Wednesday, July 10, 2013

How a electronic gadgets are made

I like watching machines at work.  The video above shows how the very cool development board, the BeagleBone Black, is made.  The process is pretty similar for many electronic devices these days whether it is a cellphone or a set top box.  A circuit board gets solder paste applied to it, then parts are placed on the board in the proper position and orientation by a pick-and-place machine.  The resultant assembly goes through an oven to melt the solder.  Any extra components are attached and then the unit is tested, and packaged up for shipping.

For comparison, below is a video that I made back in 2009 showing the process we used to make Sun SPOTs.  You can see that the sequence of events is very similar.  This process, on a large scale, is what  makes it possible for us to have the magical electronic devices that we have at the prices we have them.

The process you see in these videos is also partially responsible for the demise of the hobbyist electronic kit (and places like Heathkit).  The ecosystem is being optimized for the machines in the video.  The parts being placed on these boards are mostly "surface mount" parts that sit on top of the board, not "through-hole" parts that are more practical for individuals to solder.  While the surface mount parts are very small, inexpensive and efficient for the machines to deal with in large quantities, they are very difficult for people to handle with their fingers and solder manually.  Because the parts optimized for the machines have the higher volumes, the "through hole" parts are getting less common and difficult to find.  Also, because of regulations about the use of lead (RoHS), the solder has been reformulated to melt at very high temperatures that make extra challenges for hobbyists.  It certainly limits what a maker can build in their own workshop today.  It is very straight forward for hobbyists to get a printed circuit board made, but getting the parts put onto it can be a difficult and/or expensive proposition.

The forces of nature that are moving the world in this non-hobbyist friendly direction are fairly strong and not likely to change.  The question is how can hobbyists and makers take advantage of this manufacturing technology when building in small numbers?  I think there is hope.  It might not make sense for you to have a pick-n-place machine in your garage,  but there could be inexpensive mail-order services that will stuff the parts in your boards for you.  The difficulty is making this cost effective for us hobbyists.  Loading up the proper parts in a pick-and-place machine is a very manual process.  The different "reels" of parts must be loaded up and programmed into the computer so that it knows where to find the appropriate parts.  When you are building thousands of boards, this preparation time is not a problem.  When you are only building a few boards, this set-up can cost much more than the build.

What is needed is a system that lets me, a hobbyist, spend my own time preparing my parts for the production run.  Better yet would be a system where the parts are delivered from the parts supplier to the fabrication house in machine readable, and robotically manipulatable packaging that works for small numbers of parts (not a reel that has thousands of parts).  If the parts could be automatically loaded into the machine, and I could spend my own time preparing my design for the placement machine then the preparation costs could be minimized.   If we can find a good way to cut down on the set-up costs, I'm certain a new age of custom electronics manufacturing will be on its way.   In the mean time, I think I'll just watch the videos a few more times.

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