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Review of Front Panel Designer

Posted by on April 22, 2020

Overview:

I decided to redo my operating position with the inclusion of a patch panel.  I am always moving antenna between my K3, and my SDRs.  Also, I wanted to have the IF from the radio available without tearing the operating position apart every time.

A patch panel would help in all of these needs.  I looked at making one by hand, using a drill press, or by building it in a home workshop, and decided I was not skilled enough to do this and still have all my digits intact when finished.  After reviewing all the options, I decided to use a company that builds panels via an easy to use software interface.

I run a Linux system as my main machine, so it was important to me that the software run under Linux.  I ran across a program provided free by a company called Front Panel Express, that is used to design panels, and runs under all platforms, Linux, Windows, and mac.

The Software:

Front panel designers web page.The software allows for a full WYSIWYG, (What You See Is What You Get),  experience as you design your panel.  It downloads from the vendors’s web page with just a click.  After clicking “Download” you are taken to a page based on your operating system, you just hit download, and the software, (for whatever OS you are running), drops into your machine, ready for install.    Very well thought out, and it starts out making things simple, easy, and fast.  The software continues this throughout.

Front Panel Designer create Panel pageOnce installed you must define what type of base panel you want.  This consists of selecting a number of options, starting with the “Create New Front Panel” button.  Again, the easy moniker is being followed here.  This brings up a page where you can set panel thickness, type of engraving, panel finish, color, etc.  As soon as you hit the enter button, the page clears, and a blank front panel is presented to you.  Overall the panel selection, and setup process is as easy to use as it could be.  The vendor seems to have thought out this process with the idea of making things simple, but not allowing the user to mess up too badly.

Your next task is to add things to the panel, things like holes, engraved text, mounting notches, connecting lines, or graphics.

Adding items to the panel:

Closeup of panel.There are a large number of items available to add to a panel, across the top are a set of buttons, (click image to the left for an expanded view, and look at the tool bar), you need only click the item you want, then drag it to where you want on the panel.  I did this in about 15 minutes.  After that things get interesting.  You will need to align your items, then add text, and align that.  If you have any descriptive graphics you will want to add that as well.  Once you have everything roughly laid out, the  software allows you to do grouping and alignments based on individual items, or groups.  All in all it makes things really simple to get a well laid out panel.

PDF of panel showing on desktop.Once you have your panel laid out, you next make a PDF of it, and print it.  Once printed, take it and look at carefully.  Once you send it in, it will literally be cast in metal!  If you have not thought things out, and then entered them as you want, you get a really expensive hunk of metal back, all ready for recycling.  If on the other hand you have taken your time, and were careful, you get back a very nicely made front panel made from metal to your specifications.  So print it out, wait a few days, and relook at it.  Practice using it, in general beat up your design as much and as hard as possible.  Print it to scale, and hold it up where you want it placed…  Make really sure you like it.  Once you are sure you like it, there is a little icon next to the objects, that is a pair of coins…  Click this, and it gives you the EXACT cost to make the panel.  This allows you to make changes in order to save a few bucks.  most of my changes were made on the panel base.  I had mine powder coated, with beveled edges, etc.  I had a few email interchanges with the folks at Front Panel Designer, and those went well.  They seem friendly, willing to help, and realize that this is probably the first time someone has used the software.  One of my questions had to do with hole size.  I had a set of BNC connectors I wanted to mount, and the connector was 14 mm in diameter.  I asked about how tight they were on tolerances.  The person suggested adding a few mm to the hole sizes to make sure things fit.  I am glad I called, I added 2 mm to everything, and all items fit well.  I am not sure how well things would have fit, had I used the engineering drawings sizes.  I ordered all BNC connectors from the same company.  Why?  I wanted every connector to be the same size, and shape.  I DID NOT want my panel looking hacked together.

Conclusion:

NK7Z, RF patch panel

NK7Z, RF patch panel

I am happy I used Front Panel Express, and will be using them again for anything I want looking like it came out of a factory.  The panel is EXACTLY as I designed it, and looks far better than I thought it would.  I wondered how they would pack it for shipping.  It was double boxed, with a form fitting thin plastic cover made specifically for the panel I designed, on the front of the panel.  It arrived in absolutely perfect condition.    Click the photo to the left for an expanded view of the finished panel.  It is mounted in the location it will live in a new station operating position.  Would I recommend this to another Amateur for use?  You bet…  The panels are not cheap, mine cost on the order of $200, but for me, it was well worth it.  There is simply no way I would have been able to even come close to duplicating the quality that goes into a finished panel from Front Page Designer.

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