Aug. 4, 2014

SMT (surface mount technology) component placement systems, commonly called pick-and-place machines or P&Ps, are robotic machines which are used to place electronic components, like capacitors, resistors, integrated circuits onto a printed circuit board (PCB). In the last ten years, non-industrial-scale pick-and-place culture has been growing and some makers have started using small P&Ps to create custom circuit boards as quickly as possible.

Eric Boyd has come up with the Retro Populator, a retrofit kit for 3D printers which turns them into electronics pick and place machines suitable for hobbyist use. "We want the Retro Populator to be quick to setup and quick to tare down so people can easily switch between 3D printing and pick and placing." notes Boyd.

Boyd said the process of surface mount soldering is horribly tedious and requires great manual dexterity as well good vision. Doing a few boards by hand is fine, but doing more than about 20 is not practical. Since factories don't want to do it for less than 500 boards, and he feels there is a gap between a small run of 50 to 100 boards, a typical volume desired in the maker community. His motivation is to build devices that hobbyists can own to do electronics pick-n-place.

Boyd uses 3D printed cam-lock parts to hold boards in place on 10mm peg-grid base. The base plate is CNC milled acrylic base plate, with milled tape holders. The vacuum syringe is hold on the extruder, with milled nozzle mount attached to the side of the existing extruder. Then another mechanism makes Z-axis rezero jig to easily change re-zero height.

Boyd also made software for allowing a 3D printer to do electronics electronics pick-n-place assembly. For the version 1.0 it parses a yml file for board & tape placement info, and then an eagle .brd file directly for part types and locations as well as board locations. It takes those things and parses them to gcode that actually does pick-and-place. It supports also for multiple boards.

In Retro Populator version 2.0 Boyd intended to add an extra nozzle so they can do solder paste dispensing, and addition of tape advancement, including plastic cover peeling. And in version 3.0 he wanted to add the ability to rotate parts.

All design will be open source, Boyd explained, "We wanted something awesome and open source that would just work anywhere regardless of how closed sourced companies try to make the 3D printing space." Boyd has a plan for running a Kickstarter campaign for the Retro Populator. When being asked the cost, Boyd states that the cost for such a device is probably "around $200 plus the vacuum pump", but if you can mill the parts yourself the costs can be cheaper.

Watch the video below which Boyd explains their motivations and aspirations for the Retro Populator:

How to use the RetroPopulator v1:

Posted in 3D Printing Applications

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Andreas wrote at 8/6/2014 9:55:06 AM:

I like the idea, but having worked in and with the electronics industry for quite some time, i have some doubts that this task is as easy as he makes it look. The professional pick and place systems use cameras to precisely measure the position of the component on the nozzle and the position of the boards to have a good chance of actually hitting the footprints. Until someone manages to do something similar in opensource and with cheap cameras (webcams?) i keep using my own hands and eyes. On the other side, where did they get the information that professional companies only do series production of 500+? I know a large amount of companies that make production runs for 20 or less boards, it's just a bit expensive because it takes quite some work to actually set up a p&p robot, especially if the people supplying the data have no idea about how to design for mass-production and don't talk to the manufacturer before they start choosing components and design a circuit.

CNK wrote at 8/4/2014 11:41:31 PM:

Great that someone's working on this, it's something I've long wanted to try. I must say though that the title of this post had me thinking that someone had turned a P&P pachine into a 3D Printer, not the other way around.

bobc wrote at 8/4/2014 9:48:59 PM:

I love this project, hopefully it can be adapted for other printers.

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