The Pixel Pump is an open source manual pick & place assist tool by [Robin Reiter], and after a long road to completion, it’s ready to ship. We first saw the Pixel Pump project as an entry to the 2021 Hackaday Prize and liked the clean design and the concept of a completely open architecture for a tool that is so valuable to desktop assembly. It’s not easy getting hardware off the ground, but it’s now over the finish line and nearly everything — from assembly to packaging — has been done in-house.
Because having parts organized and available is every bit as important as the tool itself, a useful-looking companion item for the Pixel Pump is the SMD-Magazine. This is a container for parts that come on SMD tape rolls. These hold components at an optimal angle for use with the pickup tool, and can be fixed together on a rail to create project-specific part groups.
A tool being open source means giving folks a way to modify or add features for better workflows, and an example of this is [Robin]’s suggestion of using a foot pedal for hands-free control of the interactive BoM plugin. With it, one can simply use a foot pedal to step through a highlighted list of every part for a design, an invaluable visual aid when doing hand assembly.
Electronics components are steadily moving away from through hole parts to using surface mount technology (SMT) exclusively. While the small size of the SMT components can be intimidating, with a little practice, soldering can come pretty naturally. To help folks get over their fear of soldering small parts, [Alpenglow Industries] have created a charming board to practice SMT soldering skills on.
[Alpenglow Industries] board, called the “SMT Garden”, combines a variety of SMT sizes ranging from 0402 to 1206 with beautiful PCB artwork to highlight the variety of LEDs on board. [Alpenglow Industries] provides detailed instructions on the various aspects of SMT soldering including what the terminology is and providing various techniques to help in soldering. The boards have practice “stalks” of surface mount component pads, so that folks can practice on columns of similarly sized SMT components to perfect their technique. The training stalks themselves aren’t functional but are there to provide practice for when folks feel comfortable soldering the LEDs, 555 timer and inverter chips to make the board functional.
[Alpenglow Industries] have provided all the KiCAD project files, gerbers and schematics available online. SMT soldering is more accessible than ever and when you can even use your phone as a microscope, it’s a good excuse to try it out, if you haven’t already.
Like a lot of Hackaday readers, I pride myself on being “the fix-it guy” in my family. When something breaks, I get excited, because it’s a chance to show off my skills. It’s especially fun when something major breaks, like the fridge or the washing machine — repairs like that are a race against time, since I’ve got to get it fixed faster than it would take to hire someone to do it. I usually win the race; I can’t remember the last time I paid someone to work on something. Like I said, it’s a point of pride.
And so when my son came home on Thanksgiving break from his first semester away at college, eager to fire up his Xbox for some mindless relaxation from his biochemistry studies, only to be greeted with a black screen and no boot-up, it was go-time for me. I was confident that I’d be able to revive the dead box in time for him to have some fun. The fact that he’s back at school and the machine is still torn apart on my bench testifies to my hubris, but to be fair, I did get close to a fix, and may still yet get it done. But either way, the lessons I’ve learned along the way have been really valuable and worth sharing.
Surface-mount technology has been a fantastic force multiplier for electronics in general and for hobbyists in particular. But sometimes you’ve got no choice but to use through-hole components, meaning that even if you can take advantage of SMDs for most of the design, you still might need to spend a little time with soldering iron in hand. Or not, if you’ve got a spare 3D printer lying around.
All we’ve got here is a fairly brief video from [hydrosys4], so there aren’t a lot of build details. But it’s pretty clear what’s going on here. Starting with what looks like a Longer LK4 printer, [hydrosys4] added a bracket to hold a soldering iron, and a guide for solder wire. The solder is handled by a more-or-less standard extruder, which feeds it into the joint once it’s heated by the iron. The secret sauce here is probably the fixturing, with 3D-printed jigs that hold the through-hole connectors in a pins-up orientation on the bed of the printer. With the PCB sitting on top of the connectors, it’s just a matter of teaching the X-Y-Z position of each joint, applying heat, and advancing the solder with the extruder.
The video below shows it in action at high speed; we slowed it down to 25% to get an idea of how it is in reality, and while it might not be fast, it’s precise and it doesn’t get tired. It may not have much application for one-off boards, but if you’re manufacturing small PCB runs, it’s a genius solution. We’ve seen similar solder bots before, but hats off to [hydrosys4] for keeping this one simple.
You can do your own Surface Mount Technology based PCB assembly with just a handful of tools and some patience. At the heart of my SMT process is stopping to inspect the various steps all while trying to maintain a bit of cleanliness in the process.
Surface mount or Surface Mount Technology (SMT) is the modern way to assemble Printed Circuit Boards (PCB) and is what is commonly seen when opening a modern piece of tech. It’s much smaller than the older Through-Hole (TH) technology where the component leads were inserted into holes in PCB, and act we called “stuffing” since we had to stuff the components into the holes.
A few specialized tools make this a lot easier, but resourceful hackers will be able to pull together a solder paste stencil jig, vacuum tweezers, and a modified toaster oven with a controller that can follow the reflow profile of the solder paste. Where you shouldn’t skimp is on the quality, age, and storage of the solder paste itself.
Join me after the break for my video overview of the process I use in my workshop, along with details of every step of my SMT assembly process.
The answer is yes, yes you can. As long as you have one made after about 2011, at least. In the video after the break, [Blitz City DIY] takes us briefly through the history of the venerable Easy-Bake Oven and into the future by reflow soldering a handful of small blinky boards with it.
You’re right, these things once used special light bulbs to cook pint-sized foods, but now they are legit ovens with heating elements that reach 350°F and a little above. The only trouble is that there’s no temperature controller, so you have to use low-temperature solder paste and an oven thermometer to know when to pull the little tray out. Other than that, it looked like smooth sailing.
If you’re only doing a board every once in a while, $40 for a reflow oven isn’t too shabby. And yeah, as with all ovens, once you’ve reflowed a board in it, don’t use it for food.
[Kadah]’s solution for storing short tapes of SMT parts is as attractive as it is clever. The small 3D-printed “tape reels” can double as dispensers, and stack nicely onto each other thanks to the sockets for magnets. The units come in a few different sizes, but are designed to stack in a consistent way.
We love the little touches such as recessed areas for labels, and the fact that the parts can print without supports (there are a couple of unsupported bridges, but they should work out fine.) Also, the outer dimensions of the units are not an accident. They have been specifically chosen to nestle snugly into the kind of part drawers that are a nearly ubiquitous feature of every hardware hacker’s work bench.
STLs are provided for handy download but [Kadah] also provides the original Fusion 360 design file, with all sizes defined as easily-customized parameters. In addition, [Kadah] thoughtfully provided each model in STEP format as well, making it easy to import and modify in almost any 3D CAD program.