As we head into what is traditionally a week of heavy discounting, I want to give a little update about some new equipment that will be a foundation for our long-term commitment both to lowering prices and increasing the quality and sophistication of our products. Plus, I figure these kinds of machines are fun for our customers to look at.
Unloading these big crates is a new challenge every time since they arrive on a variety of trucks that sometimes have other freight on them. The crates weigh several tons and the machines cost as a much as a decent house, so we really don’t want to drop one like we did last year. (It was just a few inches, and the machine was fine!) Here, the oven was on the back of a flatbed truck so it could just drive out from under the crate once the forklifts were supporting it.
The oven is not as exciting as a pick and place machine, especially since it’s the same model as the one we got last year. But, while we can print solder paste and place parts by hand, the reflow soldering is one part of electronics manufacturing that we cannot do manually, so having two identical good ovens allows us to keep operating even if one of them goes down.
We still have our older, smaller oven, so we can run three ovens at the same time if we ever want to.
We have a more interesting new machine, so on to the next crate:
We are adding two new pick and place machines to our facility this year, and the first to arrive was the Samsung SM421F. One of our criteria for a new machine was high feeder capacity. Our designs are not that complicated, so the main reason we want the high feeder count is to allow us to keep many of the parts on the machine as we change from design to design. With a machine like this, we can also put the same component in several locations to increase production speed. However, since our designs tend to have relatively few components and our volumes are low, pure placement rate is less of a concern for us than being able to switch between designs quickly.
A big selling point for us was the availability of an external tray changer that does not take up any regular feeder positions. On many machines, there is only room for one or two trays in the machine, and adding a tray changer might take up thirty or more feeder slots. With the tray changer, we can have twenty different trays and up to 120 tape feeders at the same time.
Speed is still nice, though. I expect this machine to be about as fast as our three older machines combined. The machine has four heads and a claimed top placement rate of over 16,000 parts per hour. Some preliminary results had us placing around 12,000 parts per hour on our designs (the average includes larger parts like integrated circuits, which we expect to be slower).
Part of the appeal of the Samsung pick and place machine is that Samsung uses their own machines to build their electronics products. While the model we got is an entry-level unit, the basic platform is the same one being used around the world to make millions of products. Some of the competing pick and place machine manufacturers acknowledge Samsung’s workhorse performance but claim they make more sense in a mass production environment where the machines are churning out the same product 24 hours a day. The Samsung reps of course claimed otherwise, and so far, changing the machine’s setup has seemed reasonable. As I mentioned, the Samsung unit is just the first of two machines we are adding this year. The second machine is on its way and is supposed to be optimized for a high-mix environment like ours. I’ll post pictures of that once we have it here.
The new machines should allow for some interesting new developments for us and for our customers. On a basic level, tripling our manufacturing capacity reflects our commitment to manufacturing our products ourselves, but there is more to it than that. As our products have become more popular, we have seen various imitations or knock-offs appear. I have heard people in the open source hardware (OSHW) community argue that merely lowering prices is not a valid contribution (as opposed to modifying or improving the underlying design). I think those who deny the contribution of manufacturers who reduce prices undervalue the hard work and innovation required to produce products at ever lower prices. Perhaps some OSHW contributors just want to have their cake and eat it, too: they want the benefits and good feelings associated with contributing to open-source projects while wanting to maintain control of possible profits, sometimes through some not-so-open ways.
Well, I want to have my cake and eat it, too. As I mentioned in my thoughts on OSHW post, I think OSHW benefits those who are good at manufacturing but might not be so good at product design. The flip side of that is that those who are good at design and who open up their designs risk losing sales to more efficient manufacturers. So, my plan is to make Pololu very good at manufacturing our products. My goals in starting Pololu included making better products and making electronics and robotics more accessible to everyone by making those products affordable and by sharing how they work. I expect our new equipment investments to give us a big leg up in achieving those goals.
Happy Thanksgiving and happy Black Friday shopping!
November 20 update: here’s a short clip of the pick and place machine assembling some A4988 stepper motor driver carriers:
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