Ask Hackaday: At What Point Is Hand Pick And Place Too Much Work?

Just a section from a render of the board in question. It's a daunting task for anyone facing it with a set of tweezers or a vacuum pencil.
Just a section from a render of the board in question. It’s a daunting task for anyone facing it with a set of tweezers or a vacuum pencil.

A friend of ours here at Hackaday has an audacious design in the works that we hope will one day become a prototype that we can feature here. That day may be a little while coming though, because it has somewhere close to a thousand of the smaller SMD components in multiple repeated blocks on a modestly sized board, and his quote from a Chinese board house for assembly is eye-watering. He lacks a pick-and-place machine of his own, and unsurprisingly the idea of doing the job by hand is a little daunting.

We can certainly feel his pain, for in the past we’ve been there. The job described in the linked article had a similar number of components with much more variety and on a much larger board, but still took two experienced engineers all day and into the night to populate. The solder paste had started to spread by the end, morphing from clearly defined blocks to an indistinct mush often covering more than one pad. Our eyes meanwhile were somewhat fatigued by the experience, and it’s not something any sane person would wish to repeat.

Mulling over our friend’s board and comparing it with the experience related above, are we on the edge of what is possible with hand pick-and-place, or should we be working at the next level? Board assembly is a finely judged matter of economics at a commercial level, but when at a one-off personal construction level the option of paying for assembly just isn’t there, is there a practical limit to the scale of the task? Where do you, our readers, draw the line? We’d love to hear your views.

Meanwhile our friend’s audacious project is still shrouded in a bit of secrecy, but we’ll continue to encourage him to show it to the world. It’s not often that you look at a circuit diagram and think “I wish I’d thought of that!”, but from what we’ve seen this fits the category. If he pulls it off then we’ll bring you the result.

PCB image, Andrew Magill (CC BY 2.0).

Control The Suck With This Manual Vacuum Pick-And-Place Tool

The tapes that surface-mount devices come in may be optimized for automated pick and place, but woe betide those who try to dig components out manually. No matter what size package, the well on the tape seems to be just a wee bit too small to allow tweezers to grip it, so you end up picking the thing up edgewise or worse, pinching too tight and launching the tiny thing into The Void. We hope you ordered extra.

Such circumstances are why vacuum handlers were invented, but useful as they are for picking and placing SMDs, they aren’t perfect. [Steve Gardener]’s sub-optimal experience with such tools led him to build this custom vacuum pick-and-place tool. It’s based on an off-the-shelf Weller unit, of which only the handpiece remains. A bigger, more powerful vacuum pump is joined in a custom enclosure by a PCB with a PIC18F13K22 microcontroller, a power supply, a solenoid to control the vacuum, and a relay to switch the pump. A footswitch starts the pump and closes the vacuum vent; letting off the pedal opens the vent to drop the part, while the pump keeps running for a variable time. This lets him rapidly work through a series of parts without having to build vacuum back up between picks. The video below shows the build and the tool in action.

We love the idea of this tool, and the polished look is pretty slick too. If manual pick-and-place isn’t for you, though, maybe converting a 3D-printer into an automated PnP is something to check out.

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Pick And Place Robot Built With Fischertechnik

We’d be entirely wrong to think that Fichertechnik is just a toy for kids. It’s also perfect for prototyping the control system of robots. [davidatfsg]’s recent entry in the Hackaday Prize, Delta Robot, shows how complex robotics can be implemented without the hardship of having to drill, cut, bolt together or weld components. The added bonus is that the machine can be completely disassembled non-destructively and rebuilt with a new and better design with little or no waste.

The project uses inverse kinematics running on an Arduino Mega to pick coloured objects off a moving conveyor belt and drop them in their respective bins. There’s also also an optical encoder for regulating the speed of the conveyor and a laser light beam for sensing that the object on the conveyor has reached the correct position to be picked.

Not every component is ‘off the shelf’. [davidatfsg] 3D printed a simple nozzle for the actual ‘pick’ and the vacuum required was generated by the clever use of a pair of pneumatic cylinders and solenoid operated air valves.

We’re pretty sure that this will not be the last project on Hackaday that uses Fischertechnik components and it’s the second one that [davidatfsg] has concocted. Videos of the machine working after the break! Continue reading “Pick And Place Robot Built With Fischertechnik”

Pick And Place For Toys

Toys are great for keeping the kids amused at play time, but oftentimes its difficult to get them to understand the importance of tidying up after themselves. It would naturally be ideal to have some manner of robot to help in this regard, and [Paco Garcia] might just be leading the charge in this area.

[Paco]’s project involves combining a robotic arm with computer vision tools in order to allow it to pick and place small objects – in this example, toys. The robot arm is of a gantry type, built on an aluminium frame with 3D printed components. The computer vision side of things is handled by a Raspberry Pi, fitted with the standard camera and running OpenCV software for object recognition. This then passes commands to an Arduino which runs the stepper motors controlling the arm.

[Paco] notes that the hardest part of the build was learning how to generate real-world coordinates from a single camera feed in OpenCV. With that mastered, the rest of the dominoes began to fall. With trigonometry and kinematics knowledge in hand, the robot has grown capable of reliably picking and placing small objects across its range of motion. Future work aims to improve the robot’s abilities to rotate and otherwise manipulate its end effector for more versatility.

Naturally, we typically see pick and place machines used for PCB production – and this build is no exception. Video after the break.

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Monoprice Mini Converted To Pick And Place (Kinda)

Would you believe that you can take a cheap 3D printer and easily convert it into a full function pick and place machine to help assemble your PCBs? No? Well good, because you can’t. A real pick and place needs all kinds of sensors and logic to identify parts, rotate them, make sure everything is aligned, etc, etc. There’s no way you could just bolt all that onto a cheap 3D printer, and let’s not even talk about the lack of closed loop control.

But if you have a very specific use case, namely a PCB that only has a relatively large single part that doesn’t need to be rotated, [Connor Nishijima] might have a solution for you. He bought a $150 USD Monoprice Mini, and with the addition of a few printed parts, was able to build a machine that drastically cuts down the time it takes for him to build his LED boards. Best of all the modification doesn’t involve any permanent changes to the printer, he can just pop off the vacuum attachment when he wants to print something.

Beyond the 3D printed parts (which were made on the printer itself), the only thing you need to make the modification is the vacuum pump. [Connor] is using a hot air station that includes a vacuum pump for picking up SMD components, but he mentions that you’d probably better off just modifying an aquarium pump and using that. A printed holder snaps over the cooling fan of the Monoprice Mini to hold the vacuum pickup tool, and another printed piece holds the strip of LEDs and the PCB. It’s worth noting that the machine has no ability to control the vacuum pump, and doesn’t need to. The pickup tool is so weak that when the LED lands in the solder paste it sticks to the board well enough that the tool can’t lift it back off.

The real genius in this build comes from the manually written G-Code. You load it from the printer’s built in menu system as if it was a normal 3D print, and it instructs the printer to move the vacuum tool over the line of LEDs, pick one up, and drop it in place on the PCB. It then uses a small peg built into the vacuum tool holder to advance the line of LEDs before starting the cycle all over again. Incredibly, it does this whole complex dance 20 times for each PCB without ever having any kind of feedback or alignment check. It only works because [Connor] was willing to go through the trial and error of getting the calibration and G-Code down as close to perfect as can be expected for such a cheap machine.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the Monoprice Mini converted into something a bit more impressive than a cheapo 3D printer. Seems that for whatever the machine lacks in the printing department, it more than makes up for in hackability.

Continue reading “Monoprice Mini Converted To Pick And Place (Kinda)”

Blinging Buttons For Pick And Place

With 3D-printing, cheap CNC machines, and the huge variety of hardware available these days, really slick-looking control panels are getting to be commonplace. We’re especially fond of those nice indicators with the chrome bezels, and the matching pushbuttons with LED backlighting; those can really make a statement on a panel.

Sadly for [Proto G], though, the LEDs in his indicator of choice were just boring old one-color units, so he swapped them out and made these addressable RGB indicators. The stock lamps are not cheap units, but they do have a certain look, and they’re big enough to allow room for a little modification. The original guts were removed with a Dremel to make way for a Neopixel board. [Proto G] wanted to bring the board’s pads out to screw terminals, so he had to adapt the 3.0-mm pitch blocks he had on hand to the 2.54-mm pitch on Neopixel board, but that actually came out neater than you’d think. With a little hot glue to stick it all back together, he now has fully-addressable indicators that can be daisy-chained together and only take up a single GPIO pin.

These indicators and the nice looking panel they’re on is part of a delta pick-and-place robot build [Proto G] has been working for a while. He’s had some interesting side projects too, like the clickiest digital clock in the world and easing ESP32 setup for end-users. While we like all his stuff, we can’t wait to write up the finished delta.

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A Pick-And-Place That Is A Work Of Art

It’s a Holy Grail among hackerspaces, the possession of a pick-and-place machine. These robotic helpers for placing surface-mount components on PCBs are something of a gateway to electronic production, but they can carry a fearsome cost. Happily for the cash-strapped would-be electronic manufacturer, it is possible to build a pick-and-place for yourself. [Mcuoneclipse] has demonstrated this with a rather impressive build that works with the freely available OpenPnP software.

Superficially it shares much with what you might expect from a small CNC mill, in that it has a frame made from extruded aluminium that carries rails that trace an X and a Y axis supporting a tool head. But instead of a blade it has a box made from laser-cut ply that contains a camera and a vacuum pick-up tool that can collect a component from the tapes and deposit it in the correct point on the board. At the machine’s heart is a Smoothieboard, and the work is done by an assortment of solenoid valves and actuators. A huge amount of attention to detail has been paid to this build, with a holder for all the interchangeable nozzles for different component sizes, laser-cut mountings for all the motorised components, and automatic feeders for the SMD tapes all being carefully designed and built. Several iterations of the design are presented, in particular around the head itself which has passed through more than one form to remove as much vibration as possible. But don’t take it from us, have a look at the video we’ve pasted in below the break.

This isn’t the first pick-and-place machine we’ve brought you here at Hackaday. If you already have a 3D printer, would you consider this upgrade?

Continue reading “A Pick-And-Place That Is A Work Of Art”