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.

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Acrylic Stencils Help with Component Placement for SMD Assembly

Surface mount is where the action is in the world of DIY PCBs, and deservedly so. SMDs are so much smaller than through-hole components, and fewer holes to drill make surface-mount PCBs easier to manufacture. Reflow soldering is even a snap now thanks to DIY ovens and solder stencils you can get when you order your boards.

So what’s the point of adding another stencil to the surface-mount process? These component placement stencils are [James Bowman]’s solution for speeding up assembly of boards in production runs too small to justify a pick and place robot. [James] finds that placing small components like discrete resistors and caps easy, but struggles with the placement of the larger components, like QFN packaged microcontrollers. Getting such packages lined up exactly is hard when the leads are underneath, and he found repositioning led to smeared solder paste. His acrylic stencils, which are laser-cut from SVGs derived directly from the Eagle files with a script he provides, sandwich the prepped board and let him just drop the big packages into their holes. The acrylic pops off after placement, leaving the components stuck to the solder paste and ready for their trip to the Easy Bake.

[James] claims it really speeds up hand placement in his biggish runs, and it’s a whole lot cheaper than a dedicated robot. But as slick as we think this idea is, a DIY pick and place is still really sweet.

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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PCB Holder Quick-fix Turns Out To Be Big Improvement

When something needs improving, most hacks often make a small tweak to address a problem without changing how things really work. Other hacks go a level deeper, and that’s what [Felix Rusu] did with his 3D printed magnetic holders. Originally designed to address a shortcoming with the PCB holders in his LE40V desktop pick-and-place machine, they turned out to be useful for other applications as well, and easily modified to use whatever size magnets happen to be handy.

The problem [Felix] had with the PCB holders on his pick-and-place was that they hold the board suspended in midair by gripping the sides. The board is held securely, but the high density of parts on panelized PCB designs leads to vibrations in the suspended board as the pick-and-place head goes to work. Things are even worse when the board is v-scored for the purpose of easily snapping apart the smaller boards later; they sometimes break along the score lines due to the stress.

Most people would solve this problem by putting a spacer underneath the board to stabilize things, but [Felix] decided to go a level deeper and change the mounting system altogether with a simple mod. The boards now lie on a flat metal plate, and his magnetic holders are simple to make and easily do the job of holding any size PCB secure. As a bonus, it turns out that the holders also do a passable job of holding work materials down on a laser cutter’s honeycomb table. A video overview is embedded below, and the design files are available on Thingiverse.

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Programmable Air Makes Robotics A Breeze

[Amitabh] was frustrated by the lack of options for controlling air pressure in soft robotics. The most promising initiative, Pneuduino, seemed to be this close to a Shenzhen production run, but the creators have gone radio silent. Faced with only expensive alternatives, he decided to take one for Team Hacker and created Programmable Air, a modular system for inflatable and vacuum-based robotics.

The idea is to build the cheapest, most hacker-friendly system he can by evaluating and experimenting with all sorts of off-the-shelf pumps, sensors, and valves. From the looks of it, he’s pretty much got it dialed in. Programmable Air is based around $9 medical-grade booster pumps that are as good at making vacuums as they are at providing pressurization. The main board has two pumps, and it looks like one is set to vacuum and the other to spew air. There’s an Arduino Nano to drive them, and a momentary to control the air flow.

Programmable Air can support up to 12 valves through daughter boards that connect via right-angle header. In the future, [Amitabh] may swap these out for magnetic connections or something else that can withstand repeated use.

Blow past the break to watch Programmable Air do pick and place, control a soft gripper, and inflate a balloon. The balloon’s pressurization behavior has made [Amitabh] reconsider adding a flow meter, but so far he hasn’t found a reasonable cost per unit. Can you recommend a small flow meter that won’t break the bank? Let us know in the comments.

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Pick And Place Machine Is Mirror Image Of 3D Printer

For his Hackaday prize entry, [Daren Schwenke] is creating an open-source pick-and-place head for a 3D printer which, is itself, mostly 3D printable. Some serious elbow grease has gone into the design of this, and it shows.

The really neat part of this project comes in the imaging of the part being placed. The aim is to image the part whilst it’s being moved, using a series of mirrors which swing out beneath the head. A Raspberry Pi camera is used to grab the photos, an LED halo provides consistent lighting, and whilst it looks like OpenPnP may have to be modified slightly to make this work, it will certainly be impressive to see.

Two 9g hobby servos are used: one to swing out the mirrors (taking 0.19 seconds) and one to rotate the part to the correct orientation (geared 2:1 to allow 360 degrees part rotation). Altogether the head weighs 59 grams – lighter than an E3D v6.

In order to bring this project to its current state, [Daren] has had to perform some auxiliary hacks.  The first was an aquarium to vacuum pump conversion – by switching around the valves and performing some other minor mods, [Daren] was able to produce a vacuum of 231mbar. The second was hacking a two-way solenoid valve from a coffee machine into a three-way unit. As [Daren] says, three-way valves are not expensive, but “a part in hand is worth two on Alibaba.”

Hybrid 3D-Printer Creates Complete Circuits, Case and All

The cool kids these days all seem to think we’re on the verge of an AI apocalypse, at least judging by all the virtual ink expended on various theories. But our putative AI overlords will have a hard time taking over the world without being able to build robotic legions to impose their will. That’s why this advance in 3D printing that can incorporate electronic circuits may be a little terrifying, at least to some.

The basic idea that [Florens Wasserfall] and colleagues at the University of Hamburg have come up with is a 3D-printer with a few special modifications. One is a separate extruder than squirts a conductive silver-polymer ink, the other is a simple vacuum tip on the printer extruder for pick and place operations. The bed of the printer also has a tray for storing SMD parts and cameras for the pick-and-place to locate parts and orient them before placing them into the uncured conductive ink traces.

The key to making the hardware work together though is a toolchain that allows circuits to be integrated into the print. It starts with a schematic in Eagle, which joins with the CAD model of the part to be printed in a modified version of Slic3r, the open-source slicing package. Locations for SMD components are defined, traces are routed, and the hybrid printer builds the whole assembly at once. The video below shows it in action, and we’ve got to say it’s pretty slick.

Sure, it’s all academic for now, with simple blinky light circuits and the like. But team this up with something like these PCB motors, and you’ve got the makings of a robotic nightmare. Or not.

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