Electronic Enclosures: The Epidermis of the Technological World

by Amy Harris, IQS Editor

The Bodies Revealed exhibit of real body parts, limbs and organs recently arrived in Grand Rapids, bringing with it an extraordinary three-dimensional look inside the human body and the intricate systems of veins, tendons and bones which make it work. Underneath layers of skin lie the complex skeletal, muscular, nervous, respiratory, digestive and reproductive systems that work together to keep our bodies functioning. These fragile systems need protecting from the outside world – from the elements of weather, from contaminants and pollutants, and from tampering with by unqualified persons. Skin is the barrier between our body systems and the outside world in much the same way an electronic enclosure protects an electrical system and its conduits, connections and switches from many of the same concerns. As our skin prevents the elements from access to our veins and tendons, the casing around the wires and connectors ensures that elements of the outside world do not interfere with and damage the electrical circuits contained within.

Photo courtesy of Compac Development Corporation.

In our day-to-day lives, we are almost constantly surrounded by electronic enclosures in one form or another, and often their purpose is to prevent damage on both sides of the barrier. These enclosures are on the street in the form of electrical cabinets protecting the connectors of the circuits that run our street lights and preventing vandalism of these systems. Plastic enclosures are around our plugs safeguarding not only the inner wires and conduits, but also protecting our fingers from electrical shock. Computer enclosures keep safe the intricate and detailed wiring of our computer machinery, and on goes the list of enclosures we encounter each day. Material choice and design of these enclosures hinges upon a number of factors – environment, intended use, level of protection needed, etc. Metals are the material traditionally chosen to form electronic enclosures, especially those for use outdoors. Metal enclosures are durable, straightforward to manufacture and can easily be made secure with watertight seals and locks. Plastic is used too, typically for smaller and more complicated enclosure designs that require an unusual shape.

Photos courtesy of POLYCASE.

The variations between types of electrical enclosures are as numerous as the variations between skins from one person to another. There are a number of standard sizes, but custom enclosures can be made to fit specific systems and requirements. Some enclosures will require entry points, vents or lids and removable panels to allow electricians access for maintenance and repair, in much the same way as we use our mouths and noses to breathe, and surgeons cut through our skin to help repair internal problems. In terms of manufacturing standards of electronic enclosures, NEMA (the National Electrical Manufacturers Association) measures the standards of corrosion-resistance, soundness of leak-proof seals, material strength, etc. Due to the wide range of materials and designs that can be employed in manufacturing electrical enclosures, having standards such as those set by NEMA ensure that minimal requirements for protection are upheld.

Photo courtesy of Solutions Direct.

We know our organs and veins and muscles need to be protected, and at times we go so far as to add further enclosures in the form of helmets or wetsuits or shin-guards. While human skin is less durable than the metals and plastics used to protect electrical systems, it has the ability to grow and heal; reminding us what an incredible machine the human body truly is; and as much as our bodies need protecting, so too do the electrical systems which connect our modern world and help us achieve so many of our daily tasks with ease and precision. Sometimes, however, we forget the value of the intricate systems working underneath our skin, or for that matter underneath an electrical enclosure. Regulating bodies such as NEMA ensure that these systems are adequately protected according to their value and importance. Therefore, next time you happen to see an enclosure – whether of metals and plastics, or an epidermis, do not think only of the appearance and construction of the framework and shell, but think too of the complex and sensitive system which lies underneath.

Photo courtesy of Solutions Direct.

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