QFN Center Pad Revisited

The QFN (quad flat pack, no leads) package can no longer be considered exotic. It was when I first wrote about it a decade ago, but not anymore. In fact, with the wafer-scale BGA, it’s one of the more common packages for new chip designs.

Not all QFNs come with an exposed metal pad underneath, but most do, and that can cause problems with reflow solder. The pad itself isn’t the problem, but improper solder paste stencil layer design can be.

The default stencil layer in the CAD library footprint might have an opening the full size of the metal pad. If that’s the case, modify the footprint so that there will be 50% to 75% coverage with solder paste (Figure 1). If you don’t, it may result in yield problems. With a 100% open area, the likely result is too much solder in the middle. The part will ride up, or float, and may not connect with all of the pads on the sides of the part.

Figure 1

Figure 1. The optimal QFN footprint will have 50% to 75% solder paste coverage.


Figure 2 shows a stencil with too large an opening in the center, a segmented paste layer in the CAD footprint, and the resultant segmented stencil.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Stencils shown with too large an opening in the center (left), segmented paste layer (center), and the resultant segmented stencil (right).


You may note that I said to shoot for 50% to 75% coverage and ask: “Well, is it 50% or 75%? What gives?”

True, that is a bit of ambiguity. Anything in that range should be fine for prototype boards, however. If the assembly is headed for volume production, work with the manufacturer to tweak the design for best high-volume yield.

The good news on this front is that many QFN manufacturers and parts library creators have taken notice. It’s far more likely now than it was 10 years ago to find a datasheet correctly illustrating this, and footprints created correctly. But, always check your footprints to make sure.

Duane Benson


Components So Fragile, They Break Before Arrival

There are a lot of components that require special handling. Some days, “special” requirements seem more the norm than the exception. But, every now and then, we see something that puts even those special components to shame.

Not long ago, we received a parts kit that contained a component so fragile, that most of them didn’t survive the trip with the shipper. It’s a 10 x 9mm (well, actually 9.68 +0.00/- 0.08mm x 8.64 +0.00/- 0.08mm, to be precise) sensor that’s only 0.05mm thick. That’s 1/4 as thick as the diameter of the solder balls connecting it to the PCB.

The part has solder balls on the silicon, with no other packaging. The dice has to be that thin, as the light-sensitive area is on the other side. That doesn’t make for a very robust component. It would require special handling all around. Unfortunately, no matter how careful we might be, if they’re broken when we receive them, there’s not much we can do (other than take pretty pictures).

In taking these closeups, I noticed that the registration in ball placement isn’t all that great. In the image below, take a look at the ball on the left, second from the bottom, and the ball on the far right.

The datasheets call out all non-specified tolerances as +/-0.001mm. With these being 0.2mm diameter solder balls, I’d have to say this is way outside of that tolerance. I’m sure the part would have adhered to a decent board just fine, but if the PCB were off a similar amount in the opposite direction, you may very well have a problem.


Duane Benson
You could make a very tiny sundial out of this.
But, could you use the shadow parallax to calculate the distance to the sun?


What’s So Difficult about Diodes?

A diode can be put on a a PCB in one of two ways. It’s only got two pins (usually — see, I already have a caveat). I’ve written about them a few times before. I’ve got a sampling of those posts here. But first,

Good marking:





Bad marking:





The diode schematic symbol is always a good choice. If there isn’t room for that, “A” for anode or “K” for cathode work well too. Why “K”, and not “C”, you may ask? Because “K” kan’t be konfused with a capacitor.

Okay. Enough ranting for now. Just use the diode schematic symbol, “A”, for anode, or “K”, for cathode; and always look at the data sheet for the exact part number.

Duane Benson
1 cricket per chip


What Makes a Good Fiducial?

Accountants may have a fiduciary responsibility, but that really has nothing to do with PCB assembly. Change the “ry” to a “ls,” however, and you get fiducials, which does have something to do with PCB assembly.

A fiducial is essentially an alignment mark for surface-mount assembly machines. High-volume assembly requires them to ensure accurate registration and parts placement. Low-volume assembly, like we do at Screaming Circuits, doesn’t necessarily require them. (Some low-volume shops do, so ask before assuming.) Even if they aren’t required, they still help and are always a pretty decent idea.

The basic idea, explained in this blog post here, is to create a non-reversal pattern with two or three fiducial marks on the board or panel. As you can see in the image above, the designer placed three fiducials around the board in a non-reversible pattern. (To protect the confidentiality of the board design, I obscured the circuit detail with this convenient robot head.)

In terms of the specific construction of a fiducial, two things are most important: contrast, and accuracy of position.

Contrast comes from it being bare copper – make it 1 to 2mm in diameter. Don’t cover it with solder mask. Make the mask opening 2 to 5mm larger than the copper.

The image on the left shows closeup detail. This particular fiducial mark uses a square cutout in the silk screen. Most use a round cutout, but the shape isn’t all that important. The copper pad should be round, though.

Making it out of copper gives the positioning accuracy. I’ve been asked why silk screen markings aren’t acceptable. Silk screen isn’t always registered consistently, and is therefore won’t ensure accurate alignment. Don’t use silk screen as a fudicial or positioning mark of any kind.

Again, they’re generally required for high-volume manufacturing. We (Screaming Circuits) don’t require them for low-volume, but some assembly houses do. Even when not required, they’re still a good idea.

Duane Benson
Fiducial on the roof is a long movie
But at least it stays in place


Let’s Talk about HAL – And Another Thing

A few days ago, I wrote about HASL PC board surfaces, explaining that it’s not an appropriate choice for small parts.

Look at the same PCB image I used the other day. You might not recognize it because before it was on the right, and today it’s on the left. Getting past the fact that I just insulted everyone’s intelligence, there is something else about this board that we don’t recommend.

I’ll give you 30 seconds to figure it out. I don’t have a stopwatch, so the 30 seconds is on the honor system.

This is a land for a 0.5mm pitch BGA. As I wrote before, HASL is not the right choice for BGAs, especially for those of the smaller pitch variety. The other problem with this board is in the pad layout.

These are solder mask defined (SMD) pads – the solder mask covers the outer part of the pad, so the solderable copper surface is determined by the size of the opening in solder mask, not by the area of the copper pad.

For BGAs 0.5 mm pitch and larger, we (and pretty much everyone else) recommend non-solder mask defined (NSMD). With a NSMD pad, the solder mask opening is larger than the pad. This leaves more copper area to adhere to, including the sides of the copper pad. It tends to be much more reliable.

The image to the right illustrates the difference. 

The left-most pad in the image illustrates an SMD pad, while on the right is an NSMD pad. The NSMD pad leaves a lot more surface area of the copper pad for the solder ball to grip on, including the sides.

BGAs with 0.4mm pitches might need either SMD or NSMD pads, depending on a number of circumstances. Read this blog information for a bit more on 0.4mm. When in doubt, look in the back of the datasheet.

Duane Benson
Question for physicists and mathematicians:
Should the last recursion in the Mandelbrot set land on Plank’s constant?
Show your work.



Let’s Talk about HAL – For Big Parts Only

The board surface names: HAL and HASL (hot air leveling and hot air surface leveling) refer to the same thing. They are interchangeable terms. With that out of the way, I’ll get to my point, which is that HASL is not the right surface for all applications.

Take a look at the photo on the right. This is a 0.5 mm pitch BGA land, using lead-free HASL. Don’t expect good results with this board. It’s a good quality HASL board. Even the bumps on the pads are not out of line for a HASL PC board. It’s not a defect. It’s the HASL works.

The catch is that, while the PC board is perfectly good, it’s not the correct board surface to use for all parts. HASL is fine for larger parts, but for small components, it’s archaic and not reliable.

BGAs require a flat surface (also called a planar surface). With the bumps common on HASL boards, the BGA won’t have a flat surface. The solder paste won’t adhere evenly to the pads. The BGA will probably slide off the pads before reflow. It may end up far enough off that it can’t self-center, as BGAs usually do.

The HASL pads won’t all have an even amount of solder left on the board. Some pads will have more, some less. When added to the solder paste, the pads with more solder may end up bridging.

All of the issues become even more severe as the parts get smaller. Wafer scale parts, 0.4 mm pitch parts, 0201 passives, and other similarly or smaller sized components are essentially incompatible with the HASL surface.

So, what do you do? Order your boards with immersion silver or ENIG. Both give a nice flat surface that BGAs like.

Duane Benson
Open thse Posd Basy Doors Hasl


Milling Madness

Sometimes, we find things that kind of defy explanation. Fortunately, this didn’t come from Sunstone, our normal board house.

Regardless of who it came from, I’m sure it was a one-off mistake, but, wow. How could anyone miss this?










It just goes to show, it’s always a good idea to take a look at what you get from your board house before sending it on to us.

Duane Benson
Termites, maybe?


Designing for Movement

What is the difference between electronics in a robot vs., say, a stationary temperature monitor and control device? For one, if the temperature controller goes haywire, you can pull it off the wall and stomp on it, while you might have to chase the robot (or be chased) to deactivate it if it’s gone into world domination mode. More relevant, though, is vibration.

Fixed embedded electronics generally don’t need to worry about vibration induced reliability issues. Mobile robots, however, do. Unsecured connectors can work their way loose. Bolts can back off. wires can brush against stuff. A lot of practices that don’t cause problems in a fixed installation can bite in a mobile setting.

For example, a simple board-to-board ribbon cable. On the left is a common friction-retention cable connector. Fine for a development board, but not for an environment subject to vibration. Instead, use a mechanically captive connector, as shown on the right.





Free hanging cables are also a “no” for mobile devices. Cables hanging loose can get caught on edges, or tall or hot components. That can lead to worn or melted insulation and shorts. Instead, use cable ties, insulating grommets, and careful routing.

There are plenty of other considerations, but these are two of the biggest traps to avoid when movement is called for.

Duane Benson
Klaatu barada nikto. Translation: “Spaceman says what”

Surface Mount Power Component Footprints

There was a time when the bison ran free on the plains and power components were easy to design with. Everything, with the exception of an exotic few, used either the TO-220 or TO-3 packages. Even when surface mount came along and cut the bison off from their grazing lands, most power components came in some derivative of the TO-220, with bent leads.

That’s no longer the case. Today, power components come in those TO-220 derivatives, SO-8 packages, QFNs, and down to 0.3 mm pitch wafer scale micro-BGAs. It’s madness.

The advantage of all of that chaos is that it gives more flexibility for sourcing and sizing of components. Which, of course, brings in a few more potential issues. Take the example below:








The footprints were originally created for a package with four 1.27 mm (0.05″) pitch leads on one side and a big heat slug on the other. The component selected is a variant in an SO-8 package. It’s not an uncommon occurrence.

As long as pins 5 – 8 all share the same internal connection, there isn’t anything electrically wrong here. However, with that large open copper pad on top, it’s going to be very difficult to get a good solder joint.

The fix is pretty easy. Just add solder mask to separate the pins. Make the mask openings the same size as you would if the pins were on individual pads. You don’t need to cover the whole pad with solder mask — just surround the pins so solder will stay where it’s needed. The mock-up below illustrates what it would look like:








Do the same with your solder paste layer. Unless the component has a heat slug underneath, make the paste layer block the big open area.

Duane Benson
Would a bisontennial be a 100 year old, large grazing animal?

Start the Year Right, Without PCB Placement Overlap

Today’s illustration isn’t a super-bad problem. You can usually make this work — unless  you’ve got to align with a hole in case. I’m talking about the venerable 3.5mm audio jack. They aren’t used all that often these days, but when they are, one of the most common formats has a design detail that makes edge alignment pretty critical.

The part of the connector that receives the jack is a short barrel, with an outside diameter larger than the height of the rest of the connector, as you can see in the image on the right. It comes in thru-hole and surface mount varieties.

This means that you have to have your solder pads or holes just the right distance from the board edge. Too close, and you can violate design rules. Too far inset, and you won’t be able to mount the connector flush.






This part can cause additional problems if the board is panelized. Like other overhanging connectors, the panel tabs, panel rails or other boards in the panel may make it impossible to mount the part, even if the spacing is correct.

The board shown below has both incorrect spacing, and another board in the panel blocking placement. The surface mount pads allow for more flexibility in positioning — it would have worked if not in a panel.






I’ve done this myself. Speaking from experience, I can say that it’s easy to avoid, and quite sad when discovered at assembly.

Duane Benson
Down at the edge, close by a panel rail
Close to the edge, round by the routing tab