MeatBagPnP Makes You the Automatic Pick and Place

It’s amazing how hackers are nowadays building increasingly complex hardware with SMD parts as small as grains of sand. Getting multilayer PCB’s and soldering stencils in small quantities for prototyping is easier than ever before. But Pick-and-Place — the process of taking parts and stuffing them on the PCB in preparation for soldering — is elusive, for several reasons. For one, it makes sense only if you plan to do volume production as the cost and time for just setting up the PnP machine for a small run is prohibitive. And a desktop PnP machine isn’t yet as ubiquitous as a 3D printer. Placing parts on the board is one process that still needs to be done manually. Just make sure you don’t sneeze when you’re doing it.

Of course the human is the slow part of this process. [Colin O’Flynn] wrote a python script that he calls MeatBagPnP to ease this bottleneck. It’s designed to look at a row in a parts position file generated from your EDA program and highlight on a render of the board where that part needs to be placed. The human then does what a robotic PnP would have done.

A bar code scanner is not necessary, but using one does make the process a bit quicker. When you scan a code on the part bag, the script highlights the row on the spreadsheet and puts a marker on the first instance of it on the board. After you’ve placed the part, pressing the space bar puts a marker on the next instance of the same value. The script shows it’s done after all parts of the same value are populated and you can then move on to the next part. If you don’t have a bar code scanner handy, you can highlight a row manually and it’ll tell you where to put that part. Check it out in the video below.

Of course, before you use this tool you need some prior preparation. You need a good PNG image of the board (both sides if it is double-sided) scaled so that it is the same dimensions as the target board. The parts position file generated from your EDA tool must use the lower left corner of the board as the origin. You then tell the tool the board dimensions and it scales up everything so that it can put the red markers at the designated XY positions. The script works for single and double-sided boards. For a board with just a few parts, it may not be worth the trouble of doing this, but if you are trying to manually populate a complex board with a lot of parts, using a script like this could make the process a lot less painful.

The project is still fresh and rough around the edges, so if you have comments or feedback to offer, [Colin] is listening.

[Colin]’s name ought to ring a bell — he’s the hacker who built ChipWhisperer which took 2nd Prize at The Hackaday Prize in 2014. The MeatBagPnP project is a result of having worked at building increasingly complex boards manually and trying to make the process easier. In addition to the walk-through of how the script works after the break we’ve embedded his other video from three years back when he was stuffing parts — including BGA’s — the hard way and then reflowing them in a Chinese oven with hacked firmware.

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Upverter Joins Altium

In a post on the Upverter blog today, [Zak Homuth], founder of the online EDA suite Upverter has announced they have been acquired by Altium.

The largest change in the announcement is the removal of Upverter’s paid professional tier of service. Now, the entirety of Upverter is free. Previously, this paid professional tier included CAM export, 3D preview, BOM management, and unlimited private projects for $1200 per seat per year.

Hackaday has taken a look at Upverter before in an book-length series of posts describing how to build a PCB in every software tool. While Upverter is a web-based PCB design tool that doesn’t respond to a right mouse click, the experience was pleasant overall. There are some interesting features in Upverter that make PCB design work fun — snap-to alignment of pads, a phenomenal number of ways to export your data — and it’s more than capable enough for the electronics hobbyist.

With the Altium announcement, [Zak] says Upverter will continue on its mission to create a system to design a complete product, from schematic to enclosure to firmware to BOM management.

Learn Advanced PCB Design for $200–Worth It?

[Helentronica] has been using Altium Designer to lay out PC boards since he was a student. Now as a freelancer, he felt like he didn’t quite know all that he wanted to know. Keep in mind he’d done multilayer boards with BGAs and LVDS routing, so he was no neophyte. He decided to spend about $200 on an advanced course from Fedevel Academy. In this day where everything is free on the Internet, is it worth paying $200 to watch some videos?

[Helentronica] probably weighed the same question. However, he was interested in the course project which is an open-source computer module with an i.MX6 processor, 1 GB of DDR3 SDRAM and lots of expansion options. In fact, the ad copy that sold him was:

You will be practicing on a real high-speed board with 1.2GHz CPU and DDR3, PCIE, SATA, HDMI, LVDS, 1Gb Ethernet and more

He completed the course. Was it worth it? We won’t spoil the story, but you should check out his post and find out. Even if you don’t want to drop $200 or you don’t use Altium, you will probably pick up some tips on PC board layout.

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Octopart and Altium Join Forces

Octopart, the search engine for electronic parts, is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Altium.

This acquisition is neither Altium’s first parts database purchase, nor is it Octopart’s first interaction with Altium. Ciiva, a parts and datasheet search engine was acquired by Altium a few years ago, and Altium Circuit Maker features an interface to the Octopart database.

Under the deal, Octopart will remain independent of Altium and operate out of their NYC office, and plans are for the part search engine to remain free and open.

Disclosure: Hackaday’s parent company, Supplyframe, also runs FindChips.com and Parts.io, component search tools.

Altium Gives Away The Farm With New Circuit Maker Software

Things are about to get interesting in the world of PCB design software for the open source hardware community. This week, Altium launched the open public beta for its new Circuit Maker software, and it’s a major change from what we looked at previously. Everything is free.

You heard that right, free. Unlimited board size, and unlimited layers – all free. And this isn’t some stripped-down, bare-bones software here. They’ve thrown in almost everything under the sun; a 3D viewer, team project collaboration, EagleCAD and DFX import, integrated Octopart supplier and pricing information, no commercial usage limits, and project sharing. And if that isn’t enough, the “engine” seems to be the exact same back-end that is used in the full $10,000 Altium Designer as well(with a bit easier to use user interface on top). This is a major departure from the pre-beta we covered back in September. Altium was going have board size and layer limits, with the ability to “upgrade” at a cost. So by now you’re thinking to yourself “OK, what’s the catch?” Well there are a few gotchas – but only a few.

The software uses cloud based storage for your project files, and is community based. It won’t work without an Internet connection, there is no local storage, and it forces you to share your projects with the world. You do get two “Sandbox” designs that you can hide from the world before you generate your gerber files, but after that, your project is online for the whole world to see. Will that be a deal killer for the OSHW community? We’ll find out soon enough.

One thing is for sure, anyone with a doggy Internet connection is not going to enjoy using Circuit Maker (we’re hoping they remove that limitation in the final product). And as with any cloud based service, we wonder how many people will be willing to trust their designs to a free service that could be turned off on a whim? Or will the unlimited board size and layers, combined with Altium’s name and robust software win people over in the end?

If you want to see in-depth review of Circuit Maker, we highly recommend you watch the video after the break.  [Dave Jones] of the eevblog, gives you a full rundown on the beta version. Dave’s in a unique place to review this software, not only has he been using Altium since the mid-80’s as a professional engineer, he’s also a former Altium employee.

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Animated LED Valentine Heart

With only a week left until Valentine’s day, [Henry] needed to think on his feet. He wanted to build something for his girlfriend but with limited time, he needed to work with what he had available. After scrounging up some parts and a bit of CAD work, he ended up with a nice animated LED Valentine heart.

[Henry] had a bunch of WS2812 LEDs left over from an older project. These surface mount LED’s are very cool. They come in a small form factor and include red, green, and blue LEDs all in a single package. On top of that, they have a built-in control circuit which makes each LED individually addressable. It’s similar to the LED strips we’ve seen in the past, only now the control circuit is built right into the LED.

Starting with the LEDs, [Henry] decided to build a large animated heart. Being a stickler for details, he worked out the perfect LED placement by beginning his design with three concentric heart shapes. The hearts were plotted in Excel and were then scaled until he ended up with something he liked. This final design showed where to place each LED.

The next step was to design the PCB in Altium Designer. [Henry’s] design is two-sided with large copper planes on either side. He opted to make good use of the extra copper surface by etching a custom design into the back with his girlfriend’s name. He included a space for the ATMega48 chip which would be running the animations. Finally, he sent the design off to a fab house and managed to get it back 48 hours later.

After soldering all of the components in place, [Henry] programmed up a few animations for the LEDs. He also built a custom frame to house the PCB. The frame includes a white screen that diffuses and softens the light from the LEDs. The final product looks great and is sure to win any geek’s heart. Continue reading “Animated LED Valentine Heart”

Reverse Engineering Altium Files

Several times in the last few weeks, I’ve heard people say, ‘this will be the last PCB I design in Eagle.’ That’s bad news for CadSoft, but if there’s one thing Eagle has done right, its their switch to an XML file format. Now anyone can write their own design tools for Eagle without mucking about with binary files.

Not all EDA softwares are created equally, and a lot of vendors use binary file formats as a way to keep their market share. Altium is one of the worst offenders, but by diving into the binary files it’s possible to reverse engineer these proprietary file formats into something nearly human-readable.

[dstanko.au]’s first step towards using an Altium file with his own tools was opening it up with a hex editor. Yeah, this is as raw as it can possibly get, but simply by scrolling through the file, he was able to find some interesting bits hanging around the file. It turns out, Altium uses something called a Compound Document File, similar to what Office uses for Word and PowerPoint files, to store all the information. Looking through the lens of this file format, [dstanko.au] found all the content was held in a stream called ‘FileHeader’, everything was an array of strings (yeah, everything is in text), and lines of text are separated by ‘|’ in name=value pairs.

With a little bit of code, [dstanko] managed to dump all these text records into a pseudo plain text format, then convert everything into JSON. You can check out all the code here.