Retro Populator

an electronics pick-n-place retrofit for 3D printers

Similar projects worth following
A jig and software for allowing a 3D printer to do electronics pick-n-place assembly. It populates boards, by retrofitting a 3D printer, hence Retro Populator.

Motivation: surface mount soldering is great, but the process of placing parts is tedious and requires great manual dexterity as well good vision. Doing a few boards by hand is practical, but doing more than about 20 is hell on earth. Yet it's not practical (read: affordable) to pay industry to do it until about 500 boards - the setup charges just kill you. So there is this huge chasm between what's doable for hobbyists by hand, and where industry can take over, and this volume is commonly desired in the maker community - a small run of 50 to 100 boards is in fact typical. Thus, the desire to build machines that hobbyists can own to do electronics pick-n-place. Our cost-saving idea is to retrofit similar machines that makers already own: 3D printers.

Rob Gilson
Adam Evenden
Charles Hartlaub
Eric Boyd

Video explanation of RetroPopulator:

Version 1.0 : Essentially complete now.  CNC milled acrylic base plate, with milled tape holders.  Vacuum syringe for picking up parts, vacuum supplied by SMT rework station.  Milled nozzle mount which attaches to the side of the existing extruder.  Z-axis rezero jig to easily change re-zero height.  3D printed cam-lock parts to holds boards in place on 10mm peg-grid base.  Code parses a yml file for board & tape placement info, and then an eagle .brd file directly for part types and locations.  It generate a gcode file which goes from pick to place location for all of the parts which can be populated.  Support for multiple boards.  Demo of RetroPopulator in operation, with multiple components and multiple boards:

Connected Device

The RetroPopulator connects mechanically to a 3D printer, which in turns connects to a computer. For our software we use Tegh, a wifi 3D printer client/server application D1plo1d's been building. For now we're using it locally on a single laptop, but ultimately it will allow us to access the RetroPopulator from our laptops anywhere in the lab and extra ultimately, the world, which is awesome! The ability to quickly load the RetroPopulator jig into a 3D printer, combined with wifi accessibility via Tegh, makes the RetroPopulator perfect for a modern connected workspace like or Ultimate Workshop.

Future Plans

Version 2.0: currently in planning/design. Addition of tape advancement, including plastic cover peeling. Addition of a second nozzle which will do solder paste dispensing. Software will have 'position confirm' feature where it will move to the corner of each board, and the first component on each tape, so that you can verify key locations directly before running the entire job.

Version 3.0: part rotation. Numerous other things we'll learn about as we do V2.0, no doubt...


We're fully open source! Our PopCAM and Tegh Daemon software are licensed under GPL3. The Tegh GUI is licensed under MIT. Our hardware designs are licensed under MIT as well. All text, images and videos CC-BY V4.0.

System Design Doc

Charles has done up a nice brain-map of the RetroPopulator, download full-size PDF, or see a small version here:

Artist's Rendition:

Finally, please sign up to our mailing list!  We'll be sending out details on a monthly basis, and of course we'll let you know when the Retro Populator is actually available for sale (or for kickstarter pledge).

  • 1 × jig base, milled, 10mm grid, with vertical board walls
  • 7 × tape holder jigs, grooved acrylic, mounted on the base
  • 4 × 3D printed board holders (camlocks) w/ pegs
  • 1 × vacuum nozzle, with tubing (medical supply)
  • 1 × nozzle mount bracket (screws unto side of 3D printer extruder)

View all 14 components

  • Semi-final Video, artists rendition, and more!

    Eric Boyd09/29/2014 at 02:02 2 comments

    Another great day of documentation! We've completed our <5 minute semi-final video:

    And we've got an artist's rendition of the Retro Populator, showing how we envision the simplest version of the kit:

    Finally, Adam has been hard at work curating his vast collection of photos of our hacking sessions, and we've made this wonderful Flickr Gallery, where you can see us all hard at work! A choice photo for you:

    It's all four of us (Adam behind the camera, as always), doing another pick and place run as part of our ongoing testing.

    Thanks for all your Skulls everyone, Team Retro Populator over and out!

  • Progress on Tape Peeling

    Eric Boyd09/28/2014 at 18:43 0 comments

    Charles has been hard at work on the design and build of a tape peeling system, first parts pictured here:

    Basically the idea is to have a reel which holds the plastic cover.  The mechanism is spring wound, and the tape peels as it enters the tape holder.  The tape itself will be advanced by the 3D printer - we're planning to use the needle itself in the round holes on the tape, so basically for each part it picks, it'll advance the tape one notch just before the pick, and the spring/reel will wind up the cover.  Collectively these two ideas will allow us to reduce the length of the tape holders, since we'll only need to have enough length to make the tape stable.  Lots more work remains, but we're excited to soon have automated tape peeling!

  • Vacuum Regulation

    Eric Boyd09/26/2014 at 15:13 0 comments

    Sorry for the long radio silence, we've been quite busy with the move!  We have been making progress on the Retro Populator, including some work towards part rotation, and some improvements in our pick-n-place percentage (number of parts correctly placed versus failed).  One key step in the latter has been the addition of a vacuum regulation device, basically, a flow meter with integrated valve, pictured here:

    It's plumbed between the hot-air rework intake (our vacuum source) and the pick-n-place needle.  It allows us to very finely control the vacuum suction, which is important for making sure that both picks and places happen easily.  The hot-air station does have some regulation, but since we improved all the plumbing, we've discovered that even the lowest setting on that machine is too much suction to make places work reliably.  This new valve has greatly improved reliability and repeatability, and it's likely that we'll be including some version of this device with kits, because it makes it much less important what your source of vacuum is.  Simply adjust valve while manually testing picks and places with the needle, until things work (setting also depends a little on what parts you want - though we've found that moderate settings are great for everything from 0603 resistors right up to SOT23s, no further adjustments required!).  Then note the flow rate reading, so that you know for future runs or if you ever swap equipment around.

  • All About Retro Populator

    Eric Boyd07/20/2014 at 22:11 0 comments

    Here's a <2 minute video which explains our motivations and aspirations for the Retro Populator:

  • ​RetroPopulator is kicking it up to 11!

    D1plo1d07/10/2014 at 03:08 1 comment

    Today we're showcasing 12,000 mm / minute of sweet FOSS pick and place automation.

    We've also upped the complexity in this run by pick and placing components for a circular board. And we're placing 4 different components in 2 different rotations.

    And we're doing 2 boards at once!

    Why all of that at once? Because why not that's why!

    All I'm saying is this isn't last week's pick and place!

    Final Score: 9 / 12 Pick and Places successful.

  • How to use the RetroPopulator v1

    D1plo1d07/08/2014 at 23:36 0 comments

    Check it out! It's Eric in all his splendour showing off how we set up the RetroPopulator!

    Part 1/2Part 2/2

  • Retro Populator in action

    Eric Boyd07/02/2014 at 19:33 0 comments

  • early prototype using laser cut jig

    Eric Boyd06/26/2014 at 18:36 0 comments

View all 8 project logs

Enjoy this project?



Nyanotech wrote 04/03/2020 at 07:17 point

I really like the idea of having 2 perpendicular sets of tape feeders rather than head rotation

  Are you sure? yes | no

SlowBro904 wrote 11/25/2016 at 22:05 point

Will any kind of vacuum pump do, as long as suction is sufficient? How about an aquarium pump?

  Are you sure? yes | no

George I Fomitchev wrote 08/12/2016 at 16:08 point


also you may add diode lasers (endurance lasers for exmaple on a 3D printer)

  Are you sure? yes | no

James Newton wrote 12/20/2015 at 06:59 point

so.... what happened?

  Are you sure? yes | no

Eric Boyd wrote 12/20/2015 at 18:24 point

We got super busy and the project got shelved.  It was only 3 minutes to take the rig out of the printer and people have been using it as a 3D printer since, no harm done to the machine :-).  One of the other hacklab members has actually been working on a pick and place machine recently, but not a retrofit - he's got a big gantry and is not adapting industry tape feeders to work with it.  I don't see us returning to the Retro Populator anytime soon, sadly.

  Are you sure? yes | no

James Newton wrote 12/20/2015 at 20:48 point

Thanks for open sourcing. The software to work with Eagle files should be of use to someone and all the documentation and video of your experience. 

  Are you sure? yes | no


[this comment has been deleted]

Eric Boyd wrote 08/19/2014 at 20:40 point
Hey thanks for your reply. We talked it over, and we've decided on a new license for the hardware: MIT. Enjoy your freedom!

  Are you sure? yes | no

Pixel Pirate wrote 07/13/2014 at 06:27 point
How much would this cost, and how accurate would this be? I am in dire need of a PnP, because shaky hands do not a good engineer make.

  Are you sure? yes | no

D1plo1d wrote 07/14/2014 at 22:04 point
If we were to do a kickstarter today it would be looking around $200 plus the vacuum pump.

If you're down to mill the parts yourself and don't count your time I'm not as sure. Depends on how cheap you can get machine time mostly.

We're going to get documentation for the mechanical design online soon so you can see for yourself.

PS. If you do mill one yourself post pics and let us know how much it cost! I'm excited to see the first RetroPopulator made in the wild!

  Are you sure? yes | no

Adam Fabio wrote 07/08/2014 at 05:44 point
Thanks for entering The Hackaday Prize Eric! Don't worry about having competition in the Pick and Place realm - the more the merrier! There are aspects of both machines I really like. I'm loving your videos so far - Keep the updates coming!
Good luck, and keep the past (re)flowing!

  Are you sure? yes | no

D1plo1d wrote 07/09/2014 at 16:47 point
Thanks Adam! I just posted an instruction video on how to use the RetroPopulator. We're on tack to keep those videos flowing so check back soon!

Not so sure about reflowing though, I think that might be version 4 ;)

It's super-cool to see competition taking off in open source pick and placing. I see it as a kind of multiple points of failure / heterogenous engineering. One way or another the future of small production run electronics is about to get automated.

  Are you sure? yes | no

D1plo1d wrote 07/09/2014 at 16:51 point

  Are you sure? yes | no

cBake wrote 07/07/2014 at 11:32 point
Hey, a video of it actually working! Congrats. This is an awesome project. Can't wait to see more iterations :)

  Are you sure? yes | no

D1plo1d wrote 07/08/2014 at 23:39 point
Thanks cBake, I just posted 2 more videos showing how we set up the machine just for you*

* you and the rest of the internet. Enjoy ;)

  Are you sure? yes | no

Stanos wrote 07/04/2014 at 04:30 point
Looking great, but what about the ability to rotate?

  Are you sure? yes | no

D1plo1d wrote 07/04/2014 at 17:42 point
Yeah, that's definitely on the roadmap. Eric makes boards with all sorts of weird angle components for aesthetics so we're very aware of the rotation limitations of the current prototype.

The plan as it stands is to build up our rotation feature through a couple iterations.

So in the near future version 1 will be able to do rotation in 90 degree increment by having tapes already at the right rotation on the x/y axes (it's really just a software limitation preventing this right now).

Then version 2 is other stuff (reel advancement, etc.) but once we get to version 3 we get into precise rotation control (so any angle, 360 degrees).

What is for sure is that we don't want to add anything that would need to interface with the 3d printers' electronics because we want this to be really easy to set up. So version 3's going to have to be done through clever stuff where we use the the jig and the cartesian movement of the printer to rotate the pick and place head.

  Are you sure? yes | no

PointyOintment wrote 07/08/2014 at 01:58 point
Don't most 3D printers have at least a channel for a fan that you could use for rotation?

  Are you sure? yes | no

Rogan Dawes wrote 07/09/2014 at 06:18 point
Many 3D printer controllers have 2 extruder channels, you could use one for controlling rotation of the component.

  Are you sure? yes | no

D1plo1d wrote 07/09/2014 at 16:28 point
notexactly/Rogan: we thought about wiring up to the fan and extruder pins. The fan pins are especially nice because it's already pwm so a rc servo would be able to hook into it directly.

The issue we saw with going that route was that it was going to complicate the set up process and it would be very specific to each 3d printer's electronics. We want the RetroPopulator to be quick to setup and quick to tare down so people can easily switch between 3D printing and pick and placing.

Also as the Makerbots of this world get progressively more blackbox we wanted something awesome and open source that would just work anywhere regardless of how closed sourced companies try to make the 3D printing space.

  Are you sure? yes | no

PointyOintment wrote 07/03/2014 at 03:30 point
Good works so far, but you've got serious competition here:

  Are you sure? yes | no

D1plo1d wrote 07/03/2014 at 14:50 point
Yeah, I'm super excited to see their first pick and place operation. There is some pretty grandiose CAD work going on over there.

I see us as being ahead on the implementation front in that we've already written a gcode generator ("slicer") program, built our pick and place machine and had successful pick and place runs (if you haven't, check out the 1st video!).

Anyways, competition is definitely a good thing and hopefully it encourages both teams. All the power to 'em! :)

  Are you sure? yes | no

Similar Projects

Does this project spark your interest?

Become a member to follow this project and never miss any updates