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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 dbc ( 135354 ) on Monday March 11, 2013 @03:14PM (#43141405)

    A $2K device that does solder paste and Pick-and-Place is what we need. You can have circuit boards made easily and cheaply from a number of places. It's been a loooong time since I thought it was worth the time and hassle of playing in the soup myself. I don't see the point of trying to make PCBs at home any more. Toaster oven or hot plate soldering works great for suface mount. The two killers are 1) applying solder paste, and 2) pick and place. So, a cheap reliable stencil is one option for older. A friend of mine has a Mikini 1610L CNC mill, and we did a hack to add a manual solder paste syringe (one of the compressed-air driven hand-held units) as a tool head. Our first attempt got some nearly usable boards, but it would require tuning and another rev to get the right amount of paste and make it all work. Other people have done hobbyist grade Pick-n-place. Combining the two operations, adding the webcam for precise part orientation, and hitting $2K would be a game changer.

Always leave room to add an explanation if it doesn't work out.