So, there’s some really cool, empowering stuff going down these days with regard to manufacturing. Cartesian machines (i.e. CNC mills) are relatively simple to build from off-the-shelf parts; there are a bajillion people doing this and plenty of ready-made open-source designs available. More recently, hobbyists have gotten in on designing open-source rapid prototypers (3D printers); as a result, designs have now crossed the sub-$1000 threshold off-the-shelf, and you can even build a GPL’ed 3D printer that can almost replicate itself!
One thing that I haven’t seen cross the blood-brain barrier of proprietary commercial systems is pick-and-place machines that can assemble electronics. These things are badass; full of automated win and articulating robotic arms, but they’re also damned expensive: the crap ones start at >$10k and use literally a fishing-lure-and-weight type arrangement to peel back the tape covering tape-and-reel parts, so you have to keep resetting the weights. Those with more advanced / less manual feeders scale skyward from there. And of course, the software end of these things, especially machine vision algorithms to place parts more accurately, is some serious $ecret $auce. So… let’s change this!
Most of the “big stuff” is straightforward: The PCB layout software generates a list of coordinates for each part. A small vacuum needle mounted on a Cartesian head picks up each part from a known location, rotates it 90/180/etc. degrees as needed, and sets it down at its coordinates. It does not even need to be 100% accurate: surface tension of the solder during reflow will pull most minorly misaligned parts back into place.
The big barriers are:
1) Low cost / self-manufacturable feed mechanisms:
Electronic parts are packaged in several different ways, most commonly tape-and-reel, plastic tubes, or in trays. Each has a different, maybe cumbersome, way of knowing the location of the next part in the package and freeing the part from the package. Picking up stuff and putting it down is easy compared to dealing with the wide variety of tape and tube sizes reliably. Oh, and if your board uses 50 unique parts, you need 50 feeders. Hence the emphasis on making them cheap and mass-self-produceable, e.g. by CNC or casting or 3D printing.
2) Machine Vision
For larger parts, once the first part is successfully picked (e.g. by human intervention), it is enough to know how many parts per inch of tape, advance the tape a known amount per pick, then just grab blindly for the part and plant it at its destination coordinates. But for smaller and finer parts, this is not accurate enough: the parts can be slightly off-center or crooked in their tape wells, and this becomes significant as the part size decreases. Professional machines use a set of cameras and image processing algorithms to recognize the part, find its dead center and correct any rotational error. In theory, a suitably good vision system would allow you to peel back the tape and just sprinkle the parts on the table, forgoing feed mechanisms entirely at the expense of some small manual labor. Actually programming this algorithm on the other hand…
Another nice thing to have would be:
3) Automatic needle swapping. Many more advanced CNC mills are able to spit out their current tool, e.g. a specific size drill bit (in a known location in a tool rack) and pick up a different tool. It would be nice for the pick and place machine to be able to change to smaller and larger needles/suction cups to handle large and small parts seamlessly. If not, placements can be sorted, e.g. smallest to largest, so that the needle only has to be manually changed a couple times.
I’ve made some very initial feasibility-study stabs at building such a machine, and begun building a bit of hardware. I created a separate page for this project with more detailed specs/documentation and progress so far:
Pick and Place Project