Completed STX160.0 - The most powerful ATX unit, in the world!

Aibohphobia

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It all went wrong in the industrial age when they wouldn't adopt the Metric system I'd guess.
Yes, having to convert back and forth between Metric and United States Customary System is a pain, which is what we use BTW, not Imperial. And they're actually defined in Metric units and have been since 1893 XD

That's the Americans take on the English language :)
I was double-checking out of curiosity and actually the British came up with aluminum first: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aluminium#Etymology

I'm pretty sure they're also responsible for the gauge system. America's problem is using those terms/systems waaaaaaay past the point of reason :p
 
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K888D

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Oh right, I've always spelt it Aluminium and I work in a British engineering office but of an American owned company!

Although I am regularly called up on using the wrong versions of words, I've never quite grasped which versions are correct, words such as injection mold/mould, color/colour and lots of other words with 'z' instead of 's'!
 

Aibohphobia

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The former is easy, Americans are lazy and writing one more letter is too much work so we drop the extra "u" from many words :p

I'm not sure what's up with the z vs s thing.
 

jtd871

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The former is easy, Americans are lazy and writing one more letter is too much work so we drop the extra "u" from many words :p
I'm not sure what's up with the z vs s thing.
IIRC, the variant spellings (curb/kerb is another interesting pair) are a result of deliberate choices made by the first "American" dictionary (Webster?) around the time of or just after the American Revolution. Since then, we have been two zones (USA and the "Commonwealth" nations) separated by a common language.
 

BirdofPrey

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Pretty much that. Both spellings of most words have more or less been valid, but Webster was a supporter of language reforms to remove stuff like the superfluous u's inherited from French
 

Aibohphobia

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After a bit of a detour where I talked about sheet thickness/bend radius and then parts allowance, now it's time for:

Designing the case Part 4: Vent cutouts and frickin' laser beams!

While there are SFF cases with no vents at all, they're typically low-power ruggedized machines intended for commercial and industrial applications. Pretty much any computer case intended for decently-specced hardware is going to require vent holes in some form or fashion for air to move through the chassis and cool the hardware (unless it's an open frame design like Inwin's D-Frame).

So what does something as mundane as vent holes have to do with something as cool as lasers you ask? Well, to understand that I'll need to go over the different ways of cutting those vents out of the sheet :)

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Cutting sheet metal

SheetMetal.Me has a good overview of the different options from tin snips to CNC laser cutting machines but we'll just focus on the industrial methods since they're what would be used for a small-medium production run.

Plasma Cutting


Image source

This process works by using electricity to heat a stream of compressed gas until it turns into plasma which is then blown through a nozzle towards the metal sheet. The sheet is grounded back to the plasma cutter's power supply so it makes an electrical arc. The heat from this melts the metal in the path of the stream, which is then blown away creating a cut.

Not as fast or precise for cutting thin sheet metal so it's not typically used by precision sheet metal shops.


Water jet cutting


Image source

Did you know it's possible to cut metal, glass, granite with water? It's true! Water jet cutting works by pumping a mix of water and abrasives under very high pressure through a small nozzle, creating a highly erosive stream that can cut through most materials.

It's precise, creates clean cuts, and doesn't generate heat that could warp thin sheet metal, what's not to love? The downside is that water jet cutters have high operating costs (the nozzles are synthetic diamond/sapphire/ruby!) and cut slowly so they're typically only used when the other methods aren't otherwise suitable.


Punch Press


Image source

Punches shapes out of the sheet, like a paper hole punch on steroids. It's a great method for when lots of holes of the same shape are required (like vent patterns). Also called Numerical Control Turret (NCT) or turret press punch, where the "turret" part of the name comes from the rotating cylindrical Automatic Tool Changer (ATC) used to hold extra punch tooling that can be swapped automatically as needed to punch different shapes/features. Visible in the above picture with the numbered labels denoting the different tool stations.

The shape of the hole is limited by the available tooling though. Also, a punch press can't be used on it's own, it has to be used in combination with one of the other cutting methods to cut out the other profiles of the part. This can be done either by transferring the part from one machine to the other or by using combination laser/punch machines that combine both systems into one machine so both cutting and punching can be done in one step.

Since it cuts the holes via mechanical shearing there isn't much heat generated unlike lasers/plasma, but since there is a lot of mechanical force applied to the sheet warping can still occur with dense vent patterns in thin sheets. NCASE has run into this issue with the M1 since the top and side panels have no bends to stiffen the sheet and there are a large number of holes that have to be punched.


Other methods

These methods are not typically used for sheet metal enclosure production so I'll just briefly mention them so I can spend some extra time talking about the frickin' laser beams: CNC milling, photochemical etching, stamping (only used at high production volumes), and CNC routers (like a really big Dremel).


Laser cutting


Image source

Lasers! How do they work? This is what Wikipedia says: "A laser is a device that emits light through a process of optical amplification based on the stimulated emission of electromagnetic radiation." I'm no physicist so I'll invoke Clarke's third law and say "magic" and focus on the applications instead, of which there are many: messing with cats, livening up concerts, mounting to the head of sharks mutated sea bass, what else... oh yeah, precisely cutting sheet metal :p

Laser cutters are precise, versatile, and fast* so they're the workhorse of many sheet metal shops. It's very likely the parts of your sheet metal SFF case will be cut partially, or entirely, with a laser.

*There's a caveat to that speed. Lasers cut fast once they've started the cut but the initial pierce through the sheet takes a bit of time.

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Vents vs Lasers

And the sheet piercing limitation is how vent cutouts and lasers are related! A vent pattern consisting of many small holes like the NCASE M1 pictured in the previous update would be impractical to cut with a laser since the laser would have to stop and pierce the sheet, make just the small cut needed for the vent, then reposition, and stop and pierce again. In comparison, a vent pattern like the NFC Systems S4 Mini with fewer but larger holes is more suitable for cutting with a laser.

So being aware of what equipment your manufacturer has is important when considering the vent pattern for the case. I would only recommend using vent patterns consisting of large numbers of small holes if they have a CNC press punch. Water jet cutting is just too expensive to use for more than prototypes or very small runs unless it's just required by the material choice or warpage concerns.

Heat warpage is another issue with laser and plasma cutting since they work by heating up the metal until it melts. The cut itself is very narrow but the heat still transfers to the surrounding sheet (the Heat-Affected Zone) and depending on the material type/thickness, number of cuts, and the geometry of the part this can cause the sheet to warp slightly distorting the part. This would be another reason to avoid cutting out dense vent patterns with a laser.


Image source

There is much more to laser cutting (assist gas, CO2 vs fiber, fixed vs flying head, beam focus, power, etc.) so for brevity I'll just go over one more consideration.

Which do you think is easier to cut with a laser: steel or aluminum? Aluminum seems correct, it's softer right? But counterintuitively aluminum is actually more difficult for lasers to cut through than steel! The reason for this is that molten aluminum is highly reflective and reflects much of the laser power which reduces efficiency, so this is why I mentioned in the post on sheet thickness that most manufacturers can't effectively laser cut more than 3-4mm aluminum.

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Other vent considerations

Aesthetics

Depending on the design goals and intended audience, how the vents looks may or may not matter. If it does matter then the best recommendation I have is experimentation.

What kind of pattern looks best will heavily depend on the design: placement (where on the case the vent is located), surface area (how much of the panel/frame the vent takes up), airflow needed (ratio of open vent vs sheet material), other elements of the design (angles, themes, etc.), material, and so forth.



Experimenting with different designs in the CAD program just costs time so I'd try several different patterns in the model and get feedback. Here @K888D is experimenting with 3 different vent patterns on the different sides of his LZ7 case (a great example of a non-sheet metal case BTW). But sometimes it's hard to tell if the pattern will look good without just seeing it in person so that's what prototypes are for.


Airflow

Very related to aesthetics is how obstructive the vent pattern is to airflow. A vent pattern with a bigger ratio of vent hole to surrounding material should allow for better airflow. Taken to the extreme though a single hole taking up the entire side of the case would provide great airflow but wouldn't exactly look nice (IMO but I think most people would agree :p) but on the other hand a single 2mm slot at the front edge of the side panel would be very unobtrusive but cooling will suffer.

FWIW, Intel recommends a Free Area Ratio (total vent open area / vent area) of at least 53% in their Thermally Advantaged Small Chassis (TASC) Design Guide. Here's their example vent pattern:



So doing the FAR calculation: (537 vent holes x π•2mm•2) / (130mm x 100mm) = 52%

Not sure why their example doesn't meet their recommendation but I did the calculation twice and came up with 52% *shrugs*

Also, I wouldn't necessarily recommend implementing this exact vent pattern here. As I've mentioned, this isn't suited to laser cutting, but even for a punch press extending this pattern to a large area would result in a lot of time spent punching holes.

This may require experimentation either with production prototypes or physical mockups to figure out the best compromise between aesthetics, cooling, manufacturability, and the other considerations I'll go over.

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I have a few more points to go over but I want to show what I came up with for STX160.0 now to illustrate the next consideration:

So picking up from Part 2, the next thing I did after roughing out the enclosure halves was start figuring out the vent pattern I wanted. Normally this is something I would do later on in the process but in this case the vents are an important aesthetic consideration since I want the end result to plausibly pass as an ATX PSU at first glance.

I had a few design goals in mind for the top vent in particular:
  • Good airflow (it's the video card's only intake)
  • Visually interesting
  • Instant recognizable as a PSU vent (to help sell the deception)
  • Manufacturable with laser cutting
After looking at lots of pictures of power supplies for inspiration, I ended up going with offset concentric circles reminiscent of higher-end EVGA units with the addition of 4 holes in the center fan hub section like FSP units. Overall I think it strikes a good balance between the different design goals, hopefully it looks nice in person too :)

For the other vents I went with a simple obround pattern. While a tight hex pattern is more common these days for better airflow I wanted something suitable for laser cutting and the simple slot pattern is also used on cheap/old PSUs (in keeping with the theme) so win/win.


Structural integrity

After all my talk about how lasers aren't good at cutting lots of small holes, you're probably thinking that a single row of taller cutouts for the side vents or half circle instead of quarter circle cutouts on top would be better because it'd have fewer cuts and less airflow obstruction right?

True, but it would also leave a long and thin unsupported strip of metal between the cutouts. Since this is only 1.29mm aluminum those thin strips would have quite a bit of flex to them as @FCase unfortunately found with the rear vents on his/her Chameleon prototype :(

So aside from how they'll be cut, another big consideration with vent patterns is maintaining structural integrity of the sheet. This means avoiding long, unsupported strips of metal and making sure there's enough material between vent holes to prevent excessive flex. How much material to leave is going to depend on the material type and thickness, you could get away with much narrower vent spacing with thick steel than thin aluminum for example.

What I do when designing vents is imagining pressing my finger against the middle of the vent pattern and trying to visualize how much it would flex. Some deflection is inevitable with the thicknesses of metal typically used for SFF cases, so it's a matter of limiting it to an acceptable amount, not eliminating it entirely.

A Finite Element Analysis (FEA) simulation could help but if you have the software and know-how to do that then you probably aren't in need of this build log for guidance :p


Safety

This is pretty straightforward, are the vent holes big enough that children could stick their fingers through it and get hurt by a fan?

Another test some people use is: could someone accidentally drop a coin into the case? I think this may be going too far though because where does it end? What if someone drops a handful of metal BB's? So up to you.


EMI

Things like power supplies and video cards emit Electro Magnetic Interference (EMI). Complying with the regulations for this isn't normally an issue for small-run indie SFF cases but it's something to keep in mind.

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I think that covers everything, but let me know if I missed some aspect of vent design!

Next post I'll go over standoffs for screwing motherboard to and other pressed-in hardware, but before I end this update let me just leave this here:


Table of Contents

Next Update
 
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Aibohphobia

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IIRC, the variant spellings (curb/kerb is another interesting pair) are a result of deliberate choices made by the first "American" dictionary (Webster?)[...]
Kerb? Kerb? What kind of nonsense spelling is that :p

This thread is amazing. Thank you for the education, Aibohphobia.
You're welcome! I've been wanting to do a formal writeup on how to design a case but I'm too lazy to just do that by itself.

So I figured an informal, rambling, disorganized guide while I worked this crazy idea out my head was better than nothing :)
 

jtd871

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I believe that I encountered my first 'kerb' in Mordor during Sam and Frodo's trip between Shelob's lair and the forge of the rings. May have just been the edition that I was reading. Although Canucks use many UK English spellings (I have since naturalized as a US citizen), that was a new one for me.
 

Aibohphobia

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Although Canucks use many UK English spellings (I have since naturalized as a US citizen), that was a new one for me.
Spelling on both sides of the pond is in need of reform. Though with the advent of autocorrect and spellcheck I don't know if we'll ever see it since you can just let the computer fix our mistakes.

Waiting for these to become mainstream so that we can cut vents with ease. Valve, please release.
Just have to be careful about them making vent holes in the walls, your pets, yourself, etc :p
 

EdZ

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On the "wait, why is there a bare PSU on your desk" theme: rather than exposing the IO ports on the side of the case, extension leads could be used to route them out of the case to 'dangling' ports, giving the impression of the normal bundle of power leads exiting a PSU (possibly assisted with some sleeving to hide that the cables are all of various different diameters). Downside would be the volume taken up by the internal cable routing, and possible clearance issues with ports near the case wall.
 
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BirdofPrey

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My PC never agrees with me on how to spell grey or theatre.

On the "wait, why is there a bare PSU on your desk" theme: rather than exposing the IO ports on the side of the case, extension leads could be used to route them out of the case to 'dangling' ports, giving the impression of the normal bundle of power leads exiting a PSU (possibly assisted with some sleeving to hide that the cables are all of various different diameters). Downside would be the volume taken up by the internal cable routing, and possible clearance issues with ports near the case wall.
That could be interesting, though I still think for maximum amusement this should just be straight up mounted INSIDE another computer (even if just temporarily for a photoshoot)
 
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Phuncz

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I would love to see this with everything being wireless, except power, placing the PSU on a table, inserting the PSU cable, flipping the switch and your screen turns on with booted OS :D
 

Aibohphobia

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On the "wait, why is there a bare PSU on your desk" theme: rather than exposing the IO ports on the side of the case, extension leads could be used to route them out of the case to 'dangling' ports
I wanted to do that but there just wasn't room. I'd have to make the housing deeper but I wanted to stay under the 3.0L mark which I'm just at with 230mm.

though I still think for maximum amusement this should just be straight up mounted INSIDE another computer
Hehe, you'll love what I have planned then ;)

I would love to see this with everything being wireless
It's been a while so I'l have to look into the current state of wireless displays. That'd be the main holdup.
 

Aibohphobia

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Not as exciting as last update where I talked about plasma, lasers, and water that can cut steel, but this is useful info if you want to reliably attach the pieces of your case together:

Designing the case part 5: Self-clinching nuts and standoffs

Self-clinching nuts, sounds dirty right? But actually they're a SFF case designer's best friend when it comes to strong, long-lasting threads in thin sheet metal!


Image source

So why are they a big deal? To understand that I'll have to go over the other two methods feasible for small production runs of putting threads in thin sheet metal.

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Threading sheet metal



On the left is direct tapping and on the right is a extruded thread.

Direct tapping

I may not be using the right terminology but this is where the manufacturer runs a tap through a hole in the sheet and calls it a day. Simple and easy but doesn't allow for much thread engagement, especially in thinner materials with larger screws. I wouldn't generally recommend this method except with thicker gauges of steel.


Extruded thread

This is where a hole in the sheet is extruded with a punch to form a short cylinder sticking out from the sheet that is then tapped. This allows for more thread engagement than just tapping the sheet itself. The downside of this is it relies on the manufacturer having the right equipment and tooling to do. But if they do have the capability, this can be an efficient and cost-effective method of forming threads.


Threading aluminum

One problem with both those methods though is the threads are formed from the sheet itself, so they're obviously composed of the same material. This can be an issue if that material is aluminum.

Aluminum is softer than steel so it is not very difficult to accidentally cross-thread a steel screw into aluminum threads. Especially with a #6-32 screw in a M3 x 0.5 (I'll go over thread types in later post) threaded hole. For parts that won't be installed/removed very often this may not be a problem, but if something like the side panels are held on with screws, I would recommend against having those thread into aluminum since they'll be used much more often.

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Self-clinching hardware

So the solution to providing strong, reliable, and precise threads in even thin aluminum* sheet is self-clinching hardware. Commonly referred to as PEMSERTs or PEM Fasteners after Penn Engineering's ubiquitous brand of self-clinching fasteners (even if they're not actually manufactured by Penn Engineering).

*There is a caveat with using them in aluminum though, more on this later.

Here's a video showing how they are installed into the sheet, which hopefully also demonstrates how they work:


So the PEMSERT (in this case a threaded blind standoff) is loosely placed into a pre-cut hole in the sheet (both of which are sitting on top the anvil), then the PEMSERT is pressed down on by a punch, forcing it into the metal. This force causes the metal to flow into the groove in the fastener, locking it in place.

Notice how the back of the standoff that ends up flush with the sheet is hexagonal? The reason for that is to prevent the standoff from being able to rotate. The teeth visible in the picture of the threaded nut at the beginning of this post serves the same purpose.

With a wide variety of fastener types (nuts, studs, standoffs, etc.), threads, sizes, and materials, there should should be something for almost everyone in the huge PEMNET catalog.

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PEMSERT, I choose you!

While having lots of options to pick from is useful, it can also be overwhelming trying to figure out which one to use for a given application. So let me demonstrate how I went about picking the motherboard standoffs for STX160.0 to show my process of selecting the PEM part I need.

So my first step is navigating over to PEM Fastener products page on the website: http://www.pemnet.com/fastening-products/pem-self-clinching-fasteners-new/



Then I scroll down a bit until I see the section for standoffs. I'm not sure what I need yet so I'll go to the "Description of each product category" link:



Few quick notes: you would not normally want to use the Grounding type standoffs for motherboards. While the descriptions says they're specifically for grounding PC boards, that's PC as in Printed Circuit Board (PCB), not Personal Computer board. While a motherboard certainly contains a PCB, the Grounding standoffs are meant more for permanent installations, you wouldn't want the teeth biting into the bottom of your expensive motherboard.

Also, the Concealed Head standoffs look interesting because the opposite side of the sheet to remain smooth and undisturbed, sounds great right? The problem is that making the shallow hole that the standoff would get pressed into requires a secondary operation since it can't be done with a laser. So only specify them if required by aesthetics because they're more expensive to use. Also keep in mind that they require a minimum sheet thickness of 1.6mm.

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Anyway, for what I'm doing it'd actually look more "authentic" for the back of the standoff to show, plus as I mentioned in Part 3 I'm only using 1.29mm sheet (below the minimum thickness for the concealed standoffs), so I can forget about the Concealed Heads. And for beginners, this is the best way to narrow down your choice, look at the options and throw out what obviously won't work:
  • I want to screw the motherboard down, so I can ignore the Keyhole and Snap-Top types.
  • Don't want Grounding as mentioned.
  • Sheet is 1.29mm aluminum so don't want Thin Sheet, Stainless, or Micro.
  • I don't mind the standoffs being visible but I'd still rather the surface be flat so that eliminates Thru-Hole.
  • Where it'll be used doesn't justify the Close-To-Edge (and they aren't available in the thick wall version I prefer)
So that just leaves Blind (Types BSO, BSOS, BSOA, and BSO4) :). So now to dig into the specs and pin down the exact one I want. At this point I usually go for the "Literature" link and download the PDF catalog. I find the formatting to be easier to parse in the catalog when trying to figure out what I want.

So after opening up the PDF and scrolling down to page 4 for the Blind Threaded standoffs we're greeted with the following:



There's a lot going on here so let's break it down:

1: Pretty straightforward, the diagram just shows what the different dimensions in the following tables refer to.

2: Part # decoder

3: Important specs about the standoffs, broken down by thread size. I'll come back to this next post.

4a: The available material types.

For most applications just use Steel, the Stainless Steel and Hardened Stainless Steel are for use with stainless steel sheets.​

But you may be wondering, why in the world would you want to use aluminum hardware over stronger steel threads?

The reason for this comes back to Part 3b and my overview of available finishes, in particular anodization. The electrochemical anodizing process basically "rusts" the aluminum, increasing the thickness of its natural protective oxide layer. The problem is that any non-aluminum hardware (like steel standoffs for instance) attached to the parts would just rust away :(

It is possible to install steel hardware after the part has been anodized, but then the hardware would stick out since it's not the same color. Also, the extra handling of the anodized sheets will inevitably mean that some will get scratched or dinged, so some percentage of them will have to be scrapped (increasing costs).

Aluminum PEMSERTs on the other hand can be installed prior to anodizing and should turn out just like the rest of the sheet afterwards. They are not as strong as steel threads, but for nuts they're still much better than just directly tapping the sheet and may still be an improvement over extruded/formed threads.
4b: Thread code.

The main thing to note here is the difference between M3, 3.5M3, and M3.5.
  • M3 - ISO metric M3 x 0.5mm thread with normal wall thickness/diameter (dimension "C" in the diagram)
  • 3.5M3 - ISO metric M3 x 0.5mm thread with thicker walls/larger diameter. See the table from Section 3: 5.39mm vs 4.2mm.
  • M3.5 - ISO metric M3.5 x 0.6mm thread. Note that the diameter is the same as the 3.5M3 but it uses a different thread.
For motherboard standoffs I prefer the thicker 3.5M3 since it gives more surface area for the board to rest on. Just be sure not to mix it up with the similarly named M3.5 or else your M3 screws won't fit!​

4c: The available standoff lengths.

This is important to note because the height the motherboard will sit at is constrained to increments of 2mm, from 6mm to 22mm, then an extra millimeter jump to 25mm.

So if after modeling the other parts of the case you determine the perfect height for the board is 7mm, too bad! Either you find some workaround (like mounting the standoffs to a spacer plate) or adjust the design to compensate.​

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The best laid schemes o' mice an' men

This issue of standoff height reared its ugly head and forced me to rethink the motherboard layout for the case. The reason is that I had originally intended for the motherboard and video card to be stacked, with both facing up:



While this would result in poor CPU cooling since it had no room for intake, the idea was that the case could be installed like a normal ATX PSU, which typically only has intake vents at the top for the cooling fan. The problem I ran into was balancing the space between the motherboard and the bottom of the video card to fit a CPU heatsink while maintaining a safe clearance from the bottom of the board to the chassis.

The main reason standoffs are used is to keep the bottom of the circuit board elevated above the inside surface of the enclosure so the exposed leads don't short out. I could not find a spec sheet for Mini-STX but for the other motherboard form factors (ATX, mATX, Mini-ITX) the minimum distance between the secondary side (bottom) and the chassis is 6.35mm (0.25in).

Like I mentioned though, I can't just place the motherboard at the perfect height to maximize CPU heatsink clearance while also doing just the minimum clearance on the bottom side, I'm limited to the available standoff heights. An 8mm standoff would be a bit too tall for the CPU cooler clearance, but a 6mm standoff is far too short for the secondary side clearance.

"But James, it's only 0.35mm too short! Surely you can squeak by with that can't you?"

Ah yes, dear reader, there's probably enough margin in that 6.35mm spec to get by with just 6.0mm between the board and chassis. The issue though, is that the 6.0mm length of a pressed-in standoff includes the thickness of the sheet the standoff is installed in:



There's only 4.7mm of space left!

By itself this wouldn't be that big of a deal, I could use thin spacers to get the height I needed, but I was already having doubts about the CPU cooling with this layout anyway so this issue with the standoff height pushed me over the edge.

While keeping the intake vents to one side would have been nice, giving the CPU cooler its own dedicated intake will result in much better cooling so I flipped the motherboard over, such that the board and video card are now back to back:



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Now I just need to add some vents to the bottom and I can move on right? Ha! Next post we'll see that I'm not done poring over standoff spec sheets just yet...

Table of Contents

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Aibohphobia

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Whew, that was a long one but I'm not done talking about standoffs and I haven't even gotten into screw thread types yet T_T

But even if reading 2000 words on threading and standoffs bores you to tears, I hope it at least demonstrates why it takes so long to go from rough SketchUp model like the kind I had in Part 1 to finished product. There's sooooo many little details that need taken care of for manufacturing.
 

Phuncz

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The difference is in the details and many would skip these, unknowingly or unwillingly. But your write-ups give a guide how you handle these details and I think this can be a very good guide for people that do want to go into producing their project and not face countless surprises along the way.
 
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