SMT Quick-Tips: Selecting a Custom or Used Machine

Robert Voigt, DDM Novastar


When to Consider A Custom or Used Machine

Let’s say you have an unusual product configuration, a unique space requirement, an unorthodox handling system, or an application totally unrelated to the PCB or SMT assembly business, and you can’t find a standard machine provider that can handle your requirements. What then?

Time for a custom machine!

There are a handful (a very small handful, actually) of true manufacturers of assembly equipment that serve the low- to mid-range volume users. If you want a standard stencil printer, pick and place machine, reflow oven, wave or selective soldering machine, etc., you have dozens of firms to choose from. Most of them, however, are actually importers and/or resellers and have serious limitations on the kind of customization they can do.

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To begin, what kinds of challenges do companies run into that often require a custom solution? Here are a few I’ve seen in the recent past:

Fig 1: In-line paste-place-reflow
system to mount parts from reel to reel

  • A company that required a reflow oven with a very long dwell time in the chamber, which would normally require a 40-foot tunnel, but needed to fit it into a foot-print only 6 feet long. The solution was to design and build a serpentine conveyor within the length of a short tunnel that achieved the dwell time dictated by the process and footprint.
  • A user looking for a totally integrated inline component placement process from a reel of blank substrate at the beginning to a fully populated reel at the end. The customer got a self-contained system that accurately attaches miniature medical devices onto a strip for seamless downstream processing.
  • A custom pick and place application that selects a component, dips it into one or more materials at different stations, such as paste or epoxy, then accurately centers and mounts it on an substrate. An off-the-shelf pick and place machine was modified for this application with custom jaws and positioning software. This example also required two different reservoirs for a “double-dip” function.
  • A process to place multiple micro-chip lasers onto a block to aggregate a high intensity beam into a single point for a steel laser cutting tool. Due to the accuracy required for this project, the pattern layout was critical. A machine was custom-engineered which included unique LED lighting configured to handle special gold plating.
  • Unique sequencing operations and processes for assembly machines conducting operations on multiple stations that require custom software programming. In addition to putting an inline system together, one needs to make sure the programming can be customized also. An example of this was an assembly line that needed to dispense paste, inspect, accurately place the components, index through a cutter assembly, provide a feed control system over to an accumulation loop, input that feed into the reflow oven process with vision inspection of finished assembly.
  • Material handling systems with special line functionality, such as reverse feeding or a capability to manage large or odd-shaped parts. One customer already had an inline system, that required their new reflow oven to move right to left, in reverse of the norm.

Fig 2: Custom pick-and-place system

There are some worthwhile goals that might drive you to consider going to the trouble and expense of a non-standard machine, such as reducing labor and improving predictable quality by integrating multiple processes together and reducing dependence on non-skilled labor. While the upfront investment will be considerably higher than that of a standard machine, the ROI – depending on the application and volume – could be short and significant.

So, how do you look for a custom machine manufacturer that has sufficient experience in the PCB/SMT assembly world that you can trust with your project?

Start by asking the sellers of equipment what – if any – customization they can do. If they can, then describe your objectives and constraints, but don’t tell them how to do it; let them get back to you with a recommended solution. If you attempt to dictate how to build a machine rather than describe its functional purpose, you could be liable for taking delivery of something that does what you’ve asked, but fails to live up to your performance expectations.

Companies that do custom assembly work should be equipped with these capabilities:

  1. In-house design for both mechanical and software integration
  2. Quality processes and practical engineering to deliver optimal performance with minimal maintenance
  3. Capability to create prototype parts and/or entire machines
  4. Machining, electrical design/assembly, circuit board assembly
  5. Sheet metal fabrication, welding and assembly
  6. Inspection and testing, including procedures for validating design and studying potential failure points in a custom machine
  7. Ability to design and make any special tooling required to manufacture small table-top machines to large assembly / process equipment.

How to evaluate a used machine

Used SMT assembly equipment can be found all over the Internet. In most cases, it’s “buyer beware,” but there are some cases where you can get a good deal and save some money over a new machine. I’ll help guide you in your search and give you some tips to avoid getting a raw deal or actually spending more than new by the time you get that bargain acquisition in good working order.

Why consider a used machine?

A new machine with all the options you want, the factory support you expect and a warranty that protects you is always the first choice, but there are some good reasons to consider a factory reconditioned unit vs new:

  • A factory reconditioned machine can save you up to 50%, depending on age and condition of the unit
  • If you have a short-term project that you want to minimize your cost and/or loss, buying a reconditioned machine could be a good choice
  • If you have a complex application that you’re not sure will even work, and you can’t afford the cost of custom equipment, you may be able to create a workaround with a reconditioned unit, along with the technical support of the OEM

Fig 3: Custom control panel during assembly

The “re” words – rebuilt, reconditioned, recycled, re-certified, remanufactured, or refurbished – are intended to describe the various conditions you can expect to find in the used market; however, you really need to look deeper. Many times the wording is used interchangeably to mean the same thing. The kind of description you want to avoid is simply “used or as-is,” because you have no idea how much work (and dollars) it will take to get it in good working order and registered by the manufacturer.

There are hundreds of surplus electronic manufacturing and test equipment re-sellers in the market, and they sell through different channels like eBay or SMTNet. At this writing, SMTNet has over 393 used SMT equipment dealers listed. Some have a good reputation for trying to help the customer with as much information as they can, while others may be only looking to make a fast buck on a bargain that they themselves found at a flea market.

The best situation, if you can find it, is to buy a factory reconditioned machine from a respectable manufacturer. Here’s the distinction I make between “factory reconditioned” and “refurbished”: A refurbished machine is one that may have been damaged and repaired, while a factory reconditioned unit has had all its worn parts replaced, outdated components updated with new, everything tested to be in good working order, and a factory warranty applied by the manufacturer.

There are quite a few resellers who say they recondition used machines, but it’s always a risk. Here’s why: Most SMT assembly equipment is initially licensed and registered with the OEM, similar to a title on a car. So, to get instructions, support and access to spare parts, you’ll need to register your used machine with the OEM, and that can cost between $2,000 and $5,000, depending on the manufacturer. Not doing so would be taking a big financial and implementation risk, and if you bought from someone other than the manufacturer you could be paying for support they might not be able to deliver.

Original manufacturers will often take in older equipment in trade, or buy back machines that their customers have outgrown. They will also seek to purchase back their own brands from companies going out of business. This means you have a pretty good chance of finding a pick and place machine, reflow oven, wave soldering or other system that meets your needs direct from the manufacturer’s reconditioned inventory. They won’t always offer these machines on their websites, so you just need to remember to ask.

Sometimes a manufacturer is forced to downsize and sell off some equipment that may no longer fit what they need. So they decide to sell it on eBay or another discount online site. It may be in perfect working order, and it may be something you want test out before investing in a full line. I suggest contacting the manufacturer directly to see what support, warranty and training they offer even before making an offer on an online store. You should also consider the type of equipment and its average life cycle, so if you can, check to see how many miles (or years of operation) are on that stencil printer, pick and place machine, reflow oven, or soldering system.

“Reconditioned” versus “used”

Older equipment may have outdated software and old style feeders, for example, whereas a factory reconditioned machine will be upgraded with the latest software and mechanical systems to bring it up to date. A factory reconditioned machine should also come with the same warranty as a new machine, but be sure to ask.

Fig 4: Here are some things to look for in a reconditioned machine, using this reflow oven as an example

Example: Mr. Joe Shopper searches on the Internet for a used pick-and-place machine and finds what he believes is a great deal at $9,000, originally valued at $30,000; however, he doesn’t even know what questions to ask to understand what’s involved in bringing it up to date.

So he contacts the factory that originally made the machine in 1985 and discovers that he needs to spend another $12,000 to update the software and recondition other features so that it operates reliably. He also would need to register the machine with the OEM in order to get operating instructions, regular software updates, and 24/7 phone tech support that he’ll need to ensure it runs the way it should. That will cost him another $3,000. By the time he’s done, he’ll have a machine in good working order, but he might have spent as much as $24,000, whereas, if he had gone directly to the manufacturer looking for a certified reconditioned machine, he might have been able to get a factory reconditioned machine for around $15,000.

Remember, a third-party reconditioned machine is not the same as a factory reconditioned machine. They may do their best to bring it up to today’s standards, but the all-important factory support is still missing.

Considerations with older equipment

With electronics, a reconditioned unit will be updated with new and improved accessories or technology. If you are considering a pick and place machine, for example, consider the age and condition of its feeders. If the machine is factory reconditioned, it will likely come with updated feeders; plus, you will be able to adapt the machine with any current options or accessories that are normally offered.

Most of the used equipment for sale online today is well aged, and may not have replacement parts even available. If the machine was made by a US manufacturer currently in business, there’s a good chance that they can support the needed repair parts or fabricate something from scratch if it’s no longer in stock. At the risk of repetition, be sure to ask what registration costs with a factory reconditioned machine, and if they charge for support separately, what the hourly rate is. Finally, research the seller’s policies regarding returns if something doesn’t work as you expect.

If you already have equipment from the OEM re-seller, such as an existing reflow oven, or pick and place machine, and you are looking to extend your production, buying the same brand makes compatibility smoother, and accessories such as feeders or pallets can be interchanged. Working with a brand name you are comfortable with can avoid lost time to retrain the operators, change maintenance protocols, or reconfigure company software.

Because DDM Novastar is the only true USA manufacturer of a full line of low-to-medium volume SMT assembly equipment, you can get:

  • Best parts availability, service, factory training, and reconditioning
  • Custom machine design or programming, now or when you need modifications later
  • US government required sourcing
  • High precision features such as welded frames to increase stability
Click here to contact DDM Novastar for information on Custom Equipment.

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