SMD Soldering Challenge Lands At DEF CON

Strap on the jeweler’s loupe and lay off the caffeine for a few days. You’ll need to be at your peak for the SMD Soldering Challenge at this year’s DEF CON (number 26 for those counting).

It’s exciting to see that a Soldering Skills Village has been added to the conference this year. It will be in the same room as the Hardware Hacking Village. After all, who doesn’t want to solder at a conference? This soldering challenge is a great way to ring in the new village, and will take place in eight heats of six people for a total of 48 contestants. If you want to compete, make sure you get to the village right away and sign up for a slot!

A familiar board is being used for the contest. It’s the SMD Challenge board which MakersBox developed. You can check out the project page and even order one from their Tindie store if you like. The contest will be scored based on time, completion, functionality, precise orientation, and quality of the joints.

The SOIC ATtiny85 is a snap to place on the board, but things get harder with each step. To successfully complete it you need to solder both a resistor and an LED in 1206, 0805, 0603, 0402, and 0201 packages. Those oh-two-oh-ones are basically grains of sand… good luck with that! We’re really excited that MakersBox rolled some custom Hackaday and Tindie boards (pictured above) for this contest which we’re honored to sponsor. It sounds as if the winners will be announced during Hackaday and Tindie’s traditional Breakfast at DEF CON which is happening at 10:30am on Sunday in the HHV.

We plan to spectate during some of the heats and if you’re at the con you should too! For those participating, here’s our advice. Practice soldering the smallest of parts ahead of time (watch some videos on it at the very least). Bring a multimeter to test the diode polarity because you won’t be able to see the symbols on the smallest parts. You may even consider bringing some custom tools; this surface mount “clamp” comes to mind, you’ll just need a much smaller version.

If you have advice of your own, we’d love to hear it in the comments below!

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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A 3D-Printed Bowl Feeder for Tiny SMD Parts

[Andrzej Laczewski] has something big in mind for small parts, specifically SMD resistors and capacitors. He’s not talking much about that project, but from the prototype 3D-printed bowl feeder he built as part of it, we can guess that it’s going to be a pretty cool automation project.

Bowl feeders are common devices in industrial automation, used to take a big pile of parts like nuts and bolts and present them to a process one at a time, often with some sort of orientation step so that all the parts are the right way around. They accomplish this with a vibratory action through two axes, which [Andrzej] accomplishes with the 3D-printed ABS link arms supporting the bowl. The spring moment of the arms acts to twist the bowl slightly when it’s pulled down by a custom-wound electromagnet, such that the parts land in a slightly different place every time the bowl shifts. For the parts on the shallow ramp spiraling up the inside of the bowl, that means a single-file ride to the top. It’s interesting to see how changing the frequency of the signal sent to the coil impacts the feed; [Andrzej] used a function generator to find the sweet spot before settling on a dedicated circuit. Watch it in action below.

We’re really impressed with the engineering that went into this, even if we wonder what the vibration will do to the SMD components. Still, we can’t wait to see this in a finished project – perhaps it’ll be integrated like this Arduino-fied bowl feeder.

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Review: SMD Tweezer Meter or Tweezer Probes For Your Multimeter?

It’s remarkable how tiny electronics have become. Heaven knows what an old-timer whose experience started with tubes must think, to go from solder tags to SMD in a lifetime is some journey. Even  the generation that started with discrete transistors has lived through an incredible shift. But it’s true, SMD components are tiny, and that presents a challenge aside from the one you’ll face when soldering them. Identifying and measuring the value of a chip component too small to have any writing upon it becomes almost impossible with a pair of standard test probes.

Happily the test equipment manufacturers have risen to the challenge, and produced all sorts of meters designed for SMD work that have a pair of tweezers instead of test prods. When I was looking for one I did my usual thing when it comes to Hackaday reviews. I looked at the budget end of the market, and bought an inexpensive Chinese model for about £16($21). And since I was browsing tweezers I couldn’t resist adding another purchase to my order. I found a pair of tweezer test probes for my multimeter which cost me just over a pound ($1.30) and would provide a useful comparison. For working with SMD components in situ, do you even need the special meter?

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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.

Reflow Rig Makes SMD Soldering a Wok in The Park

For a DIY reflow setup, most people seem to rely on the trusty thrift store toaster oven as a platform to hack. But there’s something to be said for heating the PCB directly rather than heating the surrounding air, and for that one can cruise the yard sales looking for a hot plate to convert. But an electric wok as a reflow hotplate? Sure, why not?

At the end of the day [ThomasVDD]’s reflow wok is the same as any other reflow build. It has a heat source that can be controlled easily, temperature sensors, and a microcontroller that can run the proportional-integral-derivative (PID) control algorithm needed for precise temperature control. That the heating element he used came from an electric wok was just a happy accident. A laser-cut MDF case complete with kerf-bent joints holds the heating element, the solid-state relay, and the Arduino Nano that runs the show. A MAX6675 thermocouple amp senses the temperature and allows the Nano to cycle the temperature through different profiles for different solders. It’s compact, simple, and [ThomasVDD] now has a spare wok to use on the stove top. What’s not to like?

Reflow doesn’t just mean oven or hotplate, of course. Why not give reflow headlights, a reflow blowtorch, or even a reflow work light a try?

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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