Production Notes27 Jan 2008 11:57 am

Many of your are naturally curious about one key question. If you were to order a controller today, how long would it take to get?

The short answer is four to six months.

Longer answer: Much has changed, but our shipping estimates are still the same. Last night I finished updating the Zen Cart online shopping. As a result, Paypal orders over $1000 are not being dropped anymore, and there is much more on the website that will have to wait bit, such as updating the FAQ and adding sections on EV component info. This web site took quite a bit of my own time, but that has not impacted the production schedule much. What has impacted production was losing my two production assembly workers in the last month. We will miss them as one moves on to grad school and the other out of town and on to a wonderful marriage. I can’t blame either one of them for moving on, but they will be missed here. We are trying out two new production workers at this time, James and Adam. They seem to be learning the basics of Zilla assembly very well and I expect that in a month or two they’ll be building complete controllers with confidence and care.

As for increasing capacity, two major things are happening. First of all, Arthur continues to develop the automated testing equipment. Last week we used the machine to test a batch of sixty solar charge controllers that I designed for a non-profit remote village lighting project. Secondly, I used the charge controller project as an excuse to spend a few days learning to run the Quad IVc pick and place machine. Sure, it would have been faster to build those by hand, but now I’m setting the machine up to run a couple hundred control boards and the gate driver redesign for automated assembly is next. Here is a video of one of the first sets of boards made on the machine:

I’m sorry about the poor sound quality. For some reason Youtube has trouble converting the sound on my Quicktime video uploads and I don’t consider chasing that issue worthy of my time at this point. Part of the problem may be the loud air compressor in the background, providing vacuum to hold the PC board in place on the machine.
In the video you see the machine sitting back in our prototype machining area, as I bring the camera in you’ll see the head assembly placing parts on a panel of ten solar boards. Around the left side of the machine are the part feeders that hold the reels of parts (often 5000 parts on a reel) and feed a new part ready for pickup every time one is removed. It’s a fascinating machine to watch and it sure build boards quickly once it is set up.

A few more steps are required to make the board. Before the boards are put on the assembly machine they need solder paste on the lands (where the parts solder on the board) so that the parts can be soldered after placement. I put the paste on manually with a syringe this time but at three minutes for a small board it is much too time consuming. I’ve ordered a stencil for the next batch of boards which will make the process much more accurate and faster. It’s a lot like doing silkscreen, but the screen is cut out of thin stainless steel. After the parts are placed, the boards are inspected for any missing or out of place parts and then put in a reflow oven to melt the solder. Our reflow oven cost us $11.95 at the Goodwill. It’s a nice convection toaster oven and it has enough power to follow the recommended reflow temperature profile well. Unfortunately the inside is only 12 inches wide. I’m already building a better one. The new one has a larger oven that can take boards up to 13.5″ long and will have the temperature controlled by a nifty controller called the Reflower oven controller.

That’s the update for today. It’s snowing here and very pretty outside.


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