Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Quick One: Front Panel Express

I'm still looking for a way to DIY small quantities of professional looking front panels for projects, but until recently, no dice. I've written about using decals on metal, but that process is time consuming, hogs your oven ("sorry honey, no dinner tonight, I'm cooking my nerdy front panels"), and takes a fair amount of practice to get good results.

And, even when decaling comes out spot on, compared to the real deal, it's still a bit lacking. They're decals!

I may have found the answer--I finally broke down and got my first panel from Front Panel Express (in Europe, same sorta thing here).

Good news, it came out looking really good I think, and was easy. (No I don't work for or get any sort of promotional consideration from these guys).

Front Panel Express' "Hammer Cocktail" panel
Same thing--metal from PCBWAY and graphics via Adobe Illustrator and Lazertran

The panel you see at the top of this post cost me about $59 USD including shipping, tax etc., compared to about $10 each for bare metal and decals, that's a lot more piasters. It would have come down a bit per panel if I bought more of the same design. You know: "The more you buy, the more you save." Shipping is free for orders over $50 and shipping alone for the panel here was about $12USD.  A lot of shipping dough I think for a single 1oz scrap of metal....but it came in a beautifully packaged, carefully prepped box, no way it was going to get scratched or smooshed on the way to my shop and the whole thing came out, really, perfect.

To use Front Panel Express you have to use their software. No choices--it's their way or the highway. Sadly you can't say send these guys a gerber and they'll make a panel from that (which you can with PCBway--use "alubase" and black silk screening).

I tried this FPE CAD software a few years ago and failed horribly; I couldn't even get a 1u Frac panel sized, much less the drills and whatnot. But this time for whatever reason--maybe more time working with Eagle? I was OK. Turn on the grid, draw the panel, no sweat.

Good news is: FPE has the ability to import graphics from a variety of formats. This is very helpful! For me I prepped the artwork (including little circles for drills) in Illustrator, moved it into Photoshop for some touch up, saved it as a print quality PDF, then laid it over a blank 1U frac panel in Front Panel Express' designer app.  Then, used drills in the FPE designer to punch the holes right over the art. I was nervous that thing wouldn't line up when I got the panel (which would have been $50 odd bucks down the toilet?) but, worked great.

If you want to engrave your panels for a more Moog/Synthesizers.com type look you can do that too (how to here) but for me, graphics is just fine.

So now I'm going through other modules where the front panel came out a bit butt, and I'm finding it super fun to make FPE panels, since you can go hog wild with graphics. For instance, further immortalize Don Buchla's photo on your DIY "source of uncertainty."  Why not? I am going to convert more of my homemade panels to FPE over the next few months, it just looks more professional.

OK that's it for this one. Perhaps the mo-fessional part of me that wished I had Bob Moog's chops will kick in.  Until next time, don't breathe the fumes.

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