With all the excitement associated with of 3D printers, there seems to be a giant gap in the rapid prototyping tool set -- a desktop pick-and-place (P&P) machine that can be had at a reasonable price. If you were to survey the landscape, you would find that most of the smaller pick-and-place machines that are out there are either just not quite ready for primetime, or will cost more than a few thousand dollars. This is where the EETimes community has an opportunity to change the picture.
The idea started at this year's EELive! Conference and Exhibition. A few of us were standing around at one of the Gadget Smackdowns chatting about this and that. Among the various topics we discussed were the popularity of presentations on mechanical design and the need for a way to get reasonable prices on low-volume production/prototype runs. It was then that these two ideas converged and we decided that we wanted to design a very small pick-and-place machine.
The more we talked about this, the more excited we got. The thought of having a machine that can assemble your boards -- and possibly even reflow them -- while fitting in a space smaller than an 11" x 17" footprint just brought great big grins to our faces.
This idea -- with the excitement it brings -- is more than just designing a machine. There is a teaching opportunity as well. We will be using this project to teach concepts about electromechanical integration, motor usage, computer vision, PCB assembly, and a range of related topics through our blog posts and future conference presentations.
So what exactly will this machine consist of, and what tasks will it be capable of performing? Well, this is where we would appreciate your help. We do have some basic goals, but we would welcome your suggestions to fill out the details.
Let's start with out top-level design goals, which are as follows:
- $400 to $600 target sales price
- 11" x 17" or smaller footprint
- A modular system allowing for addition of features at a future date
- Good mechanical design
With these as the basic design goals, here are some thoughts on other details to get your creative juices flowing. Because of the fact that we are shooting for a low price point, there will need to be some tradeoffs. For example, this is not intended to be the fastest pick-and-place machine out there, so we can look at compromising on speed.
Also, because we are not intending to use this machine to provide high throughput, we can look at eliminating the typical component feeders (though we may have a concept that could mitigate this tradeoff). Lastly, because we are looking to have a small machine, we are not intending to have an extremely large build area. Remember that this is intended to be a machine for very low volume production -- say a few hundred pieces, or prototypes.
There is an advantage to this being a small machine, which is that we can look at employing some concepts that might be too complex to implement on a production-level machine. For example, one concept we would like to consider is making this machine so that it cannot only print solder paste without stencils, but that it can then be able to reflow the entire board after the components have been placed. Another idea is to have a component tester. This concept would allow for testing of polarity of LEDs and other diodes. In turn, this would help insure less iterations of your concept due to mislabeled diodes.
So we have a basic framework and some design concepts to get the gears turning in your head. Now we need your help to gather ideas on what you would like to see in this type of a machine. We encourage you to share your comments below. After everyone has posted their ideas, we might use a poll tool to help narrow down some of these concepts. Once we have a better idea as to what the community would like to see in such a machine, there will be further chances to participate in this project. We look forward to seeing your creativity in action.