Seven years ago today we received our first pick and place machine, a Novastar. Since then we’ve upgraded to a high-speed Europlacer XPii that can handle smaller components. This month we have acquired an Exmore VS-500 vapour phase reflow oven. With the addition of this unit, we can achieve a more even temperature across circuit boards, regardless of the uneven thermal mass of some designs, meaning fewer tombstone errors on assembled boards.
Cut tape wastes an assembler’s time and may cost you more money than you save on parts
When getting your short run of PCB assembly for your design you may be tempted to just buy cut tape for your parts, since full reels have thousands of components on them and may cost more. However, consider what happens when you provide cut tape to your assembler.
For each cut tape, the assembler needs to mount it on a feeder, so parts can be automatically fed into the machine for placement.
Each feeder needs a couple of feet of blank leader tape, attached with special tape to your piece of cut tape. The first 3 or 4 components worth of cut tape will need to be peeled back to attach the leader tape. Those 3-4 components need to be repocketed at a later time in the cut tape, which leads to extra manual handling and can be a source of error and lost parts.
If you also supply only the exact number of parts required for your boards, the assembler may need to spend extra time dealing with misfeeds, or possibly not do a complete run for you due to dropped components. If you do choose to use cut tape, supply at least 5 additional components, to allow efficient handling.
Let’s look at some costs associated with an example run. Suppose you have 20 pieces of cut tape for your job. For each tape, there is ~$1 of joiner tape needed, plus about 10 minutes of extra time per type of component. At average engineer rates of ~$50 per hour this adds about $200 to your job. If you are only doing 20 boards, that’s $10 per board. Figures will differ for different manufacturers, and some machines may be better or worse at handling cut tape, but as a rough estimate, assume that your job costs $10 more per cut tape and that you will fail to get a complete run unless you supply extra components.
A further thing to be aware of is that there is no guarantee that you will get a single piece of cut tape for each part when you buy your components as cut tape. You may end up with several pieces, and each of these needs to be mounted separately. The extra pieces of cut tape will either stop production as they need to be mounted when the previous pieces have been consumed, or they will take up extra feeder slots. The number of components lost in production is proportional to the number of pieces of cut tape for the part. Since it is known that components provided as cut tape can be in multiple pieces of tape, assemblers will either have to assume the worst when they give you a quote, wait until they see the components before giving a quote, or just give an estimate before the job.
There are various solutions to the curse of cut tape.
- Buy a full reel
- Buy your small number of components and get them put on a reel for manufacture by the supplier (eg. ~$7 reeling fee for a “digireel” from Digikey)
- For standard components such as passives, you might be able to cheaply use the assembler’s reels. We like to encourage the use of our stock of standard passives, and may even provide these for free for your job, as it saves us time and hassle.
More things to be aware of when getting your job ready for pick and place in this post.
- Make sure you provide about 5% more components than actually needed for the number of boards. No process is 100% accurate in placement, and components get dropped by the machine head, or otherwise wasted through tape advancement or just falling into the machine. If you don’t do this, don’t be surprised if not all of your boards are fully populated at the end of the run.
- How you design your board can affect the amount of tombstoning (components standing up due to uneven surface tension from solder during reflow – the solder melting stage). This is a greater problem for smaller components such as 0402s. Ensuring that you don’t have one side of a component connected to a large thermal mass compared to the other one, is an example of how you can minimise tombstoning. Another example is by having rounded corners on pads, which has been shown to reduce tombstoning.
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We sometimes get asked how to prepare a design for manufacture on a pick and place machine. There are things to be aware of that are not needed for your prototype, including fiducials, which are marks on the board that help the machine’s vision system place the components accurately. Also the way that components are provided makes a lot of difference to how long it takes to set up the run.
An excellent introduction to design for manufacture is provided by Dave Jones. We strongly recommend watching it before sending your design to be made. Having said that, we can handle 0402 sized components, but are happy to use other sizes if required.
Hello world! Agile Electronics has been providing electronic assembly services since 2010. We’re located in the Melbourne metropolitan area. We have a Europlacer XPii-IIT pick and place machine. We can provide surface mount assembly services for prototypes to runs of ~1,000 units.