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Open already.

I've never actually built my own computer. Fairly embarrassing for a so-called engineer, especially one in robotics. I figured now was as good of a time as any to build a simple setup, especially with the extra free time during my job search and given the fact that my laptop was beginning to feel a bit sluggish with CAD and games.

I wanted a compact desktop, and I didn't have any extreme needs in terms of performance, so I went with a mini-ITX build. However, from the mini-ITX cases I found online, there weren't any that I particularly liked. Most of them were (rightfully) designed for a range of hardware options, and so they weren't as minimal as I wanted. Of all the cases I found, I was most intrigued by the In Win D-Frame case, but even the mini-ITX version is quite large, so I decided to build my own.

I should preface the rest of this post by noting that I'm not particularly happy with the end result. It's certainly functional and will get the job done, and I definitely still prefer it to an off-the-shelf solution, but there were a bunch of things I could have done better. Also, if you search for open-frame PC cases, there are plenty of alternative DIY designs out there on the interwebs that (imo) are executed better than mine.

PC Build

The PC build itself was pretty simple. I mostly followed this budget build without too much variation and tweaked it based on what deals I could find these past couple of weeks:

  • PSU: Corsair 650W semi-modular ($64.99)
  • GPU: Sapphire RX 460 ($99.99)
  • Motherboard: ASRock B150M ($69.99)
  • CPU: i3-6100 ($119)
  • RAM: Team Elite 2x8gb ($79.99)
  • SSD: 240gb Kingston (63.99)
  • Rebates: ($-40)

Total cost of $437.95 for just the hardware. I could still get Windows 10 Education from school, and didn't need additional peripherals or monitor.

Case Build

The case is basically just a combination of 3D-printed connectors and PVC tubing. I used 1/2" PVC tubing from Home Depot and printed fittings for them accordingly. Using printed fittings instead of standard PVC elbows/connectors allows for a smaller overall size, and it keeps everything flush. It also made it a lot easier to integrate fixture points for the PC hardware.

CAD files are available via Onshape

The PVC frame allows for some fixturing to be added after the fact, so I didn't extensively plan/CAD for the placement of every single component. In particular, I didn't give much thought to the backplate for better securing the GPU and motherboard ports. Also, I was a little concerned about cable management, even with a semi-modular PSU, since this was my first build, so I left a good amount of space around the motherboard and PSU. Despite the extra spacing, the case was sized overall (14"x10"x7.5") to snugly accommodate the PSU and motherboard with a standard GPU. I mounted the SSD behind the front panel, and as luck would have it, I ended up having just enough space to tuck away the cables.

I printed the connectors to minimize the chances of mechanical failures by layer delamination, hence the angled layers. I also used a good number of heat-set inserts where possible to avoid having to use nuts. In addition to the main case, I included clips that snapped onto the PVC to help secure the GPU, PSU, and also fixture the case fan (a random Noctua fan I fortuitously salvaged from somewhere on campus a few years back). For the front panel, I also had to source the power button and USB connectors myself. I'm still on the lookout for a good SD card panel. The only ones I found online were large combination panels designed for 3.5" bays.

The final PC with all hardware connected ended up weighing a little under 10 pounds (4.5 kg), measuring 14" (35.6 cm) by 10" (25.4 cm) by 7.5" (19 cm).

Take-home Lessons/Issues

The end product is fine for my use, and I certainly got a good amount of enjoyment from building something myself, but it definitely could have been better. Overall, the case feels a bit bulkier than I expected and not as clean as it could have been. A couple of notes for anyone considering a similar project:

Sheet metal is ideal for cases. Granted, I imagine this isn't an available option for most DIY cases, but you really can't beat properly designed sheet metal cases in terms of the strength to size ratio. I used 6mm acrylic sheets for both the front panel and the support beneath the motherboard. Any thinner, and they (imo) would've had too much flex, based on some of my previous experience with acrylic.

Painting is harder with different materials. I tried spray-painting in the initial build, but after testing it on a couple of test pieces, I didn't like how it highlighted the surface finish differences between the PVC and the printed connectors. I also tried smoothing the printed parts via cold-vapor acetone, but it wasn't particularly effective, and I didn't want to mess with acetone and a hot plate.

More parts, more (assembly) problems. Not sure if it's evident in the pictures, but not all the PVC and connectors are perfectly flush. I had printed all the connectors such that they would fit tightly into the PVC, but I think it would've been better to print for a loose fit and then using thicker epoxy/adhesive instead. That would have made it easier to ensure that all the pieces would have fit more closely together.