Tape-and-Reel vs. Cut Tape: Component Packaging Options for Automated SMD Assembly Line Feeding

We’ll compare tape-and-reel vs. cut tape below.

PCB assembly machines are highly automated. And to enable quick surface-mount electronic component assembly, they need an efficient component feeding mechanism. 

This system should deliver thousands of components per hour to the pick-and-place machine to position them above the solder paste. 

Tape & reel and cut tape are the most typically used methods to deliver the components to the placement machine’s feeder elements. But which option is better? Read on to learn more!

What Is Tape-and-Reel Packaging?

Tape-and-reel packaging refers to a long, continuous tape strip wound in a reel packing.

The tape consists of carrier tape to hold the surface-mount components in pockets. It also has a cover tape to secure the parts in the pockets.

The section holding the components in pockets can have a cardboard-like material construction if carrying regular parts. 

But suppliers use black embossed plastic to hold ESD-sensitive pieces.

However, both must have sprocket holes at least on one side for the picking machine to pull the reel in.

The typical reel diameter for tiny components is seven inches. But the reel diameter for larger surface mount components is usually 13 inches.

 So their size ranges from 7-13 inches depending on the component size inside.

What Is Tape-and-Reel Ideal For?

This tape-and-reel component packaging is ideal for automated assembly lines using pick-and-place machines. The entire length of the tape does not have components packaged in the pockets. And there is a reason for that.

Multiple reels mounted in a pick-and-place machine in an SMT assembly line

The first section of the tape, about 4-18 inches long, is empty. This leader section allows you to feed the parts into an assembly machine. 

So it ensures the pick-and-place grabs to the tape sprocket holes and peels the cover tape to access the components.

Similarly, the end of the reel has a blank trailer section that is also 4-18 inches long. This part ensures the last loaded pockets in the tape get to the assembly operation safely.

And since the reel is long, it carries multiple components between the leader and trailer.

 A 13-inch diameter reel can have as many as 4000 parts. So this packaging option is ideal for high-volume assembly in factories.

Electronic components in a tape-and-reel package

Electronic components in a tape-and-reel package

What Is Cut Tape Packaging?

As the name suggests, this packaging is like a sliced length of tape in the reel option described above.

 So think of all features explained earlier without a reel, leader, and trailer. It only consists of a short section containing a few components (cuts of tape).

What Is Cut Tape Ideal For?

Tape-and-reel packaging is ideal for assembling boards for customers who order multiple PCBAs. But small quantity customers like students and DIYers don’t need entire component reels. In such a case, the customer only needs to purchase a cut tape.

A tape-and-reel component package. Cut tapes are sections of these reels.

A tape-and-reel component package. Cut tapes are sections of these reels.

But there is a catch. Since a cut tape does not have a leader and trailer, you must buy one with extra components. These will require repocketing later.

In contrast, the tape-and-reel option has zero wastage because it contains empty leader and trailer sections.

Also, cut tapes are better for PCB repairs because you only need a few components. There won’t be wastage in this case because repairs usually involve hand soldering.

Tape-and-Reel vs. Cut Tape: Which Option Is Better?

The primary difference between the two component feeding options is length. Reels contain a continuous piece of tape that carries thousands of board components.

So instead of loading 20 or 30 cut tape strips, it is easier to load a long reel. 

This way, the operator will have a long break before loading a new reel after the current one runs out. 

And the assembly machines usually have extra feeder slots. So you can load multiple reels.

From a PCB assembler’s point of view, the tape-and-reel option is better because it saves operators lots of time.

SMD components in a tape-and-reel package 

SMD components in a tape-and-reel package 

Additionally, it minimizes the chances of human error and the hassle of hand placement. 

Since operators must peel the first 3-4 components, they must repocket them later. This manual handling can lead to errors or lost parts.

There is the issue of extra purchases, as well. You must buy at least five additional components to ensure efficient cut tape handling.

And it is vital to note that quality standards require operators to inform the quality control personnel every time they load components into the machine. 

As per lean principles, this is not efficient. It is wasteful.

A quality control inspector checking a circuit board

A quality control inspector checking a circuit board

Plus, cut tapes tend to jam in the machine feeder, leading to downtime. So some assemblers prefer to assemble small orders manually.

But if you’re willing to pay the high setup costs, your single or few boards can undergo automated assembly using cut tapes.

How PCB Assemblers Handle Cut Tape Components

Cut tape feeders are tricky to handle. So here’s how assemblers deal with them.

Feeder Mounting

Although buying cut tape components is cheaper than buying a reel, it is more challenging to mount them. But the operators must find a way to feed the tape.

And the only way to do that is to peel 3-4 cut tape components to create a blank leader section. The operators can repocket these removed components later in the cut tape.


Since cut tapes must have dropped components to leave the leader section, you must supply a cut tape with additional parts.

 Sending the exact number can lead to misfeeds or an incomplete run because the components won’t be enough.

So always contact your assembler to determine how many extra pieces they need. But generally, five should be enough.

Single/Multiple Cut Tape Pieces for Each Part

There is no guarantee that you will get a single-cut tape with all the components you need for the assembly project. 

So you might have to purchase several cut tapes that require separate mounting in other feeder slots.

But if using one feeder slot, the operator will mount the tapes sequentially. This process will take more time.

Reels supplying SMT components via multiple feeder slots in a pick-and-place machine

Reels supplying SMT components via multiple feeder slots in a pick-and-place machine

And keep in mind the number of dropped components to create a leader section increases when using multiple tapes.

So expect either of these three from the assembler.

  • Estimate quote before the work begins
  • Accurate quote after seeing the components
  • Worst-case scenario quote

Cost Calculation

Consider a scenario where you need 20 cut tape pieces for your assembly. Each requires about 10 minutes for mounting, and an operator charges about $50 an hour. 

The total time is 200 minutes or 3.33 hours. This billing results in approximately $165.50.

Each tape also needs a $1 joiner tape. Add an extra $20, and it sums up to $185.50. This figure can vary depending on the assembler.

 So round off the cost to $200, which translates to $10 per tape. Remember, we have not included the component cost, plus the extra parts to peel off.

Is There a Way To Avoid Cut Tape?

Cut tapes can end up being more expensive due to the handling costs. So we recommend exploring these options.

  • Purchase a full reel
  • Buy a Digi-reel
  • Use the assembler’s standard component reels (they can be cheap or free)

Wrap Up

As you can see, tape-and-reel and cut-tape component packaging options are similar in some ways. 

But their length difference brings about several application differences. Generally, the former option is better and might even be cheaper for assembling one or a few boards. 

So we recommend analyzing the options listed above to determine the most cost-effective one. 

That’s it for now. Comment below to let us know your thoughts and sentiments about this article.