Getting more serious about SMD production

I’ve been doing all manual SMD assembly ever since I started Low Power Lab, and still do at this moment. I find it too hard to outsource assembly and too prone to some issues.

Anyway, in the beginning there were tweezers, a microscope, and a toaster over for reflowing. I very quickly realized that the tweezer method was insane to put it mildly, the only worst thing that I can think of is actually soldering everything with a soldering iron instead of using paste. Nonetheless the first ever Moteino batch was tweezer-microscope+reflow assembled. Then I figured out how to make metal stencils out of soda cans. That works beautifully, costs next to nothing, and the more you make the faster and better it gets, and those stencils never wear out, unlike mylar or other plastic stencils. It’s the closest you will get to real stainless steel stencils. But I could only spread paste on 1 piece and it gets tedious, watch this video of how I actually do it. Panelizing PCBs sounded a bit scary.

So finally I made the jump and panelized a batch of Moteinos recently. The panel has 2.5mm tooling holes that are spaced on a NxN cm grid (which would fit the Stencil8 tooling block), but quite frankly they could be spaced any way. The tooling holes match holes in the stencil such that the stencil alings perfectly with the PCB. The panels and stencils are made at Hackvana. I don’t have a tooling block because quite frankly I don’t think it’s needed (UPDATE: I actually had a MDF block milled – see this post for details). I drilled holes in some MDF using a 2.5mm drill bit (the thin sheets that come with the stencil are right size and perfect for the job), using the PCB to pilot the holes. Then 2.5mm steel tooling pins align the stencil with the PCB.

The time savings is significant, especially if multiple panels are assembled at once. I was reluctant at first and I was worried about the spacing between the PCBs and other things like that. But glad I did it and this is a first step towards more serious in house assembly. The v-scoring means the PCBs are snapped apart after reflowing, and the edges will be a bit rougher than the nicely routed PCBs I was used to. I do however snap the panels in 3 rows for easier SMD assembly with my pick and place vacuum tool. After reflow they are snapped into individual pieces. The panelization is done at the PCB fab for an extra fee.
The McMasterCarr parts for the pins and the drill bit are: here for the pins and here for the drill bit.

Next up: pick and place machine maybe? Haha.

Illustrated guide to making a simple solder paste application jig

DSC_0962_wFor a few months I used to tape scrap PCBs on my work desk and apply solder paste there. It was the quick no-brainer solution, but the more designs I had to assemble the more issues I started having with this method:

  • I could not accomodate more than 3-4 stencils at one time
  • it was pretty annoying to keep exchanging the stencils and rearrange the outer PCBs
  • it was taking a lot of space on my work desk even for only a few small stencils
  • Since everything was taped down, I would always have to be careful not to work in that area and bend/damage the stencils

So it was time to step up a little. I had some left over MDF material from making the workbench top plate, perfect for what I had in mind. I like quick solutions that return a lot on the little investment I make. Continue reading

From china, with love: bad solder paste

Recently I was running out of solder paste and I’ve bought some chinese paste to try out from a (very) popular online electronics outlet. I think somewhere in the reviews or in one of the tutorials they say they actually use that paste internally so I got confident and the price was right (I guess… even though I later found the same paste on dx.com for under $5), about $14 for a jar of 50g which would last a long time. Great I thought, I’d get it in time to assemble more boards, without the insane shipping delays from china, so I ordered and got peace of mind.

A few days later I got it and I assembled a batch of boards with it and peeked through the microscope to inspect how it reflowed. Here’s what I saw:

bad_solder_paste

Holy cow! What happened? Tons of tiny balls of solder stuck in tons of solder paste residue. Not one of my best days, but certainly memorable. Continue reading

DIY SMD metal stencils – the definitive tutorial

In previous posts (here and here) I described my efforts and research to develop a DIY method to make good quality SMD metal stencils at home. I have since experimented some more and I believe I found the best method (so far) to do this with very cheap materials, yielding very good results.

Since transferring the toner to the soda can aluminum alloy was the most challenging part, I kept experimenting with different transfer mediums and other ways of possibly facilitating and perfecting the transfer.

Finally the solution is here: consistent, repeatable, “perfect” toner transfer, every time.

Continue reading