Pick-and-place (PNP) machines are the robots that grab and drop tiny components onto circuit boards. Designed to make thousands of boards an hour, these super-fast machines are part of the multi-part ballet that is modern manufacturing. And they’re amazingly expensive – sometimes reaching into the millions of dollars.
The Holy Grail, then, for the home-brew manufacturer is to build a PNP machine on a small scale. Two engineers, Neil Jansen and Karl Lew, have dealt with the almost constant frustration of wanting to build cool hardware yet having no way to build usable circuit boards without expensive investments. By creating a very simple, very cheap PNP machine, they would enable a new electronics maker movement to blossom where, until now, the big boys held sway.
The project is still in its infancy and the pair are now trying to enter the next HAXLR8R class in order to fine-tune their idea. The goal is to create a simple pick-and-place machine that can lift and rotate parts using suction, draw traces onto boards, and solder and remove components from the board. A CNC attachment would allow users to cut down PCBs to size and a laser would allow them to plot onto photo-sensitive boards. It’s not quite Foxconn but it’s good enough for 90% of the hardware projects out there.
What’s most interesting about this project is that it looks to be the first one that both works, in prototype, and could actually come to market. There are many hacks you can use to create your own PNP machines – you can even turn a standard 3D printer into a PNP with a lot of gumption – but a ready-made, tested device for the home electronics maker would me amazing. The team is also looking into creating a printing system that can extrude both plastic and electronic components which would create truly organic, cohesive products that used fewer resources and were more rugged.
You can see the first few open source documents here related to the manufacture. Because the FirePick is a delta machine it uses fewer parts and is less complex to build. In fact, it’s much like a 3D printer in that the head moves in certain pre-set patterns, over and over, until it produces a finished product.