“Pick, Place, Boards & Gesundheit “

Micaelah Morrill, Program Director, Manufacturing Initiative

I capped off a whirlwind day of manufacturing education and eye-opening at Worthington Assembly Inc. (WAi for short), an electronics contract manufacturer that is interestingly enough no longer in Worthington, MA but in South Deerfield. I discovered WAi through a Hardware MeetUp and got a tour of their assembly room, along with a solid education on how circuit boards are built, important testing steps and essentially everything electronics from their Chief Technology Officer, Chris Denney who set up the tour.

Worthington Assembly is also the exclusive manufacturing partner for CircuitHub. CircuitHub enables clients to get an instant quote for a project including the bare boards, the board components, the associated tooling, and the assembly. Their platform works with Altium, Eagle, or KiCAD, which I also learned about on the tour.

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 11.43.22 AMSo why was learning about an electronics contract manufacturer so important & interesting? Well to start, almost every single piece of hardware technology today involves some kind of printed circuit board (PCB, or board). Recall the little green chips in your phone, TV, tablet, computer, you name it. Second, it’s a really neat process which I will share with you. And third – I got to meet and appreciate “Sneezy” – one important component of a pick-and-place machine.


What is a pick and place machine you ask? Allow me to explain. To build a PCB board or boards you need the following:

  • a physical board
  • solder paste – or hopefully a machine that will apply soldering paste for you
  • the components and receivers that will make your board operate. These can be Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 11.43.39 AMmounted on one side – called Surface Mounted Technology (SMT) or Thru-Hole components which involve components on both sides of a board. The components can be as small as a speck of dust and as large as a sizable battery (or larger)
  • a pick and place machine – which is loaded with all the components that are loaded in the white reels that look like ribbons. The machine loads the components, picks them up & places the components on the board.


As a contract manufacturer, WAi makes thousands of boards, so efficiency and precision are key. The process starts with gathering the boards and the components. Setting up the pick-and-place machines can take hours in order to ensure that every board is properly designed and every component is in the right spot.

Once the setup process is complete, boards are loaded onto a conveyor belt where they are first run through a solder printing machine. This machine squeegees each board through a stencil which adds the solder paste necessary to adhere the components to it once it runs through the pick and place machine. Which is the next step of the conveyor belt and where we meet “Sneezy.”

“Sneezy” is not the entire pick and place machine. “Sneezy” is one loading component of the pick and place machine the others are named after other influential figures in design, art, engineering, science and literature (Edison, Tesla, Miyamoto, Land, Ford, Picasso, Lasseter, Curie, Lennon, Twain and Disney).One of them is named “Night Vision” and is an homage to what these machines built before WAi bought them . Chris really likes his job, which is apparent after talking to him for about 30 seconds, but it’s also tremendously helpful as I learn about what WAi can offer startups. Chris has over 10 years of experience working on board development and has already worked with a number of Boston startups, including a few from Greentown Labs and Bolt. He applies that passionate and enjoyment for his work to pretty much everything – organizing hardware tours around Massachusetts, putting in extra time and advice with new clients to naming his pick and place machine. Gotta love it.


Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 11.43.50 AMOk so the board has solder paste, the pick and place machine is ready & here comes the board! Depending on the complexity of board design will determine on how long each board takes. As the board finishes it keeps going on the conveyor board through to a reflow oven.

A reflow oven is an oven with multiple temperature zones that the board passes through to essentially melt the solder paste and adhere to the legs of each component. Generally there are several heating zones, followed by one or more cooling zones. Since the board is on the conveyor belt, it can be subjected to a controlled time-temperature profile which increases efficiency and precision, and helps when WAi staff perform quality checks.

I may or may not have mentioned that I thought the reflow oven looked like a super fancy Easy Bake oven, but my manufacturing partner-in-crime Peter Russo (of MassMEP) suggested that I not mention it. I also had to contain my reflexive “Back to the Future” jokes when Chris mentioned using flux – which in metallurgy is a substance used to remove oxides from and prevent further oxidation of fused metal, such as in soldering. Not flux capacitors, which are not real. Yet.

Once the board is reflowed, there is a host of other quality checking steps that Chris and the WAi staff go through to ensure that each board works properly and is ready to go. WAi also provides additional services such as adding wiring and cables, as well as  assembly of full products.

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 11.44.01 AM

This was a great tour because I learned A LOT about one of the more common components required in almost every piece of hardware. I got to meet a reliable quality resource for startups and anyone else interested in developing a hardware product, or anything to do with IoT. And I got to add one more impressive resources to my list of all that Massachusetts has to offer for companies! I’ll cheers to that!