SKBOWE Potting – Day 1

Epoxy Encapsulation (potting) serves to waterproof the SKBOWEs, insulate them from vibration, prevent corrosion, and conduct heat away from the components to the enclosure. It’s the messiest and trickiest part of the build process, as there is no turning back once you’ve mixed a batch of compound – and it’s $260/gallon.

The next step after electrical assembly is potting. The wife was nice enough to take some pictures of the process so I could do a quick writeup on the potting (aka encapsulation) process using MG Chemicals Thermally Conductive Black Epoxy Encapsulating and Potting Compound. As I said this stuff isn’t cheap – one 0.45 gallon kit costs around $120 and does about 20 pairs of SKBOWEs.

I mixed half of the kit at a time (1 solo cup of each part), which worked out perfectly, I had 30 minutes of open time left at the end of 20 units. The key to working with big batches is to have everything you need ready to go so you don’t waste open time and end up with a hardened pile of $hit. In this case, I jigged up a holder, positioned all the tools where I would need them, and opened the glue before mixing.

prep materials
Lay out everything required up front, once the compound is mixed you’ve got two hours of open time before $$ starts to solidify.

This stuff is super goopy (viscus) with the consistency of cold honey, but it needs to be mixed throughly and precisely applied. Each container transfer wastes a non-negligible fraction, so I opted to go for mixing and dispensing from a 1-gallon ZipLoc freezer bag. Just pour the stuff into the bag and kneed it for 5 minutes or so. Of course mixing this way introduces a ton of air, so it’s a good thing I picked up a vacuum apparatus to degas it. Just let it sit at near vacuum (pump says it’s good down to 5Pa absolute or something) for 5 more minutes.

degassing the potting compound
1/2 quart of compound parts A and B (1 qt total) are mixed in a 1 gallon ziplock bag. The mixing creates lots of air pockets, so we use a vacuum chamber to degas it.

Now the fun begins. Step 1: Two pre-fit units (one pair) are inserted into the jig. Pushing the wires up from the bottom easily pops the components out of the enclosure.

units in the potting jig
The jig holds two SKBOWE units with the wires out of the way. Note the tape forms a pull-tab on the top of the covers, I pre-tapped them to make this part faster while pouring.

Step 2: Bottom fill about 1/4″ of compound into the empty enclosures. You can use a ZipLoc like a piping bag by cutting off one of the corners – this gives a ton of control and wastes very little compound.

filling enclosures with potting compound
With internals removed, filled about 1/4″ of compound into each enclosure. After about 30 seconds, the mixture covers the bottom of each case.

Step 3: Reinstall The dry fit (initial assembly) is absolutely critical – part of that is bending the wires to fit the cutout and adjusting the heatsink and spacer. Once the goop hits the board and wires, any further adjustment is a sticky proposition that takes forever. After the dry fit, it the wires stay bent and it pops back in.  Once the potting hardens around these bends, they will serve as a strain relief and prevent forces on the wires from pulling at the solder joints. Braid doesn’t need additional strain relief because the compound grips the texture strongly.

To seat the board completely, gently push down on the caps, spreading them slightly (the board has some flex) to allow compound to flow between them, ensuring thorough encapsulation.

reinstalling the electronics
Reinstalling the electronics package is easy thanks to the dry fit

Step 4: Reinstall the heatsink and spacer. Again the dry fit is critical because once the heatsink is covered in goo adjustments are literally a giant mess. If the PCB wasn’t aligned correctly, the spacer nudges it into position.

Heatsink and spacer reinstalled
The heatsink and spacer are re-installed.

Step 5: Topcoat of potting compound, focusing on the gap between the PCB and enclosure that the diodes live in (most heat/highest vibration risk). The bottom layer + topcoat is the key to a complete encapsulation with minimal waste. If too much goes in on the bottom, pushing the board and heatsink in causes the enclosure to overflow. If everything goes in on the top, the bottom is not encapsulated sufficiently, there will be large air bubbles, and most of the compound will be pushed out around the edges of the cover.

It took quite a bit of practice to zero in on the ideal topcoat amount – it’s a lot less than I initially thought. I suspect that the PCB is “floating” in the bottom layer, and installing the cover forces it down and the displaced compound fills the gaps under the cover.

Top coat of potting compound
A final drizzle of potting compound coats the components from the cover side. This took the most practice – it always feels like it needs way more than it really does. If the components are totally covered, a ton of compound will leak out when the cover goes on.

Step 6: Apply ABS cement. While the BPF compound is technically adhesive to ABS, you get a nearly instant chemical bond with ABS cement. This particular jar is called “extra special medium ABS cement” – not sure what it did to deserve such a title – but it does work well. Solvent based cements like this actually melt the two pieces together for a permanent bond.

Applying cement to enclosure cover
Even though the potting compound is adhesive, the case cover is actually glued on separately using “extra special ABS cement”. This is primarily for mechanical strength.

Step 7:Install the cover without making a huge mess. The painters-tape tab helps control the cover without getting ABS cement everywhere.

installing lid on enclosure
Lid is installed by putting tab side in first, then rotating down.

Step 8: Press firmly for 15 seconds. This is how long it takes for the ABS cement to get an initial grab.

hold abs cements for 15 seconds
The ABS cement is a solvent-based contact cement, so you really have to push hard. 15 Seconds does the trick.

Step 9: Clamp. Aggressively wrapping with cheap Harbor Freight electrical tape (which has virtually no adhesive) clamps the enclosure and seals the gap between the cover and case. This will come off after cure.

wrapping aggressively with cheap electrical tape
The ABS enclosure is actually quite flexible, when heated it tends to relax and allow potting compound to slip around the lid seam. An aggressive wrapping of cheap electrical tape (Harbor Freight) acts as both a clamp and a seal, greatly reducing the potential mess.

Step 10: Revel in finished unit, before realizing that you have 51 more to do…

one finished unit.
That’s one unit completed. Two units per pair. 27 pairs in this batch, 100 pairs total. *sigh*

And that’s a wrap!

Rest them until the working time (2 hours) is up. This prevents massive leaks down the wires, though some leakage later is unavoidable.

units standing upright past open time of compound
I leave them standing up for another 30 minutes, until the open time for the potting compound is up (took about 1.5 hours to do 10 pairs)

Cure time is 4 days at room temperature, 2 hours at 150°F, or 8 hours at 110°F – let’s hope my space heater can get them hotter than this…

Once the mix is done, the compound needs to cure. This takes 4 days at room temperature, 2 hours at 150°F, or somewhere in-between at 110F (the most my space heater will bring up a cardboard box apparently)

After they are cured, I’ll crimp the connectors, test each one, and prepare for shipping!