Low-Temperature Reflow, High-Temperature Use


Soldering enables modern electronics. Without solder, electronics would not exist. Copper melts at 1085°C, yet with solder, we can bond copper to copper at about 235°C or less with current lead-free solders. These lower temperatures are required, as electronic packages and PWBs are made of polymer materials that cannot survive temperatures much above 235°C.

Before the advent of RoHS, tin-lead solders melted at about 35°C less than lead-free solders. So today, soldering temperatures are at the highest in history. For some applications, it would be desirable to have solders that melted at closer to tin-lead temperatures. This desire has increased interest in low-melting point solders, such as tin-bismuth solders. Eutectic SnBi melts at 138°C, so reflow oven temperatures in the 170°C range can be used. These lower reflow temperatures are easier on some fragile components and PWBs and will reduce defects such as PWB popcorning and measling. However, the lower melting point of SnBi solders limits their application in many harsh environments, such as automobile and military applications. As a rule of thumb, a solder should not be used above 80 to 90% of its melting point on the Kelvin scale. For SnBi solder, this temperature range is 55.8 – 96.9°C. These temperatures are well below the use temperature of some harsh environments. In addition, SnBi solders can be brittle and thus perform poorly in drop shock testing.

So, the electronics world could use a solder that can reflow at a little over 200°C, but still have a high use temperature. This situation would appear to be an unsolvable conundrum. However, my colleagues at Indium, led by Dr. Ning-Cheng Lee, have solved it. They used an indium-containing solder powder, Powder A, that melts at <180°C and combined it with Powder B that melts at ~220°C. By reflowing at about 205°C, Powder A melts and Powder B is dissolved by the melted Powder A. To achieve this effect, the 205°C temperature must be held for approximately two minutes. The remelt temperature of the final solder joint is above 180°C. I discussed the phenomenon of a liquid metal dissolving another that melts at a higher temperature before. An extreme example of this effect is mercury dissolving gold at room temperature. So, don’t drop any gold or silver jewelry into a wave soldering pot and expect to fish it out an hour later!

Powder A would not be a candidate on its own as it displays some melting at 113°C and some at 140°C.

Using the criteria above, the use temperature of this new solder powder mix can be in the 89.4 – 134.7°C range, after reflow, as the remelt temperature is above 180°C. Tests performed by Dr. Lee and his team have shown the resulting solder joints also have good to excellent thermal cycling and drop shock performance.

Figures 1-3 show schematically how the melting of the two powders would melt at a peak reflow temperature of 205°C.

Figure 1.  Powder A and Powder B at room temperature.

Figure 2. At 205°C, Powder A has melted and it is starting to dissolve to Powder B.

Figure 3. After about a minute at 205°C, Powder B starts to dissolve. Given enough time, it will completely dissolve in Powder A, resulting in a new alloy that has a remelt temperature over 180°C, as well as good to excellent thermal cycle and drop shock performance. 

To me, this invention is one of the most significant in SMT in a generation. It could be argued that it is like finding the holy grail of soldering: melting at low-temperature with a service life at high-temperature.


Dr. Ron

PS. I developed an Excel spreadsheet to calculate the use temperatures. It converts degrees C into K. I used it to calculate the use temperatures above. If you would like a copy, send me a note at rlasky@indium.com.

Zarrow and Hall’s “Board Talk” Becomes a Book


There are a few good books that relate to electronics assembly. Ray Prasad’s Surface Mount Technology: Principles and Practice comes to mind. However, few (none?) teach the skills that need to be developed to become an electronics assembly process engineer, so Jim Hall and I collaborated on Handbook of Electronic Assembly and Guide to SMTA Certification a few years ago.

There was still a gap, however. No book existed that discussed troubleshooting everyday assembly defects and challenges. My good friends Phil Zarrow and Jim Hall have addressed this information in their Circuit Insight radio show Board Talk. All that was needed was a little encouragement to assemble it in book form. This task has now been accomplished!

Phil and Jim’s Troubleshooting Electronics Assembly is certainly one of the most useful books available for everyday SMT and though-hole assembly challenges.

Phil and Jim’s Book Can Help with Everyday Assembly Challenges

Check it out.


Dr. Ron

No Need to Waste Parts

We love parts on reels. Who doesn’t? But reels aren’t always practical — and it’s not just about cost. Cost is, of course, important, but there may be other factors to consider.

Say, for example, you need 20 2.2K Ohm, 5% 0805 resistors. You could buy a small strip of 25 from Digi-Key for $0.32. That gives the 20 you need, plus a few spares just in case.

Alternately, you could buy a digi-reel ( a custom quantity reel). On the reel, you’ll probably want more parts to keep the strip long enough for the feeder. Let’s go with 250 parts for $1.39. Digi-Key charges $7 extra to create a custom reel, so that’s a total of $8.39. Still peanuts.

For a third choice, you could just buy a full reel of 5,000 for $10.64. Still peanuts. If you’re gong to need the same part for a lot of designs, this might make sense. But, there’s more than just cost to consider. You need to store and ship it. Shipping two dozen reels gets pretty expense. Storing and inventorying several dozen reels can become a hassle too. 6a00d8341c008a53ef01b8d1356272970c-320wi

The beauty of Digi-Key, Mouser and other places that sell cut strips is that they essentially become your parts warehouse. You pay the 32 cents and never have to worry about whether the part is in your inventory, how many are in your inventory, digging it out of wherever you stuffed the reel when you last needed it.

If you do buy and store the whole reel, you don’t need to ship the entire reel to us. Just cut a strip with the number you need, plus about 5% for that “just in case.”

Of course, if you need a few thousand of the parts go ahead and send us the reel. It would make sense then.

Duane Benson
Reel, reel your part
Solder it, solder it, solder it, solder it
Cost is but a factor

Pin-in-Paste Aperture Calculations Using Solder Preforms


The pin-in-paste (PIP) process is often the best choice when the PCBA is a mixed SMT and through-hole board with a small number of through-hole components. However, ensuring that the correct volume of solder paste is printed to ensure an adequate amount of solder for a reliable thorough-hole solder joint can be a challenge. One tool to help in this regard is the Pin-in-Paste Aperture Calculator. This calculator is now online at http://software.indium.com/. The solder volume equations were developed by good friend Jim McLenaghan of Creyr Innovation.

To estimate the right amount of solder paste, we need to calculate the volume of the plated though-hole, subtract the volume of the component pin, and add the volume of the solder fillet. See Figure 1.

Figure 1. Solder volumes in the pin-in-paste process.

Let’s assume we have the PCB and component pin metrics, as seen in the left hand column of Figure 2, under the header “Input.” Blue cells are inputs, green cells are calculations by StencilCoach. Notice that, if you have a rectangular pin, the software will calculate the equivalent pin diameter for entry into the “Input” cells. The “paste reduction factor” is the fraction of the paste volume that is solder. Most pastes are about 50% by volume flux, so, typically, this metric would be about 50% or 0.50.

Figure 2. PIP metrics.

The “Output” calculations are not really necessary for the task at hand, which is determining the stencil aperture dimensions, but may be of interest. The important stencil dimensions are shown in the “Stencil Metrics” section. Note that in our example, even though we have a 7-mil thick stencil, we would need a square aperture with a side dimension of 93-mils to get enough solder paste. With a circular aperture the radius must be >50-mils, if the pin spacings were 100-mils, there would not be enough spacing between the printed deposits, they would overlap. So we must use square apertures.

As in this case, it is a common problem with the PIP process to deliver adequate solder volume. If the PCB and component metrics are such that obtaining enough solder paste is an issue, it can be helpful to use solder preforms to increase the solder volume. The next post will cover this topic.


Dr. Ron

Dover’s Big Exit

Is it the water?

Just days after Cookson announced it would split in two and spin out its Alpha Metals solder unit, Dover says it too will divest its electronics assembly and test businesses.

Just like that, we are primed to lose two of the longstanding electronics supply chain brand owners. The difference here is, Alpha’s management and ownership will remain, for now, the same, as the stock will be split among Cookson’s former shareholders.

The future of the Dover businesses, on the other hand, is much less clear. Dover hasn’t said whether it will sell the businesses piecemeal, as it did with Universal Instruments and Vitronics-Soltec in 2006. The brands on  the block — DEK, OK International and Everett Charles Technologies among them — probably brought in at least $1 billion in annual revenue prior to 2012’s dropoff, and have traditionally been higher margin performers as well. Not many equipment companies have pockets deep enough to absorb the price Dover will ask. Yet that’s what employees of those businesses must be hoping for right now, as the slash and burn methods of the private equity companies have been excruciating for everyone involved.

We don’t think this was a quick decision brought about by this year’s slump. Sources tell us Dover has been discussing the possible divestiture of these businesses for nearly a year. The guess here is that Dover’s management tired of the endless boom-bust cycles of the electronics industry. It’s hard for an equipment company to meet Dover’s goal of 10% revenue growth and 15% operating margins year in, year out.

We also believe Dover has a buyer on the hook, as some might recall that when Dover announced the impending divestiture of Universal, the deal went through a month later. Who that buyer is (ITW? Nordson?), and at what price, are now the questions.


Check out Board Talk, our new industry bulletin board: theprintedcircuitboard.com

Can Your Mortality be Modeled with Weibull Distribution?


In the last posting we saw how Weibull analysis helped us to determine that SACM lead-free solder (SAC 105 with about 0.1% manganese) has comparable (actually better) thermal cycle performance versus SAC 305 solder.  Software like Minitab will give us even more detailed information about the performance of the solder joints in stress testing as we see in Figure 1.

In addition to the Weibull plot, we also have the Probability Density Function (PDF), the Survival Function and the Hazard Function. The PDF tells us when it is most likely that a test board will fail in a test population, as shown by the inserted red line. We see that it is a little less than 2,000 cycles. The Survival Function shows the percent of surviving test boards. We observe that the expected life (the 50% point) is quite close to the maximum of the PDF. The Hazard Function tells us the rate at which the test boards are dropping out.  It increases with time, but there are few boars left so the PDF drops down at the end of the test, even though the fallout rate is the highest.

It is interesting (and perhaps appropriate in the wake of Halloween) to consider if human mortality follows a Weibull distribution. I used some data for the Centers for Disease Control that are a little over 10 years old for males in the US.  So, the mean life expectancy is a little low at 72 years. (I was a little lazy: the old data were a little easier to work with than new data, some conversions are needed to make it work.) The data appear in Figure 2.

As you can see, just like a solder joint, your life expectancy can be modeled quite well by the Weibull distribution.


Dr. Ron

Electronics Assembly in Action


Struggling to find a good, royalty-free, video of electronics assembly, my Dartmouth ENGM 185 class on manufacturing processes decided to make our own. I think it is pretty good considering our limited ($0) budget.


It was filmed at PCM in Springfield, VT. The young woman in the video is my ENGS 3 student from last summer, Ruthie Welch. The entire ENGM 185 class participated in the production.

As an aside, PCM’s assembly process uses lead-free solder paste.


Dr. Ron

A New Assembly Metric

Patty arrived at work an hour early to prepare for her meeting with ACME CEO Mike Madigan. Nineteen days ago he had asked her to develop an electronics assembly metric that would correlate with profitability. This metric would, in turn, be able to help pinpoint opportunities for improvement. He gave her 3 weeks, so she was two days early. Mike was in town to meet with Sam Watkins, the local plant manager, so he ordered that they meet.

Patty had quickly identified non-material assembly cost per I/O (NMAC/I/O) as a good metric candidate. She went to five of ACME’s plants and, after a day or two at each one, she collected all the data she needed to prove her point. Rob helped by writing an Excel macro that would calculate NMAC/I/O and plot it versus profitability. The correlation coefficient was an outstanding 0.983.

While visiting the five factories, she tried to learn why those that had a poor NMAC/I/O were performing poorly. After a little checking, she and Pete discovered that the poor performing sites typically had lines that were not time balanced, had slow component placement machines, and occasionally had very slow printers or solder paste with poor response to pause. There was even one plant that was using a full wave solder process, when only eight solder preforms would have done the job in the reflow process. None of these “problems” would show up if you were only tracking line uptime. In light of this situation, she also developed a plan to use NMAC/I/O to identify and implement opportunities for improvement.

As Patty headed toward Sam’s office, Sam’s administrative assistant invited Patty into the conference room to allow Patty to get her laptop set up. Just as she finished setting up and her Powerpoint presentation was on the screen, Sam and Mike walked in.

“Coleman, we’re counting on you to take us to the next level,” Mike said a little gruffly, “so let’s get this show going.”

Patty looked at Sam and could tell that Sam was uncomfortable with his boss’s abrupt demeanor.

“I performed quite a bit of research and concluded that non-material assembly cost per I/O is the best metric,” Patty started.

“That’s great Coleman, but what the hell is non-material whatever you said,” Madigan interrupted.

Patty’s cellphone vibrated, but she ignored it.

“Non-material assembly cost per I/O is the total cost of running a factory less the components, hardware, and PWBs used. Some people call this the conversion cost,” Patty answered.

“If you think about it, it is almost obvious that this is the best metric,” Patty went on, “as it measures all the non-material cost divided by how much we produce.”

“I get it,” said Sam. “We are producing I/Os or solder joints, we measure the total cost to make solder joints and divide by the number of solder joints. It’s that simple.”

“Precisely,” Patty responded.

“I understand now why uptime alone wasn’t a complete metric. You can be up and running, but be doing it inefficiently,” Mike said with a rare smile on his face.

Patty’s cellphone vibrated again.

“Exactly,” Patty commented.

“OK, so we are going to measure NMAC/I/O,” Mike commanded, “How does it correlate to profit?”

“It is nearly perfect,” Patty said.

They continued their discussions and reviewed Patty’s plan to improve productivity at the sites with a high NMAC/I/O. Patty would take the lead on this effort.

As Patty got up to leave, Mike commanded, “Oh, and Coleman, find out why so few people use NMAC/I/O.”

Patty thought this was something to discuss with the Professor.

As Patty walked out of Sam’s office, Clare Perkins, Sam’s Admin stopped her.

“Ms. Coleman, your mother-in-law called, Rob has been taken to the hospital,” Clare said.

GKG: Westward Ho?

Southeast Asian assembly process equipment companies have approached Western markets in fits and starts.

A few have made inroads: From time to time, we have seen JT and Fulongwin soldering equipment at US plants, usually smaller ones (Flextronics is an exception) and often on the US West Coast. But while we’ve been reporting for more than a decade on the availability of literally scores of Chinese-made brands, some of which are very popular in Taiwan and China, it’s still highly unusual to see any make it across the ocean.

Many have been stymied by patent issues that effectively have blocked them specifically from the US and European markets. Another problem is finding good channel partners. From time to time, firms ranging from independent reps like FHP Reps and Bill West to solder paste vendors like Qualitek have tried, with limited success. Service and access to spare parts have been limiting factors.

That’s what makes Friday’s announcement from GKG so interesting. GKG has named Juki as exclusive distributor of its screen printers in the Americas. Known primarily for its placement equipment, Juki has been inching toward a full-line offering for the past couple years, having begun distributing Intertec’s selective soldering equipment in 2009.

For years, DEK and Speedline have dominated the Western printer markets, with Asys/Ekra in third with an estimated 10% share. Juki’s track record and never-say-die approach to selling makes it a formidable competitor. However, Juki has many of the same distributors as Speedline, and it is unclear that they will give up the latter for a new player.

But the real prize may be the emerging South America market. As Juki CEO Bob Black told us, “In Latin America, out major competitors are offering complete lines. To be competitive, we need to do the same.” And Juki has the breadth and depth in its service department that many standalone reps have not.

Keep an eye on this.

The Media (Us) Gets Social

Besides this blog, we at CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY are active in a number of other social media related forums.

You can follow Editor-in-Chief Mike Buetow’s steady stream of late-breaking news on Twitter (@mikebuetow).

Or join our LinkedIn groups: CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY, SMT Processing, PCB Test and Inspection, PCB Cleaning, and EMS — Electronics Manufacturing Services.

Finally, you could friend us on Facebook: search CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY.

Each vehicle is different, and each offers access to a somewhat different audience. Twitter tends to be a one-way, or two-way at most, type of communication. We use it more to relay important breaking stories, both reported by us and others. The LinkedIn groups, most of which are new, are more expansive, and intended to drive in-depth technical and market-related conversations. Facebook is less formal, in my opinion, than LinkedIn. The discussions there tend to be simpler in nature.

They all have their place, however, and we’d love to see you engaged in any one of them.