One of the things about living with someone with artistic talent is that occasionally (very occasionally) some of the artiness will rub off.
I am not a visual person - to say that I have no artistic talent would be the understatement of the century. If you want something to work, then I'm your man. If you want it to look pretty then you're better off asking someone else. One of the reasons my 'stock' panels are so uninspiring to look at - I'm a terrible designer.
Since switching over to PCB-fabricated panels, part of the 'process' (haha!) is the creation of a 3D-printed template panel to make sure that all the necessary holes are in the right place - as I'm now doing bigger modules, this is doubly important since any fabrication errors could turn out to be very expensive.
As it turns out, 3D printing of panels actually works quite well for sizes over around 12HP - below this they tend to be a bit too flexible, even with the thickness increased to 2mm. Currently I'm using black PLA filament which, whilst functional, also looks a bit boring.
This is where one of my other hobbies - origami - comes into play.
My OH is very keen on decoupage (ie. covering stuff with glue and sticking paper all over it) and it turns out that origami paper is quite good for decoupage. I wondered if this could be applied to the 3D-printed panels to make them a bit more interesting. Turns out it can, and here are the results.
First out of the gate is the forthcoming XO106r5 drone module:
Creases and lifting at the corners notwithstanding, this looks pretty damned cool. I'm reliably informed that the corners could be fixed with a couple of coats of varnish so I'm looking into that. Since this module is going into my system, I'm not too bothered, although the creases are a bit annoying.
Flushed with the relative success of this, I did one of the updated 8-step sequencers too:
This time I extended the paper covering around the edges and onto the back side of the panel, which worked a whole lot better. Again, a couple of coats of varnish would finish the job off. Whilst there are no creases, the 'scarring' (caused by over-extrusion of filament) on the front face is visible through the paper.
That aside, I'm pleased with the results. There's no lettering (yet) but that'll likely change soon now that I've discovered that dry transfer lettering (Letraset and the like) is still a thing.
As a proof of concept, this seems to work pretty well - my technique needs a bit of work, particularly with regard to edges and corners (and creases ....) and a couple of coats of varnish, but I think this might be viable for the occasional one-off or custom job.
I already have plenty of ideas, but at this point I shall emphasise the following:
PRODUCTION MODULES WILL STILL HAVE PCB-STYLE PANELS - whilst the decoupage looks pretty cool, it's pretty labour intensive even before you factor in the time required to print off a panel (the 22HP panel for the XO106r5 takes around 9hrs)
I'm willing to consider doing one-off or occasional jobs like this, but it won't be a regular thing - in addition, because I use 3D-printed panels as a base (experiments are still ongoing with FR4) I'll only consider doing 'bigger' modules, say 10HP or wider. On top of that there'd be additional costs to cover the additional time and materials.
... you could do it yourself.
I make most of my panel design files public, and it's straightforward to use a tool like OpenSCAD to turn a DXF file into something that a 3D printer slicer can digest; I use an FDM printer* (AnyCubic i3) but this sort of thing could be better suited to SLA (aka. resin) printing - it'd certainly result in a smoother finish.
If you don't have a captive artist handy, there are plenty of decoupage tutorials on the intertubes. All you really need is paper, glue and some patience.
A bit of artistic flair probably helps, too ...
*- for the record, I'm currently using plain black PLA filament. This particular batch isn't the best I've had but it does the job. Hot-end temperature is 215C, with a bed temperature of 70C - 0.1mm resolution, 6 skin layers (3 top, 3 bottom) and 50% gyroid infill. Whilst it isn't strictly necessary, I always print a fairly wide skirt so that the extruder is well primed.
For wider panels, like the sequencer and the XO106, 1.6mm thickness feels suitably rigid. There's no reason why the panels couldn't be 2mm thick but they'd obviously take longer to print.