Prototype Small Batch Assembly


Prototype and Small Batch Assembly

Outsourcing vs. Doing it Yourself

Sending boards to China can be all right if you have the quantities for it, but for small batches the low cost per board is offset by high setup fees, and your lead times are stretched not just by the trip across the ocean but also by the fact that your job will be queued behind much larger jobs, some of which can take days to complete.

You can get short runs done in the US, but again you might find your small job stuck behind larger jobs, and the larger US contract assemblers are often not interested in small jobs at all.

Wherever you outsource to, your project is completely out of your hands until it's shipped back to you. There's no building a board and double checking it before you go on to do the full run.

Doing your prototyping and small batch assembly yourself cuts the lead times down to nothing, gives you complete control over the quality of your end product (including the ability to find and fix errors on your part before the whole batch is run), and saves you money in the long run, equipment is an investment that you can utilize long after your current job is complete. Outsourced assembly is an expense you incur every time you have a job to send out.

(Equipment can even become an extra income source if you utilize its downtime by taking in small assembly jobs from others.)

What You'll Need to Do it Yourself

For an in-house prototyping and/or short-run assembly line, at the minimum you'll need a stencil printer, a component placer, and a reflow soldering oven.




You'll probably want a way to inspect the quality of your finished assembly. Rework and repair tools wouldn't go amiss either. If you're not using no-clean solder paste (and in many cases even if you are), you'll want a way to clean your assemblies as well

Since these purchasing guides focus on pick and place machines, we'll only focus on selecting the best component placer for your needs here. This machine will be the biggest expense in your new assembly line.

Three Types to Consider

Pick and Place

Pick and Place


Manual (and Semiautomatic) Pick & Place

These are the least expensive models, typically selling between $1,000 and $12,000. These desktop pick and place machines range from something as simple as a board holder, hand rest, component bins, and vacuum pick-up pipette, to sophisticated vision, pick and place head guidance, controlled component lowering, motorized parts carousels, tape and strip feeder capability, and more.

Who are manual pick and place machines suited for?

You are probably in the market for a manual or semi automatic system if:

  • You don't expect to be assembling a lot of boards
  • But you're building too many boards for hand assembly to be feasible
  • High precision (repeatability) and accuracy aren't critical to your products
  • But you require more accuracy than you can get with hand assembly
  • The income from the products you'll be making won't be high enough to justify an automated machine


Low-Volume/Prototype Pick & Place

Pick and place equipment for prototyping and low-volume production offer many of the same capabilities and features as full-sized machines, in a smaller footprint and at a lower cost.

These machines are a substantial upgrade over manual and semi-automatic pick and place systems, not just in production speed but also in precision, repeatability, efficiency of setup, and labor costs since you won't need an operator overseeing each individual placement.

Who are low-volume/prototype pick and place machines suited for?

You are probably in the market for a low-volume automated pick & place machine if:

  • You require higher precision, repeatability, and accuracy than hand
    assembly or manual/semi-automatic machines can produce
  • Your board has a large number of components
  • You don't want to place all the components yourself, one at a time
  • You need to build boards faster than you could with a manual or semi-automatic system
  • The income from the products you'll be making (and/or your ability
    to take in contract jobs on top of your own production) justifies
    an investment in this level of equipment

Recommendation: MC400 PICK AND PLACE MACHINE >

Automated Mid-Volume Machine

Full-sized pick and place machines give you larger capacities, larger placement areas, and faster placement rates than their smaller, low-volume and prototyping counterparts.

With a full-sized machine, you can also get an in/out shuttle, which eliminates the need for your machine operator to reach into the machine to load and unload the board, or you can opt for a SMEMA-compatible conveyor, to integrate the pick and place machine into an automated SMT production line.

Who are mid-volume pick and place machines suited for?            

You are probably in the market for a mid-volume system if:

  • You need to handle larger boards or panels
  • You need even higher precision (repeatability) and accuracy than a smaller machine offers
  • You need to build boards even faster than you could with a low-volume machine
  • You need to place a component range or mix that smaller machines can't handle
  • The income from the products you'll be making (and/or your ability
    to take in contract jobs on top of your own production) justifies
    an investment in this level of equipment

Recommendation: MC385 PICK AND PLACE MACHINE >
Or, View All Automated Pick and Place Machines >

Other Special Applications

Assembling LED Boards