When I started in electronics, the difference between amateur and professional prototyping techniques was pretty small. The primary tools were the same -- wire-wrap, proto boards, soldering irons -- and all the components were presented in nice, big through-hole packages. This is no longer the case. Components keep getting smaller, and many new devices are available only in super-small packages. Without advanced pick-and-place (PnP) machinery, hobbyists have little access to these new micro surface mount components. The only choices are often a very slow and very steady set of tweezers, an expensive service provider, or simply not using that nifty new 2mm x 2mm motor driver.
It's a brutal world for the amateur. By comparison, professionals are well served by companies like Screaming Circuits, which is where I can be found during the workday. With our commercial PnP robots, we can handle as many of the tiny parts as an engineer can throw at us. I'm lucky in that I can occasionally send one of my designs through our factory. All I have to do is make it really small and really complex and call it a demo. But none of that helps the typical hobbyist or prefunding Maker.
What's needed is a Maker version of an assembly robot. We need a 3D printer-type device that makes circuit boards. Adam Carlson recently started a project on just that subject and is blogging about it here on EE Times.
His isn't the only hobby-grade PnP machine out there. Picktor has used a 3D printer to create a PnP head to replace the plastic extruder in the 3D printer. If you already have the right kind of printer, this approach has a lot of merit. Why have multiple devices when one can do the work of two?
The startup BotFactory has launched a Kickstarter project for its Squink assembly robot. Today, the first order of business when building a prototype is to send your design files out to a PCB fab house. Squink eliminates this step by creating a printed circuit board for you.
Squink has a conductive ink cartridge that will print the circuit traces in much the same way a pen plotter would print a drawing. (Today, the robot prints only single-layer circuits, but BotFactory hints at a future when multi-layer boards can be created with alternating layers of conductive and insulating ink.)
In the next step, Squink places drops of conductive glue on the surface mount pads. This replaces the solder paste used in conventional surface mount assembly. Finally, it uses a vacuum head to pick and place the parts. The glue takes a few minutes to cure, but that can be helped along with a bit of low heat. Since the circuit is printed, and no hot reflow oven is involved, Squink can print on many different surfaces, such as paper or glass.
I think all this is very exciting. If you want to help in developing a low-cost desktop PnP machine, keep a watch on Adam's blog series -- he's currently asking for ideas and volunteers. Meanwhile, what do you think of the Squink project?