A Tale of Three Corners: Design Evolution

The use of threaded rods to hold the Luggable PC case together was borne out of necessity: The print volume of the 3D printer is much smaller than the volume of a PC case so it must be printed in pieces then fastened together. A threaded rod provides strength along its length, but how do we best handle the inevitable corners?

The key constraint is the strength of a 3D printed part, especially the adhesion between layers. This is an unavoidable fact of life for FDM-type printers: the part is weakest between layers, so designing for 3D printers must consider the layers similar to how designing for wood must consider the grain.

Version 1: basic asymmetric

In this design (as used in the “Easel PC” iteration) two of the rod axis are aligned with the direction of the layer. Stress along those two axis would mostly be held in check by the strength within each layer, but a fraction of the force would try to push the layers apart. To guard against this, the third axis is orthogonal so its fastening nuts would also try to hold the layers together.

Corner 1 B
Two of the rods are co-planar with the print layer. (Rod pointing left, and rod pointing down.) The nuts fastening the third rod (Rod pointing away) also exerts a clamping force on the layers.
Corner 1 A
Same hinge viewed from a different angle.

The problem with this design is that the corners are asymmetric by nature. Not just in appearance, the loads it can tolerate are also asymmetric.

Version 2: symmetric but space consuming

The goal of a corner that handle loads symmetrically across the plastic layers means finding a way to make sure the plastic grain is equally strong across all three axis. The solution is to print at an orientation that lies at the same angle to all three axis.

The corner laid flat on the print bed for slicing in Cura.
Corner 2 B
Results in a corner that is equally strong across all three axis.

While this design solved the problem of symmetric appearance and strength, it introduced a new problem: by printing this way, the hinge consumes a lot of the enclosed volume making it unusable. When the goal is to pack the computer components inside a minimalist PC case, every cubic centimeter counts!

Corner 2 A
Angle showing the problem with this design – it consumes a lot of space inside the enclosed volume.

This hinge was used in the “Threaded Rod Box V1” and the space it consumed severely hampered the packaging of that layout. It is definitely not the optimal solution so the search continues.

Version 3: Let’s All Huddle Close!

The previous two designs both depended on the plastic to take some part of the load and hold on to a few steel rods. These rods were a few centimeters apart because we needed room for a wrench to tighten the nuts. We needed the nuts to sit inside the corner because…

… um, why do we need them inside? The key for version 3 is the realization that we don’t need that. By offsetting the rods slightly, we can extend the rods past the corner so the fastening nuts are outside of the enclosed volume and not competing for space with the components inside the box.

When the nuts (and the required wrench clearance) are no longer inside the volume, it allows the rods to sit much closer to each other. Now the closest distance between rods are measured in millimeters instead of centimeters. It also means the three sets of fastening nuts help exert a clamping force across all three axis, compressing everything together. This compression means the alignment of the print layers become much less critical allowing significantly more freedom in designing the rest of the case.

This corner design was used successfully in Threaded Rod Box V2 as shown. (In these pictures, some of the threaded rods have yet to be trimmed to length.)

Corner 3 BCorner 3 A

Fusion 360 vs Onshape, Round 2

fusion-360-logo31After using Autodesk Fusion 360 for a few weeks on the Luggable PC project, I’m getting more comfortable with it. Here are some thoughts and updates on a few items I mentioned in the “Round 1” post:

Constraints: Onshape has very good constraint notification and management. I know exactly when dimensions are fully constrained, and when things are over-constrained, I can see where the conflicts are. In the current default configuration for Autodesk Fusion 360, none of that is available.

However, if one goes into the Preferences menu and go to the feature preview section, there’s an option to turn on the work-in-progress support for constraint notification. This feature, while far from parity with Onshape’s excellent design, goes a long way to easing the pain.

A360 Preview

The complaint about over-constrained situation still applies: an error box is still all we get without any further details. But at least we get a color change to notify us when a feature is fully constrained, even if it isn’t completely reliable yet. Sometimes a feature’s color changes even though it hasn’t been fully constrained, and sometimes a color doesn’t change even when fully constrained. I am still occasionally surprised by how features would move unexpectedly later on in the workflow. Still, it is far better than nothing.

Advantage: Still Onshape, but by a much thinner margin.

Share Design PublicSharing: I was unhappy with the complex access control system, making it difficult to just share a design to everybody. But they have since added (or I just noticed) an option on every design in the project navigation tab: “Share Public Link”. It will generate a link to share publicly. This one is actually a step above Onshape, where I can choose whether the sharing link is a snapshot or a live link to the current state. Choose whether the design itself is downloadable.

And best of all, the design is visible without creating an Autodesk account. Unlike Onshape, where people have to have an Onshape account to access public documents.

Advantage: Fusion 360 takes the lead from Onshape because no account creation is required.

Offline: And now, a sour note. Since Fusion 360 is a native application, with an option to “Work Offline”, I had fully expected it to continue functioning when my internet connection failed. Unfortunately this was not the case! It appears that one needs to be online to enable offline work. I guess they need to download some information before the application can function offline. This make sense when the scenario is to prepare in the office before taking a computer on the road. But when the internet connection is unexpectedly severed, such preparation stage is not possible and things grind to a halt.

Advantage: Nobody. Inopportune network outage renders both useless.

Luggable PC Screen Hinge

In the previous post we have established all the desired traits of the ideal screen layout, and how it’s impossible to meet them all simultaneously. The only solution is to design a mechanism allowing us to convert between two different configurations, each designed to provide the traits desirable for its corresponding condition.

  • Closed: the travel configuration.
    • Compact: We want to be able to lug this around without too much worry of catching on things, so the screen should align with the rest of the case (vertical or portrait orientation.)
    • Protected: To protect the screen, it should be facing inward so the glass surface is less vulnerable to damage.
  • Open: the computing configuration
    • Landscape: Unlike phones and tablets, desktop computer applications are not designed for the possibility of vertical/portrait orientation, so the screen needs to be in horizontal/landscape orientation.
    • Ergonomic: Unlike laptop screens that sit at table height, we can turn our extra heft into an advantage as support to hold the screen up to eye height. Ergonomically superior to the tabletop height of laptop screens.

To transition between these two states, we need movement along at least two axis:

  • Flip: The screen needs to move from facing inward (protected) to facing outward (visible)
  • Rotate: The screen needs to move from vertical/portrait orientation to horizontal/landscape orientation.

My ideal was to devise a mechanism that can execute both of these movements in parallel, so the user sees a single continuous movement from one configuration to another. After quite some thought and experimentation without success, I decided to postpone this ideal for later. For now, I’ll implement a hinge that has two separate degrees of freedom so the two desired axis of movement can be accommodated.

The open in-use configuration, with the screen offset to the left instead of centered

Originally the open configuration would have the screen up and centered relative to the rest of the body, and I had a few overly complex mechanical linkages attempting to make this happen. But then I realized it isn’t really necessary: the body has enough heft to hold up the screen even if it is not centered left-right. If we accept that the screen can be offset to the left, the rotation axis becomes a very simple hinge, leaving plenty of room to implement the flip axis.

The closed travel configuration

This “ah-ha!” moment of realization, letting the screen be offset, greatly simplified the design. With the side bonus of reliability as simpler designs tend to be more reliable.


Demonstrating the open-to-closed transition. (Animated GIF by Shulie)

In the back of my mind, I will continue to dream of a continuous single degree-of-freedom unambiguous movement between open and closed. Maybe I’ll have another “Ah-ha!” moment to make it happen. I’m happy with this as the first draft.

Luggable PC Screen Layout: Challenges

The previous two posts discussed the design reasoning behind the positioning for the power supply unit and the motherboard. Now we get to the most interesting problem: Where do we want to position the screen?

The easiest approach is to line the screen up with the existing components, so I tried that first. A 17″ screen is almost the same length and width as the ATX motherboard plus PSU. But that means the screen would be at a vertical (portrait) orientation. While common for phones and tablets, it is not a typical layout for a desktop PC. (Historical trivia: The Alto by XEROX PARC, recognized to be one of the first computers with a graphical user interface, uses a portrait orientation.)

threadrodboxisoThe easiest solution to that problem is to rotate the whole works 90 degrees. I tried it for a while and the upright screen sitting at table height level was ergonomically poor.

Laptops also have their screens at table height (one of my peeves against laptops) but at least their screens can tilt. I wanted to do even better than merely tilting: I aim for the OSHA ergonomic recommendation raising the top of the screen to eye height.

spaceThe wasted volume between the screen and the motherboard was another problem exposed by this prototype. The space looked small in CAD because the CAD model blocked out all the volume allocated by ATX spec. Since the actual motherboard consumed only a fraction of the allocated volume, the real world example had far more wasted space.

screenwingsI had the idea to solve both issues by raising the screen high to eye level, oriented horizontally, and tilt it into the empty volume. I never got as far as building it. Looking at the CAD layout, it is quite clear that the horizontally-oriented screen sticks out on either side of the case. This makes for a shape awkward to transport and also leaves the screen extremely vulnerable to damage. The screen height was good, but everything else was bad.

Plus, there was one more problem not addressed by any of these ideas: The screen glass surface is exposed while in transit. Laptops fold closed to protect the glass while travelling, but all these designs leave the glass exposed.

It became clear that no single static arrangement will have all of the desired qualities. Similar to a laptop, we will need some kind of mechanism to switch between two states.

  • Closed: A compact configuration for easy transport while protecting the screen from damage.
  • Open: An ergonomically desirable screen position.

Next post: The mechanism to address these challenges.

Luggable PC Motherboard Layout

a360mobopsu2The previous post described how I decided to position the PSU (Power Supply Unit). Once the position was decided, the next task is to determine the motherboard position.

The first challenge is my desire to accept a full-sized ATX motherboard. Full-sized boards are the easiest to work on and has the best feature set. They also have highest sales volume, which usually mean less expensive. I knew my project would be easier with a smaller microATX or Mini-ITX motherboard, but I wanted to accept full-size.

However, accepting the full size board doesn’t necessarily mean I intend to use all the expansion slots. In fact, I am happy to block the majority of them, leaving just the primary PCI-Express slot available to the GPU.

selectcardsThe GPU itself is the next challenge. The primary slot is close to the CPU, which means it is going to stick up in the middle of the board, making the whole assembly awkward to fit. Again, I have an escape if I want it: there are PCIe extension ribbons available for purchase that allows more positioning flexibility for the GPU. They range from $89 well-regarded units from Digi-Key to $7 roll-of-the-dice units via mystery retailers on Amazon. I want to make this idea work without use of an extension, and avoid the variable that introduces to the system.

While researching the layout, I learned the primary slot is not in the same position across all motherboards, adding to the challenge. While most boards position them in the slot closest to the CPU (all of the Mini-ITX boards have to by necessity) some of the boards place it in the second position. And since high-powered GPUs are two slots wide, that means I need to allow for three expansion slots worth of space.

selectcomponentsThe GPU in the middle of the board leaves two rectangular volumes on either side: Both volume are candidates for use. One volume sits over the remaining expansion slots, and the other volume sits over the CPU.

The volume over the expansion slots are predictable. ATX spec restricts height of motherboard components in order to maintain clearance for expansion cards. If I’m OK with the absence of cards, that entire volume can be reclaimed.

In contrast, the volume over the CPU is less predictable. While the ATX spec allocated volume to CPU and accessories (most significantly, the CPU cooler) that volume is highly variable. Stock CPU coolers typically take much less volume than allocated, and many fancy CPU coolers exceed the volume.

Given those two choices, it was an easy choice to snug the PSU up against the motherboard in the volume allocated to expansion cards that won’t be there.

The last factor in positioning the motherboard is which direction I wanted the ports to be accessed. Pointing down is inconvenient to access. Pointing up makes ports vulnerable to damage from dropped items. So that leaves pointing left or right. Since the PSU power cable port is already on the right, I decided to face all the ports that way as well so everything the user needs to plug in is facing the same way.

All of the above considerations resulted in the PSU+motherboard layout I used.

Next post: Positioning the screen.