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


What Do You Do If You Can’t Have Reference Designators?

The first answer to that question is probably going to be along the lines of, “Put them on the board.”

But, sometimes you can’t have reference designators on your board. Maybe it’s too densely populated and there isn’t room. Maybe, for aesthetic reasons, you’ve chosen to leave them off. With some products, like development boards, it’s sometimes necessary to use the space for instruction or functional identification and reference designators would confuse your customers. Figure 1

It’s always best to put reference designators as close to the part as possible, and on the same side as the part, but if that’s not possible, you can still create an assembly drawing. When laying out the board, put the reference designators in a different layer than the text you want in silk screen. Then, create a PDF that has all the component outlines in their place, with reference designators. Make one for the top and one for the bottom. Call this document “assembly drawing” and include it in the files sent in to be manufactured.

Figure 1 shows a good assembly drawing format. It has reference designators and polarity marks.

You might ask why reference designators are needed when all the surface-mount parts are machine-assembled. First, any through-hole parts are hand-assembled. Their locations and board side needs to be clear for the people stuffing them.

Second, CAD systems don’t always have 100% accurate information. If the center point of the footprint is off, surface mount machines (ours and anyone else’s) will center the part where file says to put it, which, in the case, would be the wrong spot.

The reference designators are also part of quality control. It’s another opportunity to remove ambiguity. Ambiguity bad. Certainty good.

Duane Benson
Car 54, where are you?


What Route Do You Take?

There are a lot of polar opposites in the “what is my philosophy” world: Mac vs. PC, on shore vs. off shore manufacturing, Ford vs. Chevy, Atmel vs. Microchip (well, maybe not that one so much any more), auto router vs. hand route…. Yes, I’m specifically avoiding political opposites.

DB 1Routing is what I’m really interested in today. The conventional debate is hand vs. auto route. CAD companies spend a lot of time and money on autorouters, but there’s definitely a line of thought that says it’s not ready for prime time yet. This shirt designed by Chris Gammel, on Teespring pretty much says it all.

But, it’s more complex than that. Most auto-routes end up requiring some hand work, either to finish routes that can’t be found automatically, or to clean up a few less than efficient choices. There are differing techniques for complete hand-routing as well.

I often find myself looking at a layout project a bit like a chess game. I don’t just start at one end of the board and work my way to the other side. I tend to focus on specific parts or critical requirements first, like signal paths that need to be short, or sections with more critical grounding requirements. (The image above isn’t mine. It’s from the Beagleboard.)

When it gets to the mass, I tend to try and think ahead, projecting moves out, as though it were a chess game. When I’m looking for the best route for signal path A, I try and think ahead to how it will impact B, D, D… as far ahead as I can go.

I’m not sure if doing it this way is easier, of if it would be better to just start routing and then re-route as I run into roadblacks. What about you? How do you approach a complex layout?

Duane Benson
Holy cow. I Googled “Trust no one” to get some ideas for my signature
Never do that. It’s going to take a week to shake off all the negativity


Mirror Mirror

A mirror can bring bad luck, it is said. In this PCB assembly challenge, it certainly did when a mirrored pad layout for a transformer made it impossible to mount the component to its intended location on the top side of a PCB in its usual orientation.

Design error: A mirrored pad layout creates orientation problems between pads and component pins; layout is for bottom-side rather than top-side mounting.

Design error: A mirrored pad layout creates orientation problems between pads and component pins; layout is for bottom-side rather than top-side mounting.

The component’s footprint, it turns out, would work fine if it were on the opposite side of the PCB, but that bottom-side installation is not possible.

Flipped upside down, the SMT transformer’s pins line up fine, except that they are facing upwards. But we can still mount the component and make a robust connection using adhesive and connecting wires.

Flipped upside down, the SMT transformer’s pins line up fine, except that they are facing upwards. But we can still mount the component and make a robust connection using adhesive and connecting wires.

The customer made a design mistake; although the pads for top-side SMT mounting of the component are in place, they are in mirror-image orientation; e.g., the pad layout with Pin 1 is intended to be installed from the bottom of the board. Consequently, it doesn’t match up in terms of orientation on the top side of the PCB unless the component is literally placed onto its back. But that means that the leads are sticking up into the air, pointing in the wrong direction.

It’s well known that a dab of epoxy can cure a host of ills, and in this case it was simply a matter of dispensing a tiny amount of epoxy onto the back of the component body, in the center, as well as onto its intended location on the SMT PCB assembly.


Small dots of epoxy are applied to the PCB surface and to the component body, before it is attached, the epoxy cured, and the transformer connected pin by pin.

The component is then carefully located in place upside-down and the epoxy cured. With the component robustly mounted in this manner, small wires were then run from each lead (pin) to its corresponding pad on the board’s surface.


It requires skillful hand soldering once the component is in place, but the connection is robust and complete.


Roy Akber




Raspberry Pi — What’s It All Mean?

What would you do with a computer that costs $5?

First, let me explain a bit. The Raspberry Pi, if you don’t know, is a small, inexpensive single board computer designed by the non-profit Raspberry Pi foundation in England. Its mission is to make computer-related education less expensive and more accessible to the masses. As a next step in that mission, it just introduced the Raspberry Pi Zero, with an MSRP of $5. So, you can buy a Big Mac, or a Pi Zero. You could buy some peanut butter, jelly and a loaf of bread, eat that for the next five lunches, and buy five Pi Zeros.

Now some folks have complained that it’s not very useful on its own. It needs a wall bug power supply, a micro SD card, a few cables, and a USB hub to connect a keyboard and mouse to.

That’s true, if you want to use it as a full PC workstation, which you can. It runs the “Raspian” distribution of Linux. But, I don’t think that’s where theRaspberryPi greatest potential for this thing lies. No, I wouldn’t use this as a workstation. It’s biggest potential, in my opinion, is as an inexpensive embedded controller.

It has I2C, SPI, and RS232 pins available, as well as plenty of GPIO. Attach a small daughter card with accelerometer, gyro, magnetometer, and GPS, and you’ve got a nice drone auto pilot. Attach a few sensors and a cell phone module, and you’ve got a remote data logger. What would you do with one of these?

Duane Benson
Little Jack Horner couldn’t get a plum out of this pi.


How Should You Mark Your Diodes?

Current flows through a diode from the anode to the cathode – it will pass current only when the potential on the anode is greater than the potential on the cathode. This is mostly true, but not always.

For the common barrier diode, or rectifier, it’s a pretty safe bet. However, with a zener diode, or  TVS, it’s not true. And, that is why marking a diode, on your PC board, with the plus sign (+) is not good practice.

Take a look at the schematic clip below.


1 designers nb figure 1






Once you put this circuit on to a PC board, you could legitimately place a plus sign on the anodes of D3 and D4, and another on their cathodes. In the next schematic clip, you could legitimately place both a plus sign, and a minus sign on the anode of D9.

1 designers nb figure 2

We don’t know what you had in mind, and, we don’t have the schematic. If you use the practice of marking diodes with a (+) on the anode, we don’t have any more information than if you didn’t mark it at all. The same holds for using a minus (-) sign. It really doesn’t give us any information.

So how should you mark your diodes? The best method is to put the diode symbol next to the footprint. on the PC board, as shown below. You can also use “K” to indicate the Cathode, of “A”, to indicate the Anode. “K” is used because “C” could be mistaken for “capacitor.”

D5, in the illustration on the right, would be the preferred methodFigure 1. D7 will work as well. If you don’t have enough room on the board due to spacing constraints, you can put the same information in an assembly drawing.

Ambiguity is the enemy of manufacturers everywhere. Read a bit more on the subject here, or here.

Duane Benson
Help stamp out and eliminate redundancy, and maybe ambiguity, or maybe not

Those Danged LEDs Again

I was caught by one of my own favorite “simple” traps last week: the dreaded LED footprint mess.

I designed a board based on the Microchip PIC32 — it’s a ChipKIT Arduino-compatible board — that has a number of RGB LEDs on it. I used RGB LED part number LTST-C19HE1WT, from Lite-On. The datasheet is easy to find, and the footprint information is right up front, just the way we like it.

11 designers nb figure 1Almost all is well, but I somehow missed taking my own advice and I didn’t double-check the footprint.The footprint I used is more or less 180 degrees off from this one. The common anode is still on pin 4, but the numbering is different. It’s got pin one in the same place, then pin two is in the lower left. Pin 3 is on the same place, and pin 4 is on the upper right. That’s the conventional pin numbering order.

Fortunately, the fix won’t require any mod wires. If I rotate the LEDs 180 degrees, the anode will be in the right spot. All I’ll need to do is adjust my software for the correct R, G and B pin locations.

Duane Benson
I’m dizzy with rotation


Freescale KL03 and PCB123 at 0.4mm Pitch

Small component packages seem to be a recurring theme with me. It’s understandable, I guess. Super tiny packages are becoming more and more common and we build a lot of product with them.

The smallest we’ve built is 0.3mm pitch. Those aren’t common enough to be considered standard — they’re still an experimental assembly — but not many chips use them yet. 0.4mm, on the other hand, is something we see on a pretty regular basis.

What’s so tough about that? The biggest challenge with these form-factors seems to be footprint design and escape routing. I can see why. There really isn’t room to follow any of the standard BGA practices. You can’t fit escape vias between the pads and you can’t put vias in the pads, unless they are filled and plated over at the board house. Filled and plated vias are the easiest way to go, but it can make for an expensive board fab.

KL03 WLCSP20 on a US Lincoln penny. One of my side projects involves trying to make the smallest possible motor driver. For this project, I’ve chosen the Allegro A3903 driver. It’s a 3 x 3mm DFN (dual flatpack no leads) with 0.5mm pitch pads and a thermal pad in the middle. The microcontroller will be the new Freescale KL03 32-bit ARM in a 1.6 x 2.0mm WLCSP (wafer level chip scale) package. It also comes in a 3 x 3 x 0.5mm pitch 16 pin QFN. Without an expensive PCB, that may be my only option.

Pick your CAD package. I’m using the newest version (5.1) of Sunstone Circuit’s CAD package, PCB123, but the principles here will apply to any CAD software. If you don’t already have a copy, download PCB123 V5.1 here.

If you’ve got fast Internet, you’re done now, so go ahead and install it. You’ll need the manual too, which you can get here.

I need to eat now, so stay tuned for Part 2.

Duane Benson
Nerfvana – It’s like Nerdvana, but with more foam darts.


Wilk the Winner

Congratulations to Edward Wilk of Facts Engineering, who won the incentive prize for filling out a recent survey of PCB West 2014 technical conference attendees.

Edward, a $50 AMEX gift card is headed your way. Thanks for your support, and thanks to everyone who took the time to respond!

Pads on Ground Plane

Generally, small pads for passive parts are connected  with a single PCB trace of equal size to each pad. That’s the right way to do it.

Top pads solidly connected to copper pour

However, sometimes, circumstances dictate a little different approach. The illustration on the right shows something of a worst-case. This is for a snubber (resistor, capacitor pair) between two power planes.

A couple of things will likely happen. The power plane will act as a heat sink, preventing the solder paste on one side from melting, resulting in a poor connection. Or, the unequal melting could lead to surface tension pulling the part up, causing tombstoning.

Most designers are aware of that, but sometimes, thermals will be deliberately turned off to allow for better current capacity to and from the large power Mosfets (not shown).

Thermal pads on side connected to pour.

If that’s the case, make sure that you can turn the thermals (see figure at bottom right) on or off by the part, rather than just by the plane.

Duane Benson
The rain falls mostly on the ground plane due to static attraction