Product Assembly at SparkFun


In the early days of SparkFun, our manufacturing “process” consisted of one zealous engineering student (that’s Nate Seidle) soldering away in his college apartment. Our infamous (the in-famous!?) tried-and-true hot-plate reflow method was one of the crowning jewels in SparkFun’s early history.

Now, things are a bit different. We have a full team of trained soldering ninjas putting together hundreds of boards every day. We have not one, not two, but three pick-and-place machines working round the clock. And we have two reflow ovens - one for reflow work and one to heat up pizza rolls for backup. All because the DIY electronics community is thriving and we have lots of work to do to keep the products you need in-stock and on the shelves. It’s a big challenge, but it’s also a lot of fun. Check out this video called “Birth of SparkFun Widget.” It’ll give you a nice visual idea of the steps involved before that red box lands on your doorstep:

We also have a new tutorial called “Electronics Assembly.” This tutorial details just how SparkFun does its manufacturing - from stenciling all the way to packaging up the parts. Part of the process has warranted the creation of whole separate wing of production known as “kitting.” Their process (and…uh…unique “skills”) can be seen in this video:

We hope these videos (and tutorial) help “demystify” the SparkFun production process and give you a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes stuff that goes on here on a daily basis! As always, please feel free to leave any comments or questions below. Cheers!


Comments 52 comments

  • You need a “director’s commentary” on your Birth of a SparkFun Widget Video. Trying to figure out what was happening is some spots. Like what was the thing with the huge LED array? An optical scanner that checks for the right parts in the right place?

    • Good idea! I’ll work on writing up some play-by-play notes to include in the description of the YouTube video.

      • I described it thusly on Facebook:

        Cool song, fun video. How a circuit board is made… Steps - follow along in the video: “Board/part selection”, “Solder stenciling - puts solder paste in the right spots”, “Pick and place machine - computer controlled, small part placement”, “Reflow oven - melts the solder paste which physically and electrically bonds the parts”, “Manual part soldering - Human adds parts that can’t be done by the pick and place”, “Washing - Soldering requires flux which is acidic and needs to be removed.”, “Automated Optical Inspection - They call it disco stu, makes sure the parts are placed right”, “Dog QA - Tests board by smell”, “Human QA - Tests board by hand”, Packing, Shipping, Delivery, Unpacking, “Geek excitement - This is how we roll bitches!”

    • That’s our AOI - Automated Optical Inspector, or ‘Disco Stu’. It looks at each board and make sure the right components are in the right places, and doesn’t have jumpers, etc…

      • Just watched the video, is that a Yestech AOI by Nordson? It’s alot like ours.

        • Yep…the BX model. :)

          • Awesome, we have the exact same one here. They are great machines, ours is pretty new, so we are still getting the hang of everything!

            • We’ve been running ours for over a year now. Like all machines and the software that runs them, it took some time to learn its quirks. Let us know if you ever have any questions about any specific detail…

              • Does you guys machine require you to have the flash drive with the license installed when using the software and machine?

                • We have a couple SAKI BF-Comets that require the hardkey to operate the software. The SAKI machine is interesting in that it scans the entire board in one sweep like a flatbed scanner. We also have a couple OMRON RNS AOIs but I like the SAKI machines better.

      • what kind of AOI do you guys have? We just got two Nordson AOI’s at work and they are really great machines. I just finished designing a vision system with some Keyence sensors for aesthetic checks. What about your pick and place machines? We have two Jukie FX’s and a Jukie 760.They are great machines!

      • Also I’m assuming that you turned off the heat on the reflow oven or all the components we desolder from the camera. :-)

  • Neat, but I do not see proper ESD handling. That would be anti-static vests and grounded wrist-straps.

    • Get a life…

      • nobody likes dud chips

        • And since sparkfun knows what they’re doing and they clearly do in-depth testing (see https://learn.sparkfun.com/tutorials/electronics-assembly/inspection-and-testing ), they obviously have decided that anti-static isn’t worth it. That probably means they don’t see zapped chips often enough to bother.

          It’s not like they’re a $30m a year company that excels at electronics assembly and they just didn’t think to wear anti-static stuff. I don’t do it at home and we don’t do it at my job and it’s never been a noticeable problem in either case.

        • True, but they’re not a semiconductor device manufacturer… they’re a hobbyist-geared (‘maker’) retailer. Besides, how often do -you- zap a device by electrostatic discharge? The fact is, it rarely happens. And it’s not like these are critical medical devices. No big deal. I’m sure they’d happily replace any zapped widgets that manage to bypass their quality control.

          [edit] If you want proper ESD handling, you should be prepare to pay twice as much. :P That gear isn’t cheap. Do -you- wear ESD kit while opening the box? I doubt it.

  • Just admit it. You guys probably DO reheat your Pizza in the reflow oven. Heck I back at one of the first places I worked at people were heating sandwiches wrapped in heavy aluminum foil in on the wave soldering machine.

  • Am I the only one who is wondering why someone doesn’t come out with a watch band (would like one for my Pebble!) with a snap connector for ESD? Or the only one with a tan line in the summer from wearing an ESD wrist band? IF you feel the static discharge… well, WAY too much. You’ll never feel what would destroy ESD sensitive components. Last board I did had so much ESD protection it wasn’t even funny! Reflow a pizza… fine. ESD is not a joke. It can do things you’ll never know until it’s too late and you have a failure that you can’t explain (an ESD failure is VERY difficult to detect or prove). It’s doesn’t always happen like “ZAP” and it won’t work…

    • Several places make the stretchy metal bands for ESD (http://www.esdproduct.com/esd_wrist_straps.php).

  • I was wondering about the Dog Inspector- what was his function besides moral support? Mine tend to be very handy with ESDs testing.

  • There.

  • Wow thanks for the nice video. Am wondering where to get that ‘dishwasher’.

      • Why aren’t you guys using some 2nd hand dishwasher? :) Well except I suppose you probably need a filtered water source.

        • We tried that once. Years ago we leased a refurbished labware washer but could never get the results we wanted with it. It’s hard to say which feature in the new washer made the most difference, but I tend to point to the built-in cleanliness monitoring system of the Aqueous unit that measures the resistivity level of the water in the wash chamber and keeps the wash cycle going until the desired level has been reached. We’re also a big fan of the integrated board drying system that allows us to move clean boards directly into our AOI machine after being washed. :)

  • Oh but come on Sparkfun!

    You don’t have to drag that Seidle’s apartment always to the story. Yes. Everything started there, it was great. Story told.

    Too many times.

    Seems that these “news” are nowadays just praising how great Sparkfun is. Maybe Americans like this kind of marketing but I don’t understand it. But I’m European. Everytime half-funny stories how things work so greatly and “funny” in Sparkfun.

    Please.

    • Sorry if it seems like we are tooting our own horn, so to speak. That’s certainly not the intent! We’ve had a lot of requests for “tour” videos for people who want to see behind the scenes, but can’t make it out to Boulder for an actual tour - so here they are!

      • Here’s a completely over-the-top idea, but if any company could have the guts and hacker spirit to do it, that would be SparkFun:

        Web-controlled cameras on ceiling rails all around the SparkFun building. Think Wheatley) from Portal 2.

        edit: your BBCode-style code seems to have a problem if the URL ends with a “)” character…

        • Web-controlled cameras on ceiling rails all around the SparkFun building.

          NOPE.

        • Web-controlled cameras on ceiling rails - Thinking Sparkfun’s ver of Big Brother? . I am with Nancy- Just say ‘NO’. Sparkfun is suppose to be fun. Not Big Brother.

  • Is the red bow tie CGI? It looks kind of electric.

    • I thought it was too when they first showed me the video. But it’s actually just a laminated construction paper cutout…

  • If you like the music it’s Give Our Dreams Their Wings To Fly by Tim McMorris http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6jhOoSkUzQs&playnext=1&list=PL801267DCE5B0D20F&feature=results_video

  • What the heck kind of a widget is that?

  • DELICIOUS!

  • Just wondering, (is it plausible to)/(do you) weigh each kit to check for completeness?

    • Yes, definitely a reasonable mode for QC'ing a batch (as we call it here). This is something that we just started recently exploring and are attempting to integrate into our kitting process. There will likely be a blog post on this in the near(ish) future as we gather some metrics on how effective and worthwhile kit weighing for completeness is…

      • They should hire Lady Cynthia Fitzmelton. She’s very good at doing “very splendid and worthwhile” tasks.

  • I want to work at SparkFun! It looks like an awesome place to work. Too bad you’re 1,800 miles away.


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