MFD / LCD display build

So, my first blog is about my Thrustmaster Cougar MFD (Multi Function Display) with working LCD panels incorporated. If you’re still scratching your head then take a look at this:

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Sitting below the centre monitor are my two MFD’s. Each has 20 programmable switches around the outer edge. In the centre of each MFD is an 8 inch LCD panel set at a working resolution of 800×600.

Looking more closely you can see them in more detail:

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Now, if you went to Thrustmaster’s website you’d see that, straight out of the box they look nothing like mine:

cougar

What you see in the picture above is a printed insert that slots into the MFD and can be interchanged with others depending on which game you happen to be using them for. Ordinarily this would be a great addition to your HOTAS (Hands On Throttle And Stick) combination giving you more flexibility in defining a control profile with extra buttons and almost negating the use of a keyboard altogether. But I wanted more than that. Sadly, as it stands Elite doesn’t provide the capacity to screen grab a section of the main screen and reproduce it on an additional screen such as the ship radar panel or even panel 3 which, in game, is the default for deploying fighters / SRV’s from your ship and then giving orders to them.

So what do I use mine for? On my left hand panel I have EDD (Elite Dangerous Discovery) running. This provides me and EDSM (Elite Dangerous Star Mapping) with real-time information about where I am, the results of any scans I conduct on bodies or systems, information about those systems or bodies and with the voice-pack enabled as well it makes my decision making process that much smarter when it comes to deciding where I want to land for materials and other stuff like that. On my right hand panel I have my Teamspeak 3 client running. This allows me to chat with friends or even communicate directly with other members in my wing rather than using the in-game voice comms.

So the next question you’ve got is how do you know what each button does, right? Well I’ve played using this setup for so long I’ve pretty much remembered what they all do. I did create a couple of static images which I used as desktop backgrounds in the LCD panels to label each switch and that’s something that can easily be done through Photoshop or other similar app. To be honest, if that’s all you want to do with your screens you may as well just use the cardboard inserts that come with the MFDs and save yourself some cash.

I’ve been asked by a few Commanders how I put this together and that’s what this blog is all about so lets get on with it!

First of all I got some 8mm thick ply board and cut out 4 identical pieces measuring 140mm x 185mm. These are the dimensions of the LCD panels that I bought from Cool Components and as you can see, they are pretty much barebone units. Then I got some black paint and painted them.

My biggest headache of the whole project was how to mount the screen / MFD to the base in such a way it provided different viewing angles rather than a fixed angle of say 75 degrees. Then I found the ideal way with these RAM mounts . Be warned, they don’t come with any fixing screws / bolts etc but I went down to my local hardware store and got a bag of M5 20mm bolts and a pack of M5 nuts which are a perfect fit for this kit. In order to work out where to attach the RAM mount you will need to join the ball and socket pieces together and get them as close to a 90 degree angle as you can. Mark a line along the centre of each board as a reference point then place two boards at a 90 degree angle to each other with the screen board standing on its edge on top of the base board.  The section with the ball is going to be attached to your base and the socket section to the screen board so mark where the ball section needs to be attached and then run a straight line across the board intersecting the centre line you’ve already drawn. Measure the distance of this line from the edge of the board and simply copy it onto the second base board to save you messing around again. Once you’re happy drill the holes for the bolts to go through. You’ll need a 5mm wood bit in your drill for this. After you’ve drilled the holes decide which side of the base board is going to be on the desk and then get a 10mm wood bit in your drill and just drill a couple of mm down into the existing holes so that the bolt can then be counter-sunk in the board. The same will need to be done when you drill the holes on the screen board.

Once you’ve got your first RAM mount holes drilled you will need to attach it to the board using the bolts and nuts keeping the socket section attached to the ball section. Again check the positioning of the socket section against the screen board before marking out where the holes need to be drilled for that and measure it off and copy those measurements to what will be your second MFD screen board.

Sticking with the base board for the moment, I drilled 2 holes on the leading (front) edge of the board in order to attach the small PCB that contains the on/off switch and other adjustment switches for the LCD panel. The PCB has pre-drilled holes in it so all you need to do is position it centrally and mark the holes using a pencil. Once you’ve done that get a 3mm drill bit and drill into the board just enough to make a pilot hole for the screws to attach the PCB to it. Once you’ve done that yours should like this:

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Once you’ve attached the socket joint to the screen board it should look like this:

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So far, so good!

The next thing you’ll need to do is to attach the second (main) LCD PCB to the back of the SCREEN board. Place the LCD screen against the front of the board and wrap the ribbon cable around the edge to the back of it and work out where the PCB needs to be mounted so that the cable has a straight route to the socket on the PCB. Once you’ve got that figured out (it will be quite tight to the socket joint) mark out the holes on the back of the screen board that you will need to drill as pilot holes for the mounting screws. You will need to detach the socket mount before drilling to ensure that your holes are straight and not angled going into the board.

For mounting the PCB I used some bog-standard mainboard mounts that either come with a mainboard or the case itself. If you don’t have any you can order them from PC component sites online. Once you’ve marked out the holes and drilled just about 2-3mm down, the mounts will screw directly into the wood. If you want to be doubly sure of the fixtures then you could add glue into the holes too. To attach the PCBs you will need some small mainboard screws that will fit with the mounts and what you should have is something like this:

20171007_16291320171007_163816 As you can see, in the above picture I’ve attached the ribbon cable to the PCB but we haven’t got to that bit yet so don’t! This is just a side profile picture so you can see the way the PCB is mounted.

Having mounted the main PCB on the rear of the screen board it’s now time to re-attach the socket RAM mount to the board and then attach the screen to the board. Whatever you do, don’t get that bit the wrong way round! For this I used some 3m double-sided adhesive tape capable of holding weight up to 20kg and applied it to the back of the LCD panel as shown:

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once you’ve got the tape in place, remove the protective layer and attach the screen directly to your screen board making sure that the edges are properly aligned all round. Don’t forget which side your ribbon cable has to go around in order to connect to the PCB though!

So your screen is now attached to the screen board and it’s actually starting to look like it’s coming together! Now you need to attach the MFD to the screen itself. Again, for this purpose I have used double-sided adhesive tape however, because the bezel around the LCD is so thin you will most likely need to cut a strip of tape to the desired length and then cut it in half longitudinally to make sure you don’t end up applying the tape to the actual screen.

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In the example above I have used small strips but only because that was all I had left and I couldn’t be bothered to go out and get another roll! It’s up to you whether you want the tape to run the full length of all THREE sides or not. I emphasise THREE sides because if you want to apply the tape directly to the MFD before attaching the MFD to the screen then please remember that the screen is longer than the MFD and you don’t want to be sticking tape on the screen itself! This is what I mean below:

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As you can see – you will have a small section of screen visible above the MFD as well.

When aligning the MFD with the screen before sticking them together make sure that you align the bottom of the MFD aperture with the edge of the bottom screen bezel. If you align the bottom of the MFD along the bottom edge of the LCD panel your MFD will partially cover the taskbar of Windows when it is operational. Those of you who are eagle-eyed will observe that I have done exactly the wrong thing in the image above and have had to re-mount the MFD accordingly.

So, your screen is attached and your MFD is attached to the screen. Now you need to get the cables correctly attached to the main PCB. In the picture below you will see that you should have 3 cables running out of the back of this device. One is the MFD USB cable, one is the HDMI cable and the last one is the power supply cable for the LCD screen.:

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A word of note at this point. Get yourself 2 x 2m long thin high-speed HDMI cables because if you try to use bog-standard “fat” cables this project won’t work. You can see the HDMI cable plugged in on the left hand side of the PCB in the above picture. You can also see that the thickness of it is comparable to a USB cable. You can get them on Amazon and from other retailers. You will also note that in the picture above I have attached 2 adhesive cable tie mounts to the base. Before you apply the cable ties make sure that there is sufficient loose cable to allow the screen to be pivoted to any angle without straining the cables!

Now I can also hear you asking about the coloured cable ties on the cables. I will come back to this in a bit.

If you’ve made it this far and not fallen asleep then that’s great! If you’ve actually built the damn thing and you’re happy with the finished article that’s even better! I hope this has been of some help. Below are examples of how flexible this setup is in terms of display adjustment etc:

You will need additional pieces of hardware to run these devices. Currently, I have 2 x 7 port USB 3.o hubs with 2 separate charging ports built in made by TP Link. The reasons for this are; firstly, I run a lot of USB dependent devices and second because I’ve tried to run both Cougar MFD  devices off the same hub and it didn’t like it. Third because (and I should have mentioned this earlier) you will need to get a USB – barrel power cable to power the LCD screen. If you order them from the link at the beginning of this blog they do not provide these cables with the screen so you will need to order them specifically. You can choose the length to suit your needs. You can then power the screens through your USB hub but I must emphasise that they must be dedicated USB power sockets and not just USB 3.0 sockets because they provide a different electrical output that won’t be enough to power the screens.

In addition to the 2 USB 3.0 hubs you will also need 2 USB 3.0 to HDMI display adapters. These are relatively inexpensive and can be found online. Again, as with the MFDs, the display adapters seem to get agitated if they’re sharing the same USB hub so it’s worth plugging each into a different hub. In short, my left hand MFD / LCD unit plugs into one hub and the right hand into the other.

This leads me on to the coloured cable ties. You now have devices with 3 cables running out of them and plugging into a 7 port hub mixing with your other USB devices. When you’ve got a lot of USB cables (and I’ve got a lot) running along a cable rack underneath your desk into and out of these hubs it helps to know which cable is which so I tag each end of the cable with its own colour code so I know exactly what device is plugged into which port in the hub. It may be OCD to you but believe me – when you need to unplug a device and you’ve got to follow the trail of spaghetti each time to make sure you’ve got the right device, it takes a lot of time! This just makes my life a lot simpler.

One last thing! You will need to put some rubber feet on the base of these units – especially if you have a white desk like me and you don’t want them sliding around when you press the buttons on the MFD. A nice easy workaround for this are plumbers rubber washers attached with glue or double-sided adhesive tape to the bottom of the base board as below:

So, there you have it – I hope!

I’ve enjoyed using mine so far. Like I said, the MFDs are programmable using software provided by Thrustmaster so you can set up macros and all sorts of things and what’s even better, Elite Dangerous will automatically recognise them as input devices in the controller options so you shouldn’t get too stressed setting them up! If you have any questions then feel free to ask in the comments section.

o7 Commanders. Fly safe.

Cmdr Highwaywarrior

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