Mike Buetow

Just how big is the hobbyist market for electronics? Very. Should the professional electronics industry start taking notice? Absolutely.

More than 120,000 people attended the Maker Faire trade show this spring in San Mateo, CA. That puts this year’s series of events well on its way to top the 165,000 who attended the 2012 Maker Faires in the Bay Area and New York. They came out to see more than 1,000 exhibitors (read: hobbyists) and their innovations, all of which are borne of individual ingenuity and perseverance.

And if the volume doesn’t wow you, the breadth of the do-it-yourself inventions should. Arduino, which columnist Duane Benson has mentioned from time to time, debuted a $69 WiFi-enabled programmable motherboard for making sensors for the Internet of things, and a $279 robot kit, complete with two PCBs, wheels, a compass, sensors, speakers and a screen that walks users through the various projects it allows them to build. Indeed, exhibitors had kits for building anything on earth, and in some cases, objects that were less terrestrial. KickSat and NanoSatisfi ArduSat, for example, were among the projects for designing space-ready satellites.

Scores of these inventors have brought small-run inventions to market but lack the time, desire or dexterity to manually place scores of components in their garages or basement “labs.” So one particularly relevant development shown at Maker Faire was the DIY pick-and-place machine.

At the heart of the DIY placement world is a Seattle-based software engineer named Jason Von Nieda. Von Nieda is leader of a project called OpenPnP, which basically wants to develop open source plans, prototypes and software for an SMT placement machine.

Von Nieda got the idea after working on a smaller design for a standalone brewing control system. Building two to three SMT boards at night, he found placing the board’s 36 components by hand using tweezers too demanding to keep up with by himself, but insufficient to farm out cost-effectively. It led Von Nieda to wonder if he could build his own pick-and-place machine. As it turned out, developing the hardware was the easy part. “I found that it wouldn’t be hard to build one, but it is hard to get good software to control them. So I thought, I’m a software engineer and I’ll write the program to build a placement machine.”

Three years later, he’s still at it. During that time, OpenPnP has attracted 200 members, many of whom are building their own machines, competition Von Nieda says he openly welcomes. Those inventors run the gamut, but many aim to develop extremely low-end, low-cost (sub-$500) desk systems. OpenPnP has thus far created a working prototype using a 4D robot based on standard Cartesian robots. The goal, Von Nieda says, is a kit for building a pick-and-place machine at home. That kit would include parts, designs and software. The hardware kit designs and software he showed at Maker Faire are downloadable at openpnp.org.

While some aim for money, OpenPnP wants to offer open source hardware for those who can’t fabricate it themselves. In fact, Von Nieda doesn’t include a noncommercial clause on his software. “If someone wants to take it and use it, they can do that.”

SMT placement is a big and generally lucrative business. What’s in it for Von Nieda, if not a profit? “A lot of people asked me that question at Maker Faire,” he told me. “Software development is my passion. It almost doesn’t matter what the project is; I really like when people use my software. It’s very empowering and satisfying.”

Years ago, Professor Dr. Neal Gershenfeld, then head of MIT’s Media Lab, posited at an IPC meeting that technology would evolve and simplify to the point where anyone’s unique need could be filled by a point-of-conception invention. In other words, if you have a proverbial itch, you could invent a widget to scratch it then and there, circuits and all.

This year’s Maker Faire seems to support Gershenfeld’s futuristic view. It was heavy on 3D printers, a trend that did not go unnoticed by Von Nieda. He believes placement DIYers are hot on the heels of the 3D printer developers.

“The place where 3D printers are right now, that technology has started to fall into the hands of the hobbyists. Everyone is making one and trying to sell it. I see desktop pick-and-place not having the same level of impact, but a similar trajectory. If the number of people who wanted to plunk down money on the desk at Maker Faire was any indication, this is going to be huge.”

Still, Von Nieda acknowledges he’s not quite ready for prime time. “OpenPnP is still very much in development and still not all that useful, unless you have a pick-and-place machine on your desk and you’re waiting to use it.” But his goal is to have kits available this fall.

“Electronics is huge, and we’re all running into the same problems. It will be really cool to see how the electronics world changes over the next few years. I think it will change a lot.”

P.S. Speaking of trade shows, check out the PCB West technical conference program at pcbwest.com.

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