17 October 2015

Avionics/Panel: Panel design.

Update 19-Apr-17:  Click the following to see a number of images of the installed panel in different lighting conditions.  Here is what the final panel looks like installed.


Update 5-Nov-15:   Designing your own panel?  Don't forget to include a "defrost" switch for the fans you install on page 38-32.  I went back and added the switch after noticing this image (lower rightmost "defog" switch), which I took when I visited Van's last year and saw the prototype N214VA and the factoryUpdate 7-Dec-15:  Also add a "canopy open" indicator light for the switch on page 38-19 if that indication is not managed by your EFIS.

I have completed the design of my panel.  Here is what it will look like.  I am sure I will make some additional revisions prior to settling on the final design and I'll adjust the images below accordingly, however I don't think there will be major changes.


An explanation of my design is warranted.  Forgive the forthcoming uncharacteristic logorrhea, as I had intended my blog to be image-rich and coupled to brevity in language.
Here is what each panel section looks like in the CAD program.  Red lines indicate physical instrument borders and "no-go" areas, not cut lines (the curved lines aren't accurately placed, but they worked well enough for the purpose).  The remaining lines are cut lines and are colored by layers which I defined.  My guess is I'll need two panels cut to get things right.  The first will be for finding the spacing and fitment errors I made.  The second will be the final piece.


I printed each section out to scale and held it up to the panel frame, with the sun in front of me, to verify that there would be no steric conflicts or instruments overlapping with the frame.  I got it right the first time!  Here is about half of the left section from a previous layout revision.  You can see that the instruments do not overlap the panel boundaries.  Update 5-Dec-15:  The TruTrak ADI-2 (the empty space above the 6 switches) had to be moved down so it wouldn't impinge on the Canopy Close-Out in the canopy frame, causing a subsequent reorientation of the switches. 


For the curious, I'll describe how and what tools I used to design my panel.  I didn't want to pay for additional software (there are panel design software tools available) and I knew that everything I needed was already available in open source options.  
  • To get a feel for the physical layup and visual layout I used PowerPoint.  If you don't have access to that program, you can also use the free OpenOffice (a spectacular office suite I've been using since it was StarOffice in the late '90s).  Using a CAD program prior to designing your layout is an exercise in futility.  I would advise against it until you have your layout resolved. 
    • For the instrument panel outline, I downloaded the DXF files from Van's and used an online DXF viewer to screen capture an image of each panel section.  In PowerPoint, you can easily copy-paste then flip the right section to make a left section.  
      • Each image was properly scaled to actual size then lined up correctly in PowerPoint after making the page size 45x12".
    • For each instrument I wanted, I found high resolution images of them online and scaled them to actual size. 
      • This also required getting the installation manuals for nearly every instrument, so I can find out what the actual dimensions were.  I'll need them anyway, so it was time well-spent.
      • Once I settled on using the Otto rocker switches, I just made a properly sized graphic of the switches using basic layered shapes in PowerPoint.  Same for the indicator lights.
    • Now I could just drag and drop my layout, trying different permutations to see what I liked, what I could do, what wouldn't work and what compromises were necessary (the latter mostly due to having a limited available real-estate). 
    • One thing to consider is that not all of the panel is available for use.  
  • With my layout completed, I could move to getting the CAD drawing ready.  
    • There are a number of free CAD programs available.  CAD is complex and requires a significant investment in time to learn how to do.  I wanted to minimize that.  I knew I didn't need a 3D CAD program, so I could limit my software search for 2D only, thus reducing the associated learning overhead. 
      • I landed on LibreCAD.  Though its documentation is severely lacking, many users have created online tutorial videos.  I watched about 15 minutes total from several by "TheReimber" and I was ready to go.  That was 1/4 of the time it took me to widdle through all the other lower quality tutorials.  And that was all the learning I needed to use the program.  It's that simple.
    • Using the necessary cutout dimensions I found from collecting the install manuals, I could design each cutout in LibreCAD and place them where they were needed.  
    • Each instrument was designed as a "block" so I could easily copy-paste as needed rather than, for example, redraw the switch cutout and border each time.
    • I used multiple "layers" so I could easily focus on which part of the panel I was interested in.  
    • I also created a red "borders" layer which defined where the external outline of the instruments would sit so I could avoid having them overlap each other, even though their cutouts might fit.  This border layer also included a 0.25" ring around the panel.

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