We started Rocket Scream few years ago knowing that we would eventually need some automation in our manufacturing process to speed things up. Until now, we have been doing the ultra slow hand pick and placing components onto our boards before putting them into our hacked oven for the reflow process.Results are very good but it is a slow and painful process especially when we come to a point where we need to make few hundreds of the boards and each board has a component count that averages more than 30. When we saw the folks at Adafruit started getting serious into automated manufacturing by using the MDC 7722FV made by MDC Corp, we were so intrigued to get one until we saw the price tag. We figured we need to fork out a whopping USD30k for one! And that’s excluding the shipping cost!
Then, why not sub-contract them to an assembly factory to do that for you? We went down this path before but living in a country where manufacturing is a sunset industry, there are not many assembly factories which are willing to work on small batches of boards. Prices are very high and they always complain about having to stop their high volume production line just for your few hundreds of boards.
Up until recently, pick and place machine has always been big, bulky and expensive (even 2nd hand ones) and are usually made by Japanese companies like Juki, Samsung and European companies like Mydata (now known as Mycronic). Some of these machines are bigger than a bedroom and cost a lot to purchase and to maintain. Unless you are manufacturing hundred thousand of boards a year, these machines are not suitable for small makers like us.
When we stumbled upon a desktop pick and place machine on Taobao couple of years back, we thought that these would be awesomely suitable for us in the near future if our hands are no longer able to withstand hours of pick and placing thousands of components. This machine which is known by it’s part number TM220A is made by a small Chinese company called Neoden Technology.
In search of a suitable affordable desktop pick and place machine (we are not looking for huge room size machines), we decided to visit Neoden Technology secret lab in Hangzhou, China in May 2015. Our aim was to check out their third generation pick and place machine known as TM245P and to see how accurate and reliable these machines are.
Some Bits on Neoden Technology
The company started on a small scale by 3 friends who were classmates during their university days in the beautiful prefecture of Hangzhou. The first desktop pick and place machine, the TM220A was made available for the Chinese domestic market in 2009, 2 years after they started working on the machine. Like any other start up companies, the 3 of them runs the company entirely including the development aspects, manufacturing process, trouble shooting tasks and customer supports in their early days. Today, the 78-strong employees company operates from 3 floor facilities nestled in a technology park where various start-up companies are located.
We were staying right next to the beautiful West Lake in Hangzhou but unfortunately there’s no direct public transportation to Neoden Technology’s office. We took a cab that cost around RMB50 (about USD8) on a 30 minutes journey to get to their office. Remember, when you are in China you’ll need to have the address written in Chinese else it’s very unlikely that the taxi driver knows the place if the address is written in English. Google services is not available in China and if you are thinking about pulling out your Google Maps there, just make sure you have subscription to VPN service ready. We use maps just to ensure that the taxi driver is bringing us to the correct destination and not getting lost in the middle of nowhere (and not knowing how to speak their language!).
Inside the Neoden Technology Facility
Neoden Technology does mostly all the manufacturing in-house . On the lower ground floor, metal parts of their pick and place machine were cut and shaped in their workshop.
All the pick and place machines are assembled in this facility itself. Machines are assembled, tested and another round of final testing will be performed prior to the out-going shipment process. Machines are also being serviced here if there’s any issue once being delivered to the customers.
The research and development of the machines are carried out on the same floor as the production floor. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to snap any photo here. This is where we met with the founders (3 of them who are only 29 years old, people start awesomely young in China!) of the companies that is also the engineers behind these awesome machines.
At present, Neoden Technology has 3 machine models to choose from. Depending on your manufacturing needs and requirements, you can get a pretty decent machine from as low as USD4K. If you are churning out boards that have the usual 0603 passives, SOIC, SOT, and the likes, their 1st and 2nd generation machine TM220A and TM240A are pretty suitable. The TM220A is their very first machine and comes with 16 feeders and applicable PCB size of 220 mm x 200 mm. The TM240A was released to meet the demand of more number of feeders (it has 28 feeders) and larger size PCB support (larger applicable PCB size of 400 mm x 360 mm). No external PC/controller or external vacuum pump is required for both machine as they are all built-in. Operation on the machine is through a small touch screen LCD.
Moving forward from the 1st and 2nd generation of the machine, Neoden released a very much improved machine called the TM245P in 2014. Although the cost of the machine has increased, but the vast number of improvements on this 3rd generation machine has made those extra cost insignificant. First up is the number of feeders available on the TM245P, a whopping 49 feeders (on an all 8 mm setup). Even the feeder mechanism has been improved by using separate tiny motors for each feeders. Odd enough, this feature has been patent filled by Neoden Technology in China (see the section below on challenges). The applicable PCB size has also been increased slightly compared to the previous version. The components now can be mounted at a blazing speed of 10 k chips per hour (not very reliable when used with smaller pitch components such as TQFP-100 for example). A larger touch LCD screen is used for easier access to the operation menu of the machine. Support for vibration feeders is also added onto this new machine where you could use IC in tubes packaging. 5 rows (or tubes we would call it) is supported and can be customized upon request. Components in tray (like our favourite ATMega328P-AU in TQFP32 package) is also supported and trays can be placed in the working area but will reduce the maximum size of the applicable PCB.
On top of manufacturing desktop pick and place machine, Neoden also made their own solder paste printer machine and carries 3rd party reflow oven (not shown here). They are usually cheaper when bundled together with the pick and place machine.
Outlet in Huaqiangbei, Shenzhen
Which sane (insane?) makers does not go to Huaqiangbei in Shenzhen? After our short stay in Hangzhou to visit their factory, we took an 11 hour train ride down to Shenzhen. Neoden has a showroom outlet in SEG Plaza on the ground floor (close to the gate 1 of the building entrance, look for the shop number 1D010). If you want to see the machine with your own eyes without travelling all the way to Hangzhou, getting to SEG Plaza in Shenzhen is highly recommended as you’ll get to see the awesome electronics market besides seeing the machine in action (they will run the demo on the machine upon your request). Worry not about the language barrier, the person taking care of the showroom will be able to converse quite well in English.
Challenges & Roadblocks
In China, you could easily see knock off of very well known products like your cellphone, watch, shoes just to name a few in the market. At times, these knock off products or copy cats we usually would call them, ships out even earlier than the real product before the product launch. In the case of Neoden Technology, as soon as the TM220A and TM240A machines start gathering attention, copies of the machines started to pop out on places like Taobao and Alibaba. You’ll come across various part number renames but machines that looks alike (except for some branding and color variation) sold at cheaper price. While designing the 3rd generation of the machine (TM245P), they applied for patent of several aspect of their new machine design before releasing them into the market. We are not so sure to what extend this patent filling will help to protect their market interest in China, but from what we have seen on the usual market places in China (Taobao and 1688), it seems to be working (at least no sight of machine that looks like the TM245P, yet!).
As Neoden Technology grows bigger (any growing company would we guess), problem of keeping up with the market demand starts to creep in. The TM220A & TM240A buyers used to enjoy a very short delivery period (like a day or two) but after the machine became more and more well known in the market outside of China, lead time of getting a machine goes to a week at this moment of writing. It’s pretty much a very good problem for the company but they are trying to reduce the lead time by speeding up the production of their machines.
What Do We Think About Their Machines?
First and foremost, we don’t own any of their machine, yet. But, from our impression on the demo running on the machines especially the latest TM245P and getting to know the people behind the company, these machine worth every penny you pay for them. We really love the availability of the vibration feeders (TM245P) because for small scale makers like us, it’s very less likely we would spend USD5x2500 on a reel of IC! Having these vibration feeders allow us to purchase the IC in tubes packages in smaller quantity. The number of maximum feeders on the TM245P is also very generous at 49 for 8 mm size tapes. Of course, if you have some mix of larger sized tapes (12 mm, 16 mm, etc) combination, the number of the maximum feeders will be less. But, if you are looking for very accurate machine where you needs to mount BGA with hundreds of pads, then this is not for you. Top and bottom camera for vision positioning are still lacking on the current line-up of machine to facilitate such BGA component mounting and we hope this gets addressed in future machines.
If you are looking forward to buy one of their machines, we highly recommend the following links on the experience of using their machine:
- Ian Lesnet’s video on the TM220A
- Ray’s Hobby video and write up on the TM240A
- Largewire’s video on the TM245P
New Friends Made!
What we love most about this trip is not just about machines, we made some awesome new friends at Neoden Technology. Our sales representative, Tonny Chen (yes, double “n” on the Tonny) was very helpful in getting us there and being very patient in explaining the machines to us in their office.
In SEG Plaza, Shenzhen, we met with Haimi Lin who is also a sales representative for the international market.
We hope you guys enjoy the trip as much as we do! Happy tinkering!