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ultra low cost pick and place?

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Hi All, We are embarking on the design of an ultra low-co... - May 12, 2008 by locostpp  


Ultra low cost pick & place? | 12 May, 2008

Hi All,

We are embarking on the design of an ultra low-cost pick and place machine for use by small manufacturers & would appreciate some input.

Here are some points:

Low cost - in the region of $6-11k (higher cost versions faster) Two cameras (upwards fixed, downwards flying) Vision & lighting system (in-house for cost reasons!) Zero installation (sits on sturdy bench or desk, self calibrating) Manual or automatic feeders (with vision check before pick) - very low cost. Free for life software/upgrades/enhancements. Single USB cable from P&P to any PC, shop air and AC. Finepitch as standard, smaller than 0603 as goal and enhancement.

Clearly any machine is built down to a price is not going to be massively rigid, we think we have got an 'on-the-fly' calibration system working that will allow the machine to calibrate out most errors once fixed in place (i.e. if you move the machine you will need to tell it todo a full calibration), and track/detect&correct errors as it goes along (i.e. temperature).

Speed, we are targetting 5Kcph on the faster versions (lower friction bearings etc..) and 2-2.5Kcph on the standard machine.

We are also planning on NOT selling via distribution, but 'factory direct', and support will be via a dedicated user forum rather than tech's (for cost reasons). Next day spare parts in the US/CA and EU. Software will be free for life self-install on what you PC you have lying around (XP at present) - if we achieive a certain critical mass then the software is likely to get very sophisticated and capable over time.

We are interested in all comments (even 'don't do it') but especially interested in comments relating to good experiences with other p&p equipment in the fields of: nozzle design, mechnical vs powered vs 'intelligent' feeder issues and component alignment systems (e.g. cameras vs. laser).

We aren't asking you guys to design it for us, and we don't expect this machine to replace the staples of the industry - our intention is to allow the little guy to make his small batches quickly and cost-effectively.

Thanks all.

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Ultra low cost pick & place? | 13 May, 2008

Interesting thought. Among the many thoughts that came to mind while reading your post, one stands out for me.

While making a cost effective machine is a great idea, it seems obvious that there will be some trade offs on quality. The cheaper the machine, the more likely it is that repair/replacement of failed sub assemblies will be.

It may be cost effective up front, but in the long view, it may be more expensive.

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Ultra low cost pick & place? | 13 May, 2008

Anything that can handle the standard SMT packages of today has to be precision. The machines have to be built rigid, and cannot be made of sub-standard components.

I have worked with placement machines since the late 80's. The machines that work the best are built on rigid platforms and have "decent" software interfaces.

To simplify things...the machine needs to put the parts where you want them to go without having to screw around!

If you build something that does not perform "as advertised" word will spread fast and your machine will get black balled.

I cannot possibly image how you could effectively engineer, build, and market a machine in the price range you mentioned.

Just my opinion....

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Ultra low cost pick & place? | 13 May, 2008


My thoughts are that your market may be fairly limited.

There are people and companies out there that can use low cost equipment. However, with your limitations of support you are basically asking an owner of a small company to output 11-15k on a machine that may or may not have tech support when needed. Major concern for most small owners.

My suggestion would be to find 10-15 of these small sized companies and see if they will agree to be interviewed by you for market research.

Also many of these customers buy lots of equipment and supplies from reps. They trust them to help if there are problems with suppliers. 1 less thing for the owner to worry about. I think it would be a major mistake to not sell through them.

My suggestions would be following.

1. Get working system. 2. Find COGS ( base your system price on what you spend to build the system.) 3. Work with reps to find a market. 4. Have a small support team and if sales go off you can then contract with 3rd party service providers to do support.

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Ultra low cost pick & place? | 13 May, 2008

Yes, this is a good point and really only time will tell just how reliable such a machine becomes. What I'm aiming for is to simplify and reduce the number of sub-assemblies.

For example we are building the camera/vision processor and lighting into one small block on two PCB's, the top and bottom cameras are currently identical and only have a power (24v) and data (currently RS485). As this is a critical part of the product the PC has very little to do with the vision systems and the vision processors can be re-flashed in-situ (no eproms) as improvements are made. The CMOS vision IC is something like $13 and the DSP's doing the vision processing about $5 each, so as a complete sub-assembly the cost of replacing a camera will be $200-300 max.

Same for the stepper motor drivers, these are located next to the motors and have LED's on them for diagnosis (power, data in/out) and take data&power only (4 wires). The concept being a blown driver board can be replaced in a couple of minutes. The whole principle is to reduce or eliminate wiring and avoid seperate fancooled boxes stuffed with boards connected by huge wiring looms. 4 common wires for everything (24v and DATA).

This is based partly on the depressing feeling you get when opening up an older machine tool and finding huge amounts of wiring and really silly numbers of boards - great to keep service engineers busy, but really stomach churning if it's your $.... About 8 yrs ago I got a panic call from a collegue with a well-respected & fairly expensive CNC lathe, it had thrown up a PSU fault. He was quoted �1300 exchange and 10 days to get the exchange unit to him. I fixed a blown 1N4001 and BC182 on the unit in under an hour. So I guess I'm trying to say that the p&p machine is being designed to be fixed quickly by a descent engineer and a support forum should help find those problems we can't yet imagine.

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Ultra low cost pick & place? | 13 May, 2008

It will be rigid, but not as rigid as something weighing 600lb's. We can't afford to cast/machine parts for a low cost machine. But we think have found techniques that can calibrate out any small distortions in the unit.

Your comment about a decent software interface is valid - we certainly aren't planning a complex interface to begin with, our aim is to get a bunch of demo units out there and see what the customer comments are and expand on this.

We aren't planning on marketing the units in the conventional way - anyone with $100k to spend on a new machine is not likely to looking at this.

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Ultra low cost pick & place? | 13 May, 2008

Thanks for the comments.

Tech-support is one the big savings we think we can make and the customer will have to install the machine themselves - we will make a comprehensive series of videos and tutorials.

Calibration will be semi-automatic and the unit will be supplied with all the necessary accesories to do this. In the end we hope that the installation and training won't take more than two days from signing for the crate from UPS...

I'm kind of set on selling direct, it really is a great way to keep down costs - dealers/reps do add value, but can add alot of cost. We are engineering the product to be quickly repaired in the field by the end user - certainly any part should be able to be replaced in less than 30 mins.

We will make money on spare parts for sure, but we are not designing in any obsolesence into the machine; our bearings shouldn't wear any quicker than anyone elses.

I read somewhere that this forum is 70% CM's and perhaps this isn't the #1 market for our machine, but if we can build something that produces CM acceptable results we will be more than satisfied.

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Ultra low cost pick & place? | 13 May, 2008

Helo Since we had designed a screen printer, we have a good idea of the process. There is one thing that we did that you may want to consider. We were going to sell the printers with a complete list of the components and where the customer could buy them at. I felt that that would make it easier to get the machine on the market and the customers would be encourged to buy if they knew that they would be able to buy the replacement parts with out high mark up. Just thought this idea may be of some help. Would be interested in knowing how this developes. And by the way our printer used no input air and was very quick. We felt that a ex field engineer could design a better machine than a design engineer that probly had never been in a production site. Harry

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Ultra low cost pick & place? | 13 May, 2008

Harry, thanks for your comments.

Certainly circuit diagrams where appropriate and mechanical schematics of complex parts like the head would be useful to the end user. We are working hard to eliminate relays and switches from the unit, and things like safety interlocks will chosen to be 'off the shelf' and from RS/Digikey/Mouser etc.. It's possible that bearings specs. and part numbers will be included in published material to enable the user source parts more economically.

I should point out that I'm designing this machine after many years experience in electronic/electromechanical design and manufacture - whilst I have no experience as a CM (which would be useful), I am the end customer of this machine. We will look for perhaps 6 test sites where people will be happy to run the machine in a CM enviroment.

We looked at trying to elimate air from the design, but there doesn't seem to be a way round it at this price.

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Ultra low cost pick & place? | 15 May, 2008

Take a look at the Essemtec machine it basicallly does what you wish to acheive but at a much higher price. It uses a standard camera, laser alignment of components which would probably be essential if you wish to achieve your stated speed. Could sit on a bench but comes with a stand. Uses a PC has a fairly good peice of software, but could be better.

reagrds sarason

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Ultra low cost pick & place? | 15 May, 2008

Thanks Sarason,

Laser alignment of components was actually our first attempt - it certainly offers speed and accuracy, but purchasing cyberoptics units would blow the budget & getting round their patent not really an option. I've seen the Essemtec machines and they are well made & expensive. Our aim is to build a whole new (lower) market tier. We have chosen bench mounting for cost and transport issues - the client will have to do a little bit of thinking & work for the large savings.

I would really interested in the laser alignment vs. camera alignment discussion.

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Ultra low cost pick & place? | 15 May, 2008

check out the PANTHERA line of essemtec...they are the cheapest and new in the market and might suit your budget!


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Ultra low cost pick & place? | 15 May, 2008

The Essemtec has a very cheap to manufacture feeder which you could adapt, or try one of the feeders that remove the tape by "ploughing" it off. Can't recall the brand right now. They are well made, but very cheap to make. The laser gets you speed. The other way to approach that issue, which I don't believe anyone has tried yet would be to have a similar setup to the laser and just take pictures with a camera and do some vision processing to arrive at the same sort of result. This would be more engineering expense but should still be do-able. Another thing that may help with your laser approach would be to go and visit an engineer/company that builds supermarket scanners. They would be the experts in this field.

regards Sarason

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Ultra low cost pick & place? | 16 May, 2008

Hmm, interesting. My Philips CSM84 weighs 1600 Lbs or so, and it bounces around quite a bit when moving. It doesn't really move very fast, maybe 2 M/sec tops, and 3600 CPH is about all you really get unless the feeder is right across from the component location.

One other thing is the number of feeders possible. I originally thought the CSM84 was total overkill at a theoretical maximum of 84 feeder locations, but things are creeping up, and I am using more locations all the time.

Will this machine have auto-change nozzles? My CSM doesn't have that option, but has 3 heads. I can do just about anything with the right selection of nozzles on the 3 heads.

What motion drive will you use? For low cost, probably toothed belt linear drive? How do you deal with belt stretch?

Anyway, I already made my choice to buy a well-used machine, but I would have been quite interested in your model at $6K, if it could do the kind of things I'm doing now.


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Ultra low cost pick & place? | 27 May, 2008

Insane, inane and a waste of everyone's time.

Buy a soldering iron at Target and have it. A cheap machine cannot do what you plan. If it could, China would already be selling them.'

Get a clue.

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Ultra low cost pick & place? | 29 May, 2008

That's what they said about Christopher Columbus. Don't you know that the world is flat - you're going to fall off the edge.

If Chistopher Columbus had listened to that advise then Europe would be a lot more crowded today.


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Ultra low cost pick & place? | 29 May, 2008

Thanks Bert,

We are aiming for the Moon and will be happy if we knock a few birds out the trees...

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Ultra low cost pick & place? | 30 May, 2008

I say that there is a market... The question is this: -How big is the market? -Is it worth going after? -Are you the person who can do it? Cost is everything to some people. There will always be a certain segment of buyers who will buy a product based on lowest cost. Fortunately many of these types already know what to expect at a certain price point and will actually take ownership and responsibility. It shouldn't surprise you that most won't. So the real question becomes just how many of the first types are there who are ready to buy and how can you market to them and close the sale?

Yes, I concur that with the advent of better and more readily available software and sensors you can probabaly make a low cost 3-4 axis gantry that senses and makes up for poorer tolerances with better software. A good example of this is the Zenbot router being sold on Ebay which actually uses an injection molded UHMW frame in place of the usual alloys and castings.

If you do decide to pursue this and even eventually produce such a product without going bankrupt, your real challenge will be sales and marketing. If your like most engineers you've probabaly already grossly underestimated those costs as evidenced by your inferred statement that giving a sales rep a 10% commision or finders fee is somehow expensive when in fact when you don't have sales it's quite actually a bargain and I'd predict you'd pay it willingly.

Manufacturers today are relying on old business models and there is always room for risk takers and innovators. All of that being said if your already cash strapped and risk adverse at this stage of the game your not liable to withstand the real physical and emotional costs of building a business... especially against the kinds of odds you start at while selling a disruptive technology into existing markets.

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Ultra low cost pick & place? | 30 May, 2008

OK...lets put this into perspective... You are talking about a risky business venture in a "shaky" industry... .... .... .... ...

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Ultra low cost pick & place? | 30 May, 2008

Good luck with your new venture. Mopeds are the next big thing in America since the gas crisis and all... (either that or horses I think)

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Ultra low cost pick & place? | 30 May, 2008

With the price of gas at 4.00 or more, I'll take 2 of them mopeds! harry

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Ultra low cost pick & place? | 1 June, 2008

I like the possibilities. Couple thoughts; all good equipment is solid, don't try and design a machine around modular aluminum extrusions, they're junk. At the very least use a heavy steel table with a 1/2" base and 4" square legs, they can be bought for $300-$500. The servos needs to be closed-loop, you can save money on the torque specs and give up speed. Good luck!

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Ultra low cost pick & place? | 4 June, 2008

Hi LoCostPP,

Sounds to me you are moving towards an Open Source development model. What you might want to do is come up with a robust framework (hardware & software) to which anyone who wishes to take part can develop (and market) their own plugins and modules. Contibuters can be commercial companies, but also customers that have the engineering capabilities. I think this way you are most likeley to minimize development costs while maximizing your market-potential. (or am I being stoopid now...)


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Ultra low cost pick & place? | 4 June, 2008

Hi Base,

I guess your right - due to the complexity of the software we plan on keeping the source code under our control BUT we will not be dongling or protecting it in any other way and we will be publishing the program on our website. We will publish the file structures/key so that anyone can write there own front end software - and we are looking at some quite flexible I/O functions for unplanned future options.

We won't be providing a PC with the unit - at present a single USB cable between a PC and the machine is all thats needed; the vision system cameras are proprietary and the bulk of the number crunching goes on in the camera - so no need for anything fast PC wise; and as the software is 'free' the customer can download it onto anything running 98-XP (hopefully vista when launched) - i just plug in an old laptop.

At present we have a small box with the PSU in it - this drives the p&p, the feeders and supplies vacuum. The whole unit can lumped around by a single person and put in the boot of a compact....

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Ultra low cost pick & place? | 4 June, 2008

How about involving (technical) universities in the process? They might be willing to supply some manpower and more importantly knowledge for low to no cost, (but you probably already thought of that). You may not want to rely on them for the initial development (too slow), but improving an already working prototype or machine is a great challenge for (software) engineering students as a graduation piece.

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Ultra low cost pick & place? | 5 June, 2008

hi Base,

A guaranteed way to slow down this project!

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Ultra low cost pick & place? | 13 March, 2009

By way of an update.

We have the locost machine running. Plenty of stuff left to do BUT we should have it available for Q3/2009.

The basic spec is much the same, we have spent *ALOT* of time developing the vision system and calibration mechanism. Feeders have also been interesting.

We still intend on being 100% factory direct, forum & email tech support, and at present around $5 to $8k (including feeders).

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Ultra low cost pick & place? | 4 November, 2009

Q3/2009 been and gone. We are moving forward with low cost p&p, quite a few things have changed.

We are applying for a number of patents for the feeders, placement head design, servo design, calibration system , etc...

We now expect the price of the machine to be significantly lower than $8k minimum target (with basic feeders).

Feeder design has changed and we are doing longterm reliability testing on them NOW. Each feeder is now an intelligent single lane unit (alot of intelligence), can index 2/4/8mm. Offline setup using $250 USB station using the free software (barcode compatible). Price per feeder is still on target for $70-100 each.

Placement rate is around 3k/hr - although we have run the unit at 5k/hr, for about another $2k we expect to get closer to 10k/hr. Posistion accuracy is better than +/- 15um at present (we cannot measure better than this here, and are looking for a 2nd user laser inferometer at present).

Direct sales is still the model, and due to the design, the end user can service the unit 100% themselves with 24hr parts, forum support, videos, guides etc. Short of throwing the unit out of a truck it is intrinsically calibrated or self-calibrates.

The user can download (for free) the latest software (and easily rollback to a previous version) to drive the machine - a single USB cable connects what-have-you to the machine. We will publish the file specifications to encourage anyone to write add-on file translation code. We expect to release 1-2 versions per month (depending on bug-fixes, improvements, etc...) We anticipate evolution rather revolution.

Unit is movable by 1-2 people (depending on your back...) and fits in the boot of a car. Air is self contained, so you just need a strong and level bench, mains socket and a windows PC (development units running XP, release will be Xp/Vista/7 compatible). Should run on a netbook also.

It's also VERY quiet. You can work underdisturbed next to it...

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Ultra low cost pick & place? | 5 November, 2009

does it have a flat head and turn into a pizza at midnight?

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ultra low cost pick and place? | 12 June, 2010

I like what you're doing. 20 years ago anyone, hobbyists and tiny garage-shop companies could create electronics devices just as sophisticated and cool as big corporations. Today, SMT has largely trashed the creativity (and competition) that existed then. Much of this assault on creativity and competition was purposeful. Totally bogus interfaces like USB were developed to replace totally open standards like the standard 8/9/10-bit UART protocols (plus device command setsm, which were usually published by the manufacturer). Today the scam-interfaces like USB require proprietary drivers for just about every freaking device, and definitely every kind of device, and also require a device driver for every OS.

While most modern technologies are "purposeful evil" developed by [consortiums of] large companies, SMT might not be, for it does address the very real "signal density problem". However, without a doubt, the result is similar.

I remember a HoustonInstruments pen plotter I bought about 20 years ago for about $150. It could move anywhere over its 12" x 18" surface and raise and lower the pen. It was not super fast, but it was quite reasonable. I'm guessing it could go fetch components and place them at about 1000 per hour - if it had a vacuum pick-up tip to replace its ink pens. Of course, it lacked a component centering system, which would add expensive and/or slow it down further.

Still, $150 is 30 times less than $4500... and $4500 would indeed be cheap for an automatic pick-and-place machine.

I created dozens of hardware devices 15 to 30 years ago, with multilayer PCBs up to 16" x 24" in size, with up to 400 ICs (plus many more 2-lead components like caps, diodes, resistors, etc). But for the past 15 years I've been developing software. In my absense, SMT has pretty much taken over the market for "cool/modern components".

I just designed a device/product with 2 small PCBs (2.80" square and 5.80" square) with BGAs, QFNs, QFPs, and discretes from 0201 to 0805. I now have 50 + 25 of these two PCBs, plus all the components. So I've been researching what equipment and supplies I need to build these prototypes. Quite a learning experience: stainless-steel stencils (new), solder-paste stencil printers (new), automatic pick-and-place machines (new), reflow ovens (new), hot-air-soldering stations/pencils/guns (new), and so forth.

Without a doubt, precise placement of BGAs, QFNs, CSPs (and any other package with hidden pads) is the most crucial problem to solve to effectively prototype new gizmos. While it *may* be possible to manually assemble PCBs with 0.40mm to 1.00mm ball and pad pitch components, my opinion is, the world *seriously* needs a CHEAP, SLOW, PRECISE automatic pick-and-place machine to unleash the creativity currently bottled up by the difficulties of SMT assembly.

So, I applaud the folks who are trying to make one!

I created several inexpensive products with robotics features in the past, so I understand the difficulties, at least in principle. I can't be sure what tradeoffs you've made, but the only question I have from the little I can infer from the above messages is the choice of stepper motors. I adopted steppers in my earliest robotics devices, but later switched to DC brush motors plus rotary and/or linear optical encoders. Given my experience with both, I later regretted choosing steppers for my early products. Even with microstepping, which I took extreme advantage of, steppers just can't compete overall. And when I learned how cheaply I could make my own optical encoder discs and scales, even "price" favored DC motors plus encoder feedback.

I don't know where in the world you're located, but I'd be happy to discuss your approaches and maybe I'd even offer some opinions and advice-from-experience that you'd find useful. For the next few months I'm in the western USSA, but yahoo-instant-messenger, skype, telephone works too.

Ironically, the device I'm currently making is a 4-camera robotics vision system. Each of the 4 cameras are 3" x 3" x 1" (thick) with 2592x1944 resolution (either bayer-RGBG-color or monochrome). All 4 cameras (each is one of those 2.80" square PCBs I mentioned) are attached by cables to a single controller (the 5.80" square PCB I mentioned), which controls the cameras, captures the images, performs lossless image/data compression, performs some kinds of image processing (on the fly), puts the image-data and some other data (mostly image-processing) into ethernet packets, and spews them across a single standard RJ45 gigabit ethernet connection to a PC.

Like you, I plan to sell direct to keep customer costs to a minimum, and encourage engineers and companies to make my devices part of other products they're making. The hardware interface is totally standard (gigabit ethernet), I will freely provide all command/communications protocols, data/packet formats, lossless compression/decompression source code, and just about everything with the possible exception of [some-of] the FPGA firmware, which nobody needs to adopt the device. I'll probably also supply the FPGA firmware under confidentiality agreement to anyone who can modify it, and has a real need to modify it for their specific purposes.

I'm shooting at a $700 price for a 4-camera system (each camera adds or subtracts about $100 from the price). However, here is one idea that you might want to consider to "protect your butt" AKA "leave your options open". Publish a [more-or-less bogus] "retail price" 30% to 100% above the price you're willing to sell units for. But then offer "introductory discount/pricing" that brings the price down to your original/nominal target selling price. This way, if you later decide you benefit by adding representatives, distributors, retailers and/or outlets for your product... you can end or reduce the "discount" so your middlemen won't complain and say "I can't compete against a manufacturer who sells units at my cost". That's what I'm thinking of doing. Like you, however, that's not my plan... that's my fallback.

I wouldn't worry too much about speed. The primary market for your machine will be one-man and garage-shop businesses who are just starting up, or who want to develop custom (very low volume) devices with BGAs and QFNs. These folks can "go do other things" while your pick-and-place machine operates, or maybe even "go to bed and let the machine run" if you've done a really great job (highly reliable, and/or can keep running and report all [potential] problems when the run is complete).

What you absolutely NEED to provide is placement precision. Without that, too many BGAs and QFNs will end up with shorts, opens and other defects after reflow. This consideration is one more reason to consider DC motors plus optical encoders (linear scales are much better for X,Y[,Z]than rotary for your device, because rotary are inherently "indirect" for X,Y measurement in any pick-and-place configuration). Of course rotary is better for part rotation (if you need it, which you may not given "vision").

Have you published any photos or youtube test videos?

Good luck. Let me know if you'd like to chat privately.

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