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?

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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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Tools of the Trade – Component Placing

Recently we started a series on the components used to assemble a circuit board. The first issue was on dispensing solder paste. Moving down the assembly line, with the paste already on the board, the next step is getting the components onto the PCB. We’re just going to address SMT components in this issue, because the through hole assembly doesn’t take place until after the SMT components have gone through the process to affix them to the board.


SMT components will come in reels. These reels are paper or plastic with a clear plastic strip on top, and a reel typically has a few thousand components on it. Economies of scale really kick in with reels, especially passives. If you order SMT resistors in quantities of 1-10, they’re usually $.10 each. If you order a reel of 5000, it’s usually about $5 for the reel. It is cheaper to purchase a reel of 10 kOhm 0603 resistors and never have to order them again in your life than it is to order a few at a time. Plus the reel can be used on many pick-and-place machines, but the cut tape is often too short to use in automated processes.

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A DIY Pick and Place You Can Build Right Now

There have been quite a few DIY pick and place projects popping up recently, but most of them are limited to conceptual designs or just partially working prototypes. [Juha] wrote in to let us know about his project, LitePlacer, which is a fully functional DIY pick and place machine with working vision that can actually import BOMs and place parts as small as 0402 with pretty good accuracy.

LitePlacer UIWhile some other DIY pick and place setups we’ve featured use fairly exotic setups like delta bots, this machine is built around typical grooved bearings and extruded aluminum. The end effector includes a rotating vacuum tip and a camera mounted alongside the tip. The camera provides feedback for locating fiducials and for finding the position of parts. Instead of using feeders for his machine, [Juha] opted to pick parts directly from pieces of cut tape. While this might be inconvenient if you’re placing large quantities of a single part, it helps keep the design simple.

The software that runs the machine is pretty sophisticated. After a bit of configuration it’s able to import a BOM with X/Y information and start placing within seconds. It also uses the camera to calibrate the needle, measure the PCB  using the fiducials, and pinpoint the location of cut tape sections.

If you want to build your own machine, [Juha] published detailed instructions that walk you through the entire assembly process. He’s also selling a kit of parts if you don’t want to source everything yourself. Check out the video after the break to see the machine import a BOM and place some parts (all the way down to 0402).

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Pick and Place Machines at Maker Faire

A few years ago, every booth at a Maker Faire had a 3D printer. It didn’t matter if 3D printing was only tangental to the business, or even if the printer worked. 3D printers have finally jumped the shark, and there’s going to be an awesome t-shirt to reflect this fact. This year there weren’t many 3D printers, leaving us asking ourselves what the new hotness is.

Pick and place machines. We couldn’t find many at the faire, and only Carbide Labs’ Pick and Paste machine was working on picking up small resistors and LEDs the entire faire. Carbide’s Pick and Paste machine is exactly what you would expect in a pick and place machine: it picks up components out of tapes and wells, orients them correctly, and plops them down on a board.

The killer feature for the Pick and Paste is its modular design. The toolhead is expandable, allowing anyone to add a second vacuum nozzle to double the rate parts are placed, or a solder paste dispenser. The guys didn’t have the paste dispenser working for the fair (leaded solder and kids don’t mix), but this machine is effectively a combination pick and place machine and solder paste dispenser, something that’s usually two machines on an assembly line.

Also at the faire was Tempo Automation. They’re in a pseudo-stealth mode right now, waiting until everything works perfectly until bringing their machine to the masses. It is, however, exceptionally fast and about a third of the price of a similar machine.

The only other pick and place machine at the faire was the Firepick Delta, one of the more popular projects on hackaday.io and one of fifty finalists for the Hackaday Prize. Unfortunately, the FirePick Delta was broken in shipping, and although [Neil] was sitting right next to the 3D printing guys, it would have taken all weekend to repair the machine.