2015 – The Year of Affordable DIY Pick and Place?

Over the years, there have been many attempts at a DIY Pick and Place machine (PnP). Some people have tried conversions of existing CNC machines, others have started from scratch. Either way, it is a tricky thing to do and keep it cheap and simple. There are several things that add complexity, and the task becomes one of creating a nicely integrated package, with both hardware and software.

Clearly, replicating a $60,000 PnP machine for $1500 is going to lead to many compromises, particularly with regard to speed and ability to handle bulk packaging like tape reels. I believe a slow PnP without reel feeders would be useful for hobbyists, maker spaces and possibly prototype jobs for small companies, as long as it is cheap. If you have any requirement for small production runs, then low end or second hand commercial machines go for as little as $3500 and are likely to be a more reliable proposition.

Usually PnP projects are abandoned, ones that reach a workable system come in quite expensive, e.g. £3500. These include PP4 by Volker Besmens, and DIY Pick and Place V2 Project by Brian Dorey.

Several new PnP ideas featured in Hackaday projects recent competition. The Open Source Firepick is probably the most ambitious, aiming for a wide set of features, and for $300 BOM cost. They also have a novel Delta architecture and are aiming to make many parts with 3D printer. So it could be very good, or cheap, I’m not sure both targets can be met.

Also on Hackaday projects was LitePlacer by Juha Kuusama. LitePlacer project is complete, and shipping is planned for later this year. At €1200 it is reasonably priced.

I’ve had a PnP project on the go for a while, but haven’t got much past concept stage. The main construction would borrow some ideas from Reprap 3D printers, using aluminium extrusions, off the shelf precision rods and bearings, and 3D printed parts for custom parts.

Volker Besmen’s PP4 is a real work of genius, and well worth studying. He has released the design under a Open Hardware license too, and there are detailed drawings of most of the machine. In particular, I think his design for an automatic feeder system can be used as a guide for a simple and cost-effective reel feeder. By pulling the cover tape to advance the tape, it solves two problems at once. There are very cheap DC motors available, and it would only need an Arduino with a simple motor driver as a controller.

PP4 auto feeder

I will put up some design files on my github soon.

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Sad day for Arduino

The dispute between Arduino SA, and Arduino SRL formerly Smart Projects SRL has gone to court. http://dockets.justia.com/docket/massachusetts/madce/1:2015cv10181/167131

Nature of Suit: Trademark
Cause of Action: 15:1121 Trademark Infringement

Smart Projects are official manufacturers of Arduino boards, and it seems they believe they have a claim to the Arduino name and trademarks.

This is bound to distract both companies from supporting and innovating Arduino products, but hopefully will be resolved before too much money is wasted on lawyers.

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Generating prototyping board files for Kicad

My love/hate relationship with the Kicad CAD package continues, although I have resolved this year to try to be more positive about it. This week it has been moving more towards love, as I discovered how easy it is to generate Kicad data files for modules and PCBs, and even 3D models.

Kicad uses a syntax for modules and board files based on “S-Expressions”, originally designed for Lisp I think. The syntax is clean, compact and easy to read or edit by hand. It is also really easy to process with software.

Having found a cheap source of PCB manufacture, it’s cheaper to have boards made custom than buy off the shelf stripboard. Since it is rather tedious placing hundreds of pads by hand, I set about generating proto boards for Kicad, using C#.

A couple of evenings later I have this:

pcb_proto_5x10The size of this board is 50 x 100mm to match the budget PCB house, but the bonus of generated data is that it is really easy to adjust the size, layout etc. Previously I have been generating Kicad modules, but for this I generated the kicad_pcb file directly in order to place silkscreen on both sides, which doesn’t appear to work with a module.

The 3D rendering in Kicad is now much nicer, it doesn’t really make any difference to the finished product, but it does help visualise it and gives a more professional feel.

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Maple compatible and generic STM32 development boards

Maple compatibles







Baite maple mini ARM STM32






Generic STM32 boards

Unbranded mini-style



ARM Cortex-M3 STM32F103C8T6 mini STM32 core board development board



Matchbox ARM



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Why experts don’t know shit

The recent, and frankly weird case of Gareth Williams, the MI6 spy who was found dead locked inside a holdall, presents a puzzle. How could anyone but an expert contortionist perform such a feat by himself? It seems obvious that a third party must have been involved, and given the covert nature of the guy’s work, it is easy to suspect all sorts of shady goings on.

Indeed, a series of experts at the inquest into his death asserted that such a feat of self imprisonment was virtually impossible, or actually impossible, although one at least suggested it was not impossible to rule out. I was surprised to hear there is an “expert in confined spaces”, but I guess every field has its expert.

But now a reporter has proved most of them wrong, by performing the “impossible” feat and locking herself into an identical holdall. Woman locks herself in holdall And she manages to maintain decorum throughout. It apparently is just a matter of the right technique, which the experts were not aware of.

Given that the unfortunate Mr Williams had at least once before engaged in apparent self-bondage, common sense would perhaps suggest that it was a repeat attempt gone tragically wrong. It really makes you wonder, these professed experts, are they at all worth listening to? I think a true expert would say “we just don’t know”.

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Impressed with Mint

Searching for an alternative to Ubuntu and it’s new interface more friendly for tablets than desktops, I came across Linux Mint. Apparently this is topping the tables at distrowatch, whatever that is. Anyway, I thought I would give it a go on my new PC while it is still fresh out of the box.

Mint has some basis on Ubuntu, and the install proceeded on a familiar path. However, starting the desktop was immediately a breath of fresh air. The interface is clean and crisp. I think they may have overdone the “green mint” theme a tad, but colors are easy enough to change. What impressed me most was the ease of getting to applications and navigating between windows. It strikes me that Mint would also work well on a tablet, but they have managed to do it in such a way that it is equally usable on a desktop.

Linux Mint has a great look, and is easy to use… just like Ubuntu used to be!

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How to ruin a great product

It seems that Canonical, the creators of Ubuntu, are taking a leaf out of Microsoft’s play book. Ubuntu was based on the excellent, robust Linux, but most importantly made easy to use. Microsoft also made Windows easy to use, but forgot to make it robust.

Now, I really don’t care about which UI is better, Windows, Mac, Gnome… they all have their fanatics. I have used Windows a lot, I have to use it at work, so I just want something with similar look and feel in Linux – and there was.

Microsoft like to ignore the users, and do what they think is best. So they like to rip up the UI and enforce something completely different. I am still getting used to Vista/Windows 7. At work, we still use XP. This attitude of Microsoft is frankly a pain in the butt, and I was happy to adopt Linux at home instead of following the Microsoft soup wagon.

Only now Canonical have pulled the same stunt. Frankly, Unity sucks. I don’t care if it is technically better than everything else. What I want is a computer I can use! So having weaned me off Windows, and I have gotten to find my way around Ubuntu, Canonical pull the rug and are now making me look for an alternative to Ubuntu.

At least Linux is open unlike Windows, so I am hoping someone will do the necessary work to restore “old” themes like Clearlooks to Ubuntu. Whoever that is, my thanks in advance!

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