era of disposable PC’s, these priceless advances in single board computers are truly awe inspiring. I can currently fit a full networked topology in front of me, and am bearing witness to how much that smaller scale can do. It’s a step towards a future that isn’t about any one vision, but every idea.