A home-made vacuum pickup tool

Hackaday Prize 2022: Salvaged Pumps And Hoses Make A Neat Vacuum Pickup Tool

Anyone who’s ever assembled a PCB full of tiny SMD parts will have found that tweezers are not always the best tool when it comes to accurate positioning. Thin, flat components like microcontrollers can be awkward to pick up securely, while small resistors and capacitors have a tendency of snapping out of your tweezers’ grip and flying off into the sunset (or your carpet). Vacuum pickup tools can be a great help, but the most convenient models, with an electric air pump and a foot switch, can be a bit expensive. [sjm4306] shows that it doesn’t have to be that way: he built his “VacPen” mostly from reused components.

At the heart of the project is a little vacuum pump with a pen-like device hooked up to it through a flexible hose. The tip of the pen holds a pickup nozzle that came from a cheap manual pick and place tool. Both the pump and pen were salvaged from some gas analysis instrument that [sjm4306] tore apart a long time ago; the pen is especially convenient since it comes with a built-in brush-like filter that can trap any debris or tiny parts that might be accidentally swallowed.

The VacPen controller is housed inside a neat 3D printed enclosure that holds a custom PCB with an ATtiny microcontroller. The pump can be operated either through a foot switch, or by pressing on the touch-sensitive pad on top of the enclosure. [sjm4306] made this by soldering a wire to a copper penny and sticking it on the inside of the lid: simple, effective and cheap.

As you can see in the video embedded below, the VacPen is perfectly capable of picking up any kind of SMD component, and just as importantly, immediately releasing it at the desired moment. If you’re new to SMD technology, we can recommend this tutorial by [Bil Herd] that covers vacuum tweezers as well. If you’re more into automating vacuum pickup tools, this cool robot might be of your interest.

Continue reading “Hackaday Prize 2022: Salvaged Pumps And Hoses Make A Neat Vacuum Pickup Tool”

Pick and place reels

Pick And Place Hack Chat Reveals Assembly Secrets

These days we’ve got powerful free tools to do CAD and circuit design, cheap desktop 3D printers that can knock out bespoke enclosures, and convenient services that will spin up a stack of your PCBs and send them hurtling towards your front door for far less than anyone could have imagined. In short, if you want to build your own professional-looking gadgets, the only limit is your time and ambition. Well, assuming you only want to build a few of them, anyway.

Once you start adding some zeros to the number of units you’re looking to produce, hand assembling PCBs quickly becomes a non-starter. Enter the pick and place machine. This wonder of modern technology can drop all those microscopic components on your board in a fraction of the time it would take a human, and never needs to take a bathroom break. This week Chris Denney stopped by the Hack Chat to talk about these incredible machines and all the minutiae of turning your circuit board design into a finished product.

Chris is the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of Worthington Assembly, a quick turn electronics manufacturer in South Deerfield, Massachusetts that has been building and shipping custom circuit boards since 1974. He knows a thing or two about PCB production, and looking to help junior and mid-level engineers create easier to manufacture designs, he started the “Pick, Place, Podcast” when COVID hit and in-person tours of the facility were no longer possible. Now he says he can tell when a board comes from a regular listener by how many of his tips make it into the design.

So what should you be doing to make sure your board assembly goes as smoothly as possible? Chris says a lot of it is pretty common sense stuff, like including clear polarity indicators, having a legible silkscreen, and the use of fiducial markers. But some of the tips might come as something of a surprise, such as his advice to stick with the classic green solder mask. While modern board houses might let you select from a rainbow of colors, the fact is that green is what most equipment has been historically designed to work with.

That black PCB might look slick, but can confuse older pick and place machines or conveyors which were designed with the reflectivity of the classic green PCB in mind. It also makes automated optical inspection (AOI) much more difficult, especially with smaller component packages. That said, other colors such as white and red are less of a problem and often just require some fine tuning of the equipment.

He also pulled back the curtain a bit on how the contract manufacturing (CM) world works. While many might have the impression that the PCB game has moved overseas, Chris says orders of less than 10,000 units are still largely handheld by domestic CMs to minimize turnaround time. He also notes that many assembly houses are supported almost entirely by a few key accounts, so while they may be juggling 50 customers, there’s usually just two or three “big fish” that provide 80% of their business. With such a tight-knit group, he cautions CMs can be a bit selective; so if a customer is difficult to work with they can easily find themselves on the short end of the stick.

While the Hack Chat is officially only scheduled for an hour, Chris hung out for closer to three, chatting with community members about everything and anything to do with electronic design and production. His knowledge and passion for the subject was readily apparent, and we’re glad he was able to make time in his schedule to join us.


The Hack Chat is a weekly online chat session hosted by leading experts from all corners of the hardware hacking universe. It’s a great way for hackers connect in a fun and informal way, but if you can’t make it live, these overview posts as well as the transcripts posted to Hackaday.io make sure you don’t miss out.

Pick and place reels

Pick And Place Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, February 9 at noon Pacific for the Pick and Place Hack Chat with Chris Denney!

We in the hacker trade are pretty used to miracles — we make them all the time. But even the most jaded among us has to admit that modern PCB assembly, where components that could easily hide under a grain of sand are handled by robots, borders on witchcraft. The pick and place machines that work these wonders not only have to hit their marks accurately and precisely, but they also do it at blinding speeds and for days on end.

join-hack-chatLuckily, even those of us who design circuits for a living and depend on PCB assembly services to realize those designs can, at least to some degree, abstract the details of the pick and place phase of the process away. But making it “just work” isn’t a trivial task, and learning a little bit about what it takes to do so can make us better designers. Plus, it’s just plain cool to watch a pick and place do its thing. And to dive a little deeper into pick and place, Chris Denney, CTO of Worthington Assembly and co-host of “Pick, Place, Podcast” will stop by the Hack Chat. If you’ve ever wondered about the inner workings of PCB assembly and the role pick and place plays in it, or if you’re looking for tips on how to optimize your layouts for pick and place, this is one you won’t want to miss!

Our Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, February 9 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have you tied up, we have a handy time zone converter.

Continue reading “Pick And Place Hack Chat”

Angel Investor Gives Open Source PnP A Massive Boost

We love it when an Open Source hardware project grows up and turns into a sustainable business, bootstrapped with nothing but hard work and great ideas, but it’s a really tough prospect to do it using your own money, ploughing the profits from any sales back into development and not taking a dime in wages whilst you do so. People obviously need an income to live off, and that time spent working on a startup is time you can’t spend earning your keep. So it’s with great pleasure that we can bring you the latest news from [Stephen Hawes] and his pick-and-place machine plans. In the year since we last checked in with the project, development has continued at a steady pace, with the guys quickly outgrowing the garage workspace, whilst they prepare PnP machine kits ready for sale.

The big news is that [Joel Spolsky], co-founder of Stack Exchange, creator of Kanban management tool, Trello, and angel investor, has made a sizable ($100K USD) investment in the company which has allowed them to take on a 3,000+ sq. ft office space, and given them the funds for stock and all that boring business overhead stuff. [Stephen] takes time to explain that [Joel] will not have any control of the company, and all hardware and software will remain fully Open Source. For those interested [Joel] implemented his investment as a SAFE note (Simple Agreement for Future Equity) and as such, [Joel] will only make a return in the form of a small share allocation, if they hit the big-time in the future. Can’t really say fairer than that!

[Stephen] did recently receive a ‘cease and desist’ notice regarding his use of the ‘Index’ name for the project, since that is already a trademarked term, defended by somebody else, the project will need change name very soon. A minor setback, but it is a bit annoying that a chunk of that investment now has to go to a lawyer to make sure that the name they do eventually choose isn’t already taken and is safe to use.

In terms of the machine itself, it is now is fully operating, with multiple automatic tape feeders, featuring up and down-facing machine vision, and all that OpenPnP goodness. It has even been demonstrated placing parts for its own custom motherboard PCB, reprap style. Nice!

We wish [Stephen] and partner [Lucian] all the success they deserve, and hope they get those kits out there, because there are people around these parts that need an affordable, hackable, desktop PnP machine ASAP, this scribe included!

Here’s the earlier story covering the machine, but it’s not the only Open Source PnP machine we’ve seen – here’s another one from a few years ago.

Continue reading “Angel Investor Gives Open Source PnP A Massive Boost”

Photo of Pixel Pump Pick & Place Machine

Pixel Pump Pick & Place Positions Parts Precisely

You’ve finally decided to take the plunge and build a board with surface-mount parts. After carefully dispensing the solder paste with a syringe, it’s time to place the parts. You take up your trusty tweezers and reach to grab a SOIC-14 logic IC—only there’s not a great way to grab it. The IC is too long to grab one way and has leads obstructing the other. You work around the leads, drop the IC into place, and then pick up an 0402 resistor. You gently set the resistor into your perfectly dispensed solder paste, pull the tweezers away, and the resistor has stuck to your slightly magnetic tweezers. [Robin Reiter] realized that hobbyists and small manufacturers needed a better way to assemble their surface-mount designs, so he’s building the Pixel Pump Pick & Place, an open-source vacuum assembly tool.

Vacuum assembly tools use a blunt-tipped needle and suction to pick up surface-mount parts. Pressing an attached foot pedal disables the vacuum, allowing the part to be gently released. [Robin] thought to include a few thoughtful features to make the Pixel Pump even more useful. It has adjustable suction presets and a self-cleaning feature to blow out any solder paste you accidentally suck up. Most of the non-electronic parts are 3D printed, and [Robin] intends to make the entire design open-source.

[Robin] has a long history of designing tools to make surface-mount assembly easier—you may remember his 3D-printed magazines for dispensing surface-mount parts. If you want to take your PCB assembly setup to the next level, check out the PnPAssist, which shines a laser crosshair right where you should put each part.

The Man-Machine

This week we saw a couple DIY tools for small-run manufacturing at home that help make your life easier if you’re climbing out of the happy bucket and into the pit of despair — when you’re making enough of the item that it’s not fun any more, but you still don’t have the volume to leave the manufacturing to someone else.

The first was an automatic through-hole soldering machine made from a 3D printer. This actually makes sense even if you’re getting boards assembled for you, because through-hole pads are a lot more expensive than SMT parts, and they usually charge per pin. Put a 2×20 pin header on your project, and it can end up costing a lot. Or you can robotificate the solution.

This week’s second solution really caught my eye. PnPassist is machine that turns your PCB around, locates a laser crosshair over the next SMT piece that you need to place, and even has an OLED screen that tells you what to put there. There are many great mechanical design choices here, but what really drew my attention is how well this machine fills a gap between manual and fully automatic pick-and-place.

I know you hate looking back and forth between the board and the schematic or parts list, trying to find just where Q23 is on the darn board, or looking up resistor values. With PnPassist, you still have to do the placing, but with machine guidance. If you don’t have the money or the space for a fully automatic PnP, this is an obvious win, but also for short runs when loading up the reels takes more time than populating the board, this could be a huge win.

I love this kind of human-capability-enhancing machine, and I’m always happy to see a design like this. It reminds me of the very clever Shaper Origin, or even just this handy automatic XY table for drilling many precise holes. In all these cases, there’s some part of the problem that would be hard to solve, require extremely bulky or expensive machinery, or can just be more simply accomplished by a meatbag. But combining machine precision with the human element produces something more than the sum of the parts.

What’s your favorite human-enhancing tool?

PnPAssist: A “Smart” Build Platform For Manual PCB Assembly

Open source pick and place machines have come a long way in the past years, but are not necessarily worth the setup time and machine cost if you are only building a few PCBs at a time. [Nuri Erginer] found himself in this situation regularly, so he created PnPAssist, a “smart” build platform to speed up manual PCB assembly. Video after the break.

The PnP assist consists of a small circular platform that can automatically translate and rotate to place the current footprint in the middle of the platform, right in the center of your microscope’s view, and a laser crosshair. The entire device can also rotate freely on its base to avoid contorting your arm to match the footprint orientation. Just export the PnP file from your favorite PCB design software, load it on a micro SD card, plug it into the PnPAssist, and start assembling. The relevant component information is displayed on a small OLED display right on the machine. [Nuri] has also created a component organizing tray that will indicate the correct compartment with an RGB LED.

Below the build platform, a 3D printed gear is in contact with a pair of parallel lead screws driven by stepper motors. The relative motion of the lead screws allows the platform to rotate, translate, or both. This arrangement also means the machine is a lot more compact than a conventional XY-table and can be packed away when not in use. The base is held firmly in place on the workbench with a set of suction cups or screws. Power is provided through the fixed base using a slip-ring, so there are no cables to twist up as you spin the machine around. Continue reading “PnPAssist: A “Smart” Build Platform For Manual PCB Assembly”