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Video SXSW: Imagine a Practical, Low-Cost Circuit Board Assembly System (Video) 60

SXSW Create is one of a handful of sub-shows at SXSW which don't require an expensive badge — it's maker-oriented and small, and a few blocks from the slicker parts of the convention. (The local ATX Hackerspace was there showing off robots and giving out soldering lessons and blinkies, without a single corporate pitch.) Under the same tent, I met with Jeff McAlvay, co-creator of Board Forge, which Jeff hopes will make small-run circuit board creation as easy and accessible as small-scale 3-D printing has become in the last few years. ("Think MakerBot for electronics.") The prototype hardware McAlvay had on hand looks -- in fact, is a 3-D printer, albeit one lower-slung than the ones that make plastic doo-dads. That's because the Board Forge's specialized task of assembling circuit boards requires only limited vertical movement. It's using the open-source OpenCV computer vision software and a tiny camera mounted on a movable head to accomplish the specialized task of selecting and placing components onto the boards. The tiny electronic components are lined up in strips on one side of the device, where that smart head can grab them for placement. The brains of the operation include an Arduino-family processor for basic controls, and a Raspberry Pi for the higher-level functions like computer vision. The projected cost for one of these machines — about $2000 — should put instant-gratification machine-aided circuit creation in reach of schools and serious hobbyists, but there's plenty of work before it's set for sale to the public; look for a Kickstarter project in the next few months.

Jeff: My name is Jeff McAlvay. I am working on a project, Board Forge. We aim at being electronics from art to part. So we want to be in a situation where folks can load a design of a board, a blank board and components, and come out with a functional circuit board.

Tim: Okay. Now on the table here, we’ve got a couple of different things, you got what looks like a CNC machine, and you’ve got an electronic brain, and you've got a laptop sending instructions. Can you talk through what each one does? Can you tell us what each of these, the things on this table, do?

Jeff: Certainly. Yes. So this is the machine itself. So it has components that are loaded in. It has a head that is able to move up and down and pick up the components. And it has the boards that are going to be populated with parts. The head has a vacuum tube and a camera on it. Over here, is the brain for the machine. So it is Raspberry Pi doing three things, it is sending instructions to the motor controller, it’s also doing the computer vision, and it is also serving as the interface for the software.

Tim: The software you are using, is this homegrown?

Jeff: Yeah. So we have printouts written in full stack Javascript. So the server is an OJS and the software it is serving is HTML5 and JavaScript.

Tim: Okay. Now what sort of boards can people make with this?

Jeff: So our aim is to use to write different boards, anything from IO equipment that would allow folks to be able to have an accelerometer on their head and be able to move their head and hear from where the sound source is, to also do motor controllers like the one that is built and it’s out of here.

Tim: Now what will this cost?

Jeff: Come again.

Tim: What will this cost?

Jeff: We are aiming at the $2000 price point.

Tim: Okay. Aiming for means when? What’s your timeline right now?

Jeff: We are hoping to kickstart it this summer.

Tim: Okay. And that kickstart is going to raise money to do what, what things do you need that money to accomplish?

Jeff: So the main purpose is to be able to build machines. There are costs associated with making physical things.

Tim: Okay, sure. Now the device itself over here, how did you construct this?

Jeff: Instrumental in the process has been a hackerspace in Chicago called Pumping Station One. Right now I am working with three folks from that space. As well as some folks who are writing software that I met at a hackathon. So those guys have been just crucial in being able to help get to where we are.

Tim: So how big a team is it right now in total?

Jeff: Right now, there are six folks. Three primarily doing the hardware, and then three working on the software.

Tim: And are you all in the Chicago area?

Jeff: Three Chicago, one Miami, and then two California.

Tim: Okay. How do you coordinate that?

Jeff: So far, GitHub has been a big friend of ours, as has been the phone.

Tim: Okay. Now the things this can do, compared to say, MakerBot can do a lot of fine movement, but it can’t for instance place components?

Jeff: Right. Can you say that again?

Tim: Yeah. So MakerBot can do a lot of movement, and it can make things...

Jeff: Right.

Tim: But it can’t pick up the electronic parts, and it doesn’t have a vision system.

Jeff: Right. Yeah. I think in many ways that is one of the big differences between this and more of the traditional 3D printers, while we're concerned with being able to put down material and build structural things. In many ways, this is more concerned with building electronics.

Tim: Okay. Can you characterize the precision with which the board is intended to place components?

Jeff: So, I don’t want to make any promises yet as to where we will be, but the target we are aiming for is 0402 which is 0.5 mm x 1 mm.

Tim: Okay. And this device you said is going to cost probably about $2000.

Jeff: That’s what we are targeting.

Tim: Okay. That makes it in the range of makerspace and schools?

Jeff: Yeah, we would love to have makerspaces, schools, small university labs, small businesses that do electronic design, and even I think down the road hope to be in industrial spaces where they are doing development of products.

Tim: Okay. How long has this been in the works from your side?

Jeff: We started in September.

Tim: Okay. And if somebody buys one of these when they are available, what kind of software will they need to actually make a circuit?

Jeff: So it comes with a software that we’ve written.

Tim: Okay. So is it GUI-based?

Jeff: Yeah. It is. I think one of our targets is try and make it really accessible for folks to be able to use. I think with the industrial machines, it takes a decent amount of training to get really good facility with them, so we are trying to keep the interface simple.

Tim: Is the software itself open source?

Jeff: Our plan is that once the machine is done, both the hardware and the software will be open source.

Tim: When you say the hardware will be open source, what do you mean by that?

Jeff: The designs for the machine.

Tim: And is everything here makeable with parts from your average makerspace, that if you could, if you’ve got your rail there, and things like that?

Jeff: We haven’t decided exactly the implementation of the final design but we aim at one that is going to be makeable by folks in makerspaces.

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SXSW: Imagine a Practical, Low-Cost Circuit Board Assembly System (Video)

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  • by Nadaka ( 224565 ) on Monday March 11, 2013 @03:08PM (#43141351)

    Ultimately, the machine will etch traces, apply solder paste, place components, cook, and test. Version 1.0 places components.

  • Re:SXSW: Imagine... (Score:4, Informative)

    by gl4ss ( 559668 ) on Monday March 11, 2013 @04:19PM (#43142071) Homepage Journal

    Unless you have some mysterious reason for insisting that the control electronics duplicate, rather than supplement, the ridiculously powerful, RAM-heavy, and massively-mass-storaged computer that you can buy for $200 and use for all kinds of neat stuff, is there a problem with AVRs?

    If you are doing a circuit design(or even just downloading one from somebody who did) you presumably own a computer massively more powerful than any microcontroller or embedded system(not counting 'embedded' systems that are server gear with extended temperature ratings put in the same box as the device being controlled) ever made. That PC won't have many PWM outputs, and any DACs and ADCs it has will probably be horribly tweaked in favor of pleasing sound, since they'll be on the sound card; but it will otherwise have ridiculous power to spare.

    Microcontrollers make excellent complements, since they have pitiful computational and RAM specs; but tend to be well supplied with PWMs and ADCs. Why reinvent the PC as part of the machine?

    realtime reasons? controlling more devices in sync? minimizing delays? I mean those are among the reasons usually cited as reasons when asking why not just have all the devices hooked up to pc separately.

    with cnc machines it's common that they're just hooked up to parallel though(though usb is coming more common in home cnc as parallel is going exint). but with repraps, makerbots it's generally preferable to print from sd card on the machine as while feeding the movement codes over usb works ok 99% of the time(that's how I usually do with because of being a lazy ass).. it's that 1%, that one extra pause due to it being usb, that can cause a blip on your print.

    on cnc routers that's not a problem though. it's not like the routing bit is going to leak.

    so barring all that yeah, I would prefer just a solution where I could just run endless amount of steppers in sync from my pc, of course. but in the meantime I'd rather have lots of more cpu time (and by extension pins) available for io on the avr board that I need to use to run them now.

    point being you can buy servos now with optical encoders and arm chips embedded, which makes avr+steppers look quite stone age.(those servos with continous rotation cost a hundred bucks a pop though).

  • by Alioth ( 221270 ) <no@spam> on Monday March 11, 2013 @04:25PM (#43142143) Journal

    Actually a pick and place machine is precisely addressing the bottleneck if you need to make small runs. Sure, for a 1-off board it doesn't matter much. But if you want to make a run of 50 boards, you can get the bare PCBs made very cheaply, but assembling the boards is another matter altogether. (I have actually found a company that will assemble 50 boards for a reasonable price, but it would still be a lot better - even if it wasn't any cheaper - to have the assembly done genuinely "in house", not to mention a much faster turnaround time).

  • by Alioth ( 221270 ) <no@spam> on Monday March 11, 2013 @04:26PM (#43142155) Journal

    Those machines are also eyewateringly expensive. This machine is actually pretty damn cheap even if all it does is pick and place.

"Never face facts; if you do, you'll never get up in the morning." -- Marlo Thomas