Pick and place – entry level options

Startups that manufacture electronics are faced with a limited set of choices when it comes to getting their hardware assembled. Each of the methods below have an array of possible approaches, some good some less so. I will try to cover what I’ve seen in my quest, hoping this will be a good overview of what’s out there. If I miss details or interesting methods please let me know and I will keep this list updated. This is part one, where I look at options of assembly without getting into a real commercial pick and place.

Doing it manually. Everybody started here, including Adafruit, Sparkfun and others. It’s great and fun at first and you learn a lot about surface mount technology (SMT) and also gain respect for how hard quality assembly really is. And we’ve seen countless ways people do this around the world. Some spread paste with a toothpick or dispense with a DIY syringe, then place parts with tweezers. This works for about 5 minutes before you go crazy, especially if you go smaller than 0603. Others laser cut mylar stencils to speed up the paste deposition. I etch my own stencils from soda can aluminum, this is fast and works great. For placement I’ve seen people make some fancy ball bearing jigs to help them move their hand, a bit better.

This is very cool and I almost did this myself but I think it’s overkill and a bit slow and … more expensive than it needs to be for what it does, but I can appreciate the effort of its creator. One advantage of this fixture is the ability to better hover over larger PCBs while placing. FWIW the maker even went as far as mounting a camera to help placing the parts, a nice touch, but looking at his video of it in progress the angle of the camera looks weird and looking away on a monitor when you work with your hands is what cuts the speed. Here’s another one of the same kind for reference. I do the same as these, only probably faster, with my aquarium pump pick and place (hold your laugh for a moment there) which cost me about $20 in parts, took about 30 minutes to make, and has full stereo vision – my eyes, can’t beat that for the price. I like to brag about this method not because I’m using it, but because it’s probably the best 100% manual method I’ve seen. Why you ask? I can do up to 7-800 CPH (measured!) with it on less complex boards. The only downside is obviously having to sit there all the time, with some neck and back strain, and the part alignment is less than ideal, but paste reflow really helps. I’ve assembled many thousands of PCBs this way, it works nicely and gets stuff done, but it’s not great. I wish I spent all that time developing new projects. So what is better than this?

Outsourcing assembly – Well the next alternative is to have someone else do it for you. You can relax and spend more time developing instead of doing repetitive monkey work. There are now batch services that do this for you, or if you prefer there are many professional places which will cost more but you can expect more peace of mind. Here’s an example, used by Steve at bigmessowires.com to make his Floppy EMUs. If you choose such a service it’s probably smart to look for one around you so you can visit and talk to the owner before you start throwing money at it. I found at least 2 professional assembly houses close to my location from a simple search and asking around. The plus is you pay and get them done. The biggest downside is the cost. If you make a million of something it makes a lot of sense, more so than having an assembly line yourself, but if you’re low volume like me then the cost can be prohibitive in the long run. Whenever I looked into this the cost turned me away, but my designs are simple, complex designs are hard to make by hand and that’s when you might not have a choice but outsource. I think most kickstarters are forced to outsource even with simple designs because there’s too much going on and too little time to make it happen. Ok, what else?

Home made pick and place machines. I’ve seen some admirable efforts from various people who’ve done this. Some start as promising projects but don’t really work, like this one. Here’s one that actually works, looking pretty cool for a DIY garage project. Here’s another one from Daniel Amesberger, it picks from strips of tape which is the drawback (he talks about making/buying feeders), but otherwise probably one of the best I’ve seen.
Another one I spotted lately is this, youtube here, and details here. It’s quite good, has upward vision for alignment, not sure about head vision. Tape advance is done by the head, which is pretty acceptable for DIY, and tape covers are pulled bacl by weigths, not ideal but again acceptable, it makes it almost automatic, too bad the documentation is lacking.

And finally for this section, the best ever DIY pick and place I’ve seen is this one:

It uses real commercial feeders adapted for this build, has top and bottom vision for alignment and hence can be fully automatic. The quality is pretty amazing for a home made machine, more so than some of the commercial pick and place machines I will describe later. Brian even made a vibe feeder that works much like a real one. It’s well documented and I only wish it was a bit faster, looks like everything is done sequentially rather than doing non essential parts while the head is moving. Looking at the quality he put into this robot only makes me wish I had a fraction of his skill:

Commercial pick and place machine kits. I think I’ve seen at least 2 or 3 of these. The only one I think is worth mentioning here is the red frog.

You can buy the kit for $3689 at the moment of writing. I think it’s an admirable effort by its creators. When I first saw this I got excited, I thought maybe this is is the affordable answer to my pick and place problem. However the more time I spent researching it it was obvious it would be a poor choice to burn almost $4K, as much as I wanted to believe in it. There are many reasons, but mainly the kit assembly is less than smooth, many ways to mess it up, forums reveal lots of issues there, potential missing parts and required creativity to get it assembled. This is not your typical IKEA furniture assembly session, it will be long before you go from kit to functional machine. Then it’s made of wood, which is very dimensionally unstable depending on temperature and humidity, big bummer there. I mean this is supposed to be a super precision instrument, the wood dooms it from the get go. Then there’s the features you’d want in a pick and place, or lack thereof. You can watch it work here. There’s some vision but no alignment, and it seems hopelessly slow. I can do at least 2 times faster with my manual pick and place. The UI looks daunting. Hanging weights pulling back the cover tape means it’s not fully automatic, you have to be nearby to raise the weights when they reach the floor. But really nicely engineered machine.

I wanted to mention these DIY-ish methods, so they are here before I move on to commercial options. Unfortunately I see a gap between very manual methods (like my aquarium pump “pick and place”) and an actual automatic machine that doesn’t need spoon feeding. Most of these home made machines (except Brian’s and Daniel’s machines) are pretty hopelessly slow, lack alignment, or have vision alignment which slows them down to about half the speed. But to be fair, I can’t really expect a DIY machine to have advanced features like laser alignment, but there are other methods for on the fly alignment of components. I will touch on this subject later when I talk about what important features make a great pick and place. So if you’re not a mechanical engineer or don’t have the skill to build a machine from scratch, you’re left with buying one.  And frankly that’s what ends up happening when you realize that kits and DIY machines will end up just draining your time and won’t work as you dreamed. Remember, I’m only talking about entry level machines here, not high end ones. The sort of thing that Adafruit got into when they got their first PNP.

One last thing to mention is that in general machines that use extruded T-slot type assemblies are not regarded as high precision high-reliability and repeatability machines. The reason is explained in this video, so I’m glad I didn’t say this, although it’s pretty obvious why this is true. So I will opt out of looking into any machine using t-slot segments frames.

In my next post about this subject I will talk about a few entry level commercial options, and try to emphasize the features that you probably want if you’re looking for automation and not baby sitting a machine. Sorry if this series doesn’t come with a lot of visual glamour, actually I wish I had all this info aggregated when I started reading on pick and places. So hopefully this is somewhat informational for those who want to learn more about these expensive and mysterious machines, and I don’t know a whole lot yet. Who knows, maybe in a few years when the maker movement has its own section at Home Depot you just get all your assembly needs there, including a desktop pick and place, just like buying a snow blower.

9 thoughts on “Pick and place – entry level options

  1. Felix:
    Great series. Very informative for someone like myself who is dabbling in small electronics and doing a bit of assembly. Thanks for doing it.

  2. Pingback: Pick and place – entry level options #makerbusiness « adafruit industries blog

  3. thanks, don’t worry about the pictures just keep the great article coming (when you have time if course)

  4. I have TM-240A from China. It’s cheap (~US$5500, beats red frog since it’s about 100x faster, made from metal and comes assembled), and the support is awesome (I have 2 control boards now :-)). The cover tape pickup spools are large enough to unload the whole reel. I wrote about it here -> https://www.circuitsathome.com/production/neoden-tm240a-pick-and-place-machine-first-impressions , also, Dangerous Prototypes thread about the same machine is here -> http://dangerousprototypes.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=68&t=4903&sid=435e6359b443bd9178447c03d48e6971

    Overall, very good machine for a small shop. Still, a machine implies a certain build quantity since reel setup takes more time than actual placing and time-wise it is never feasible for a single board. I stuff single quantity prototypes on my machine from time to time but I’m only placing parts that are already set up – the rest gets placed manually.

  5. Thanks very much for putting this information up – I’m looking forward to reading more! There are many of us out there facing the same decisions, and it is great to see a consideration of the economics and practicality of the various options. I also wonder if it’s easy enough to train people do do it. I have many friends who, if they got good at it, would probably prefer doing a few hours of pick-n-place rather than waitressing or odd-jobs.

  6. I am Alexandru and I am a maker. Right now I am trying to build VisionBot which is a Surface Mount Technology assembly shooter that can be used to place SMD chips onto Printed Circuit Boards for PCBA… Practically the VisionBot machine will enable electrical engineers, hackers and makers just like me to manufacture electronic devices in their own garage. VisionBot is still in the beta testing and in a few months it will be available to the makers through a crowd-funding platform.

    What is new at VisionBot?

    Using advanced Computer Vision VisionBot is avoiding electronical waste and is professionally assembling Printed Circuit Boards. It is estimated that VisionBot will be able to assembly about 75,000 electronic boards per year. There is an automatically calibration using Computer Vision for Feeders, for Fiducials. We also implemented an Vision Inspection.

    VisionBot is also compatibile with standardized files like RS-274X Gerber files but works also with the classical CSV files. VisionBot will enable the dream of many makers who want to turn their homemade prototypes into industrial products.
    For more details access http://www.visionbot.net/

    VisionBot Gerber Importer

    A picture of the VisionBot machine


    I hope, you will not consider my message a spam. I just found that this is an amazing community for those who love electronics and coding just like me.

    • Hi Alex,
      Thanks for sharing your work. I think the machine is great. I suggest you look into making automatic feeders that can feed more than just simple 8mm tape. You could also make use of commercial feeders and adapt them to your machine as Brian Dorey has done. This would really make it a more than hobby machine for simple projects and make it stand out in a crowd of similar machines that already use the same feeding mechanism.
      PS: Felicitari pt premiul Intel-Phoenix 😉

      • Thanks for the feedback 🙂
        I think commercial feeders / mechanical feeders costs a lot, and this is the reason why we prefer to stay on the SMT cut tape reels.

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