How to Design an Electronics Cabinet for Harsh Environments

Six important questions every system designer should ask when selecting a cabinet to house their electronics equipment.

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And because embedded systems are being put into more remote applications, many embedded designers are faced with mitigating levels and variations of these environmental factors they may not have faced before during a system’s development. Weighing how adversely each aspect will affect an enclosure will help determine which ruggedized elements are most critical.

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Figure 1: Railway is one of the many applications where today’s embedded systems need to operate in rugged remote spaces.

Design considerations from the start

To properly design a cabinet for today’s harsh, applications, it makes sense to take stock of what your needs are, then weigh them against different options available in your cabinet selection. Starting with these six critical considerations will help you define crucial parameters:

  1. Strength-to-weight ratio

    What force will be exerted on this cabinet, and what materials will need to be used in its construction? Are there other external elements to consider in the structure of the rack system?

  2. Modularity

    What level of modularity and flexibility does your application require? Determine the type of equipment it will house, such as 19” rackmount or panel mounting. Consider other accessories like shelves or drawers to accommodate other devices, or whether lighting or security must be included, and what type of front and rear access to the equipment is needed.

  3. Thermal profile

    How will temperature spikes vary across the life of the system, and what are the ways in which your rack system can facilitate thermal management?

  4. Equipment accessibility

    How easy does access to your cabinet need to be in order to make adjustments, reach specific areas or swap out components? A system should be designed knowing where access points need to be.

  5. Quality of construction

    Is your system exposed to temperature fluctuations, and will there be corrosive elements, such as salt spray or contaminants? Will its construction withstand the long-term shock and vibration of the application?

  6. Testing requirements

    What parameters will your system need to withstand? Are there industry regulations you must meet, and how can you ensure your rack system will be properly certified?

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Figure 2: This rugged cabinet for shipborne applications includes shock isolators on the base and back of the unit.

Influencing factors in the evolution of cabinet construction

  • Denser computer systems: Those familiar with SWaP (size, weight and power) know how shrinking component size and increased system density has brought forth new dimensions of where and how electronics can serve a purpose. Placing computers in remote locations, and in finite spaces, has mandated the need for rack systems that make the best use of not just available space, but of the actual construction and features of the rack itself.
  • Cloud computing and IoT: By removing the need to house data onsite, cloud computing has redefined networked systems. No longer bound by physical locations and constraints, data freely moves through the air to find a home and foster collaboration and deeper insights among computing systems across the globe. In addition, edge computing is not only accepted, but expected, putting even tougher requirements on electronics housings to ensure they withstand a multitude of harsh environmental and mechanical impacts.
  • Flexible enclosure and cabinet solutions: From a practical standpoint, replicated, standardized environments are not the same as what you’d typically find in a central office or server room. Being able to construct an enclosure that fits the space and application needs, while ensuring these highly compact systems can reliably transfer large quantities of sensitive data, is now a normal part of the development process.

Lay the groundwork for rugged cabinet design

Identifying application requirements upfront and owning up to the pitfalls that a system may be subjected to as well as knowing how to best meet environmental considerations will go a long way in developing the proper cabinet system.

First and foremost, determine the “what” and “what if” of the development process, instead of being an afterthought. The construction and design of your cabinet platform is just as important as the purpose and function of the electronics it holds.

Learn more methods and considerations in our white paper: What to Consider When Selecting a Cabinet for Harsh Environments

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