Using FMEA to Determine Your Tin Whisker Mitigation Strategy

In our last post, we discussed techniques to mitigate tin whiskers (TW). To help determine what your tin whisker mitigation strategy should be, consider using failure modes and effects analysis (FMEA). The central metric of FMEA is the risk priority number (RPN). For tin whiskers, the RPN is equal to the product of: (1) the probability of tin whiskers (P); (2) the severity, if a tin whisker exists (S); and (3) how hard it is to detect a tin whisker (D).  In equation form:


As a first example, consider a consumer product, like a mobile phone with a life of 5 years. With mitigation, on a scale of 1 to 10, P might be 2. For S, we might rate it at a 3, as a failure in the device is unlikely to cause severe harm to anyone. Detection (D) is a problem because the tin whiskers that form later cannot be detected during manufacturing; hence, we would have to rate D as a 10. So, the RPN is: 2*3*10 = 60, which is not too high. Therefore, with P and S at relatively low values, a tin whisker mitigation strategy would likely be successful for any consumer product. It should be pointed out that determining the RPN numbers would almost certainly require supporting data, brainstorming sessions, and a buy-in from the entire product team. The team would also have to determine any appropriate mitigation strategy such as avoiding bright tin coatings on component leads and perhaps using a flash of nickel between the copper and the tin (Figure 1).

Figure 1. In  mission-critical products, coatings may be required. It is almost impossible for a TW to penetrate both layers of coating as shown above.

Now consider a mission-critical product, such as certain types of military equipment. If we assume that the electronics have a service life of 40 years and that a failure could cause bodily harm or death, we could likely end up with a consensus that RPN = 10*10*10 =1000, the highest RPN possible. This situation would demand that special tactics be used to address the tin whisker risk. These tactics were discussed in my paper and presentation given at SMTA Pan Pacific 2019.


Dr. Ron

Tin Whiskers IV: Mitigation


In the last post on tin whiskers, we discussed detection. In this post, we will cover mitigation. Since compressive stresses are a primary cause of tin whiskers, minimizing these stresses will help to mitigate tin whisker formation. There are several approaches to accomplish this compressive stress reduction. The first is to establish a process that produces a matte finish as opposed to a bright tin finish. Experience has shown that a satin or matte tin finish, which has larger grain sizes, has lower internal compressive stresses than a bright tin finish. Studies have shown that avoiding a bright tin finish alone can reduce tin whisker formation by more than a factor of ten. Thicker tin layers will often reduce compressive stresses.

Since a major source of the compressive stresses in tin is due to copper diffusion into the tin, minimizing this diffusion will significantly reduce tin whisker formation. One proven approach to minimizing copper diffusion is to have a flash of nickel between the copper and the tin. Since nickel does not readily diffuse into the tin after initial intermetallic formation, tin whisker formation can be all but eliminated in many cases.

Adding bismuth to the tin, in small amounts, can also reduce tin whisker formation. The bismuth solid solution strengthens the tin. This strengthening will often reduce tin whisker formation.

Another mitigation approach is the use of coatings. Acrylics, epoxies, urethanes, alkali silicate glasses and parylene C have been used. Parylene C appears to be the most promising.

Often a tin whisker will penetrate the coating as seen in Figure 1. However, to be a reliability risk, it must penetrate a second coating.

Figure 1. A tin whisker about to penetrate a polymer coating. Source: Dr. Chris Hunt, NPL.

This situation is almost impossible as the tin whisker is fragile and will bend as it tries to penetrate the second layer of coating. See Figure 2. So, coatings can be a very effective tin whisker mitigation approach.

Figure 2. To be a reliability concern, a tin whisker must penetrate two protective coatings.

The next and last tin whisker post will be on using FMEA (failure modes and effects analysis) to develop a tin whisker reduction strategy.


Dr. Ron