You might be interested about my recently introduced design. It does not meet your price point nor is it as small as you are aiming for, but it is a vision based DIY pick and place machine. You are welcome to use the ideas and software (source code is available). Especially if you take the software and join in to develop it further, I'm honoured.
Well so they have, I would have guessed you needed ablation to be able to blow away the copper, and that's what they have done, I'm guessing it's a NdYAG operating at 1064nm , these pulsed laser traditionally operated slowly, < 100 shots / second, too slow to make a PCB.
Somehow they have managed to get 10-100 thousand shots / second, that's going to be an expensive piece of kit. $50k??
I have some cost effective NdYag lasers in the cupboard, that can manage one shot per second, thats a 50um diameter crater every second, take a couple of years to make one PCB.
Funny... LPKF already has a commercially available PCB laser etching system available so the theory is sound. Their system is capable of etching copper off just about all standard materials including FR4 and Rogers.
We are already getting close to this as a reality. There is a manual pick and place design up on thingiverse already that would lend itself to automation fairly easily. With the addition of motors and driver software the design could readily be adapted. I was already considering doing it however I have yet to encounter the mythical "free time". Realistically the design could be built for under $300 including all motors and drivers. It would not include the ability to reflow them but that could be added later. The first step would be home building a automatic pick and place.
If they do successfully finish them, they won't make any money. I bet they lose money on them. They are 800 dollar products that they are selling for 200 dollars and I bet they will suck. No examples of their output.
A nice way of putting it Duane! Sometimes you have to go back and look at what you have already done at some point later to see if you can do it better. For one, you should now have your lessons learned on what you liked and what you think that you can do better.
I am sad to see that you have not taken up the challenge. I really am. Good healthy debate is ok, it helps everyone from time to time to reevaluate positions. Unfortunately good debaterequires effort and not just three sentence zingers.
The first link there from Engadget actually encapsulates a lot with what we are trying to do with this project. We are looking to go smaller than is traditional. This allows us to reduce the size of the components as well as power requirements. This in turn reduces cost. I would invite you to read that story as it even serves as a good look at concepts such as engineering trades.