Wicked Wicking

This PCB assembly challenge involved attaching a solar panel to one side of a pad using solder paste with a pass through an SMT reflow soldering oven.

Solder wicking through the unmasked vias to the back side forms unacceptable “bumps” on top of the vias.

The attachment or bond itself wasn’t the issue; but after the first trial runs, it was clear that solder wicking through the unmasked vias was going to be. Solder would wick through the unmasked vias to the back side and form “bumps” on top of the vias.

These bumps made the surface nonplanar and of course were unacceptable. It wasn’t an issue of using excess solder paste. But the “wicked wicking” had to be stopped, or at least prevented.

Kapton tape is applied to cover the unmasked vias; it will block the molten solder from leaking through.

But how? Clearly, to keep the solder where we wanted it to remain during reflow, we had to find a way to prevent it from wicking up, collecting at the opposite ends of the vias and forming bumps. We had to find a solution that was simple, temporary, and tolerant of reflow soldering temperatures. The answer was Kapton polyimide tape, a familiar product to PCB assemblers for many years, and a material that does not degrade at reflow temperatures.

Kapton tape was applied to cover the unmasked vias in order to block the molten solder from leaking through the vias to the back side during reflow. After reflow and cooling, it was a simple matter to peel off the tape. This temporary masking solution worked; there were no more solder bumps on the back side of the assembly, and the cost of the fix in terms of time and material was very low.

Figure 3. This temporary masking solution worked; there are no more solder bumps on the back side of the assembly.

Roy Akber



Patty on Call

Let’s see how Patty is doing with the latest crisis …

Upon hearing Claire Perkins inform her that Rob was in the hospital, Patty froze and her face looked ashen. She quickly recovered and got her cell phone out to call Rob’s mother.

“Mom, what has happened to Rob?” Patty said, her voice quavering a little.

“He hurt his back at the gym, he can hardly walk. He collapsed under a heavy barbell. His head was injured too. He was unconscious for five minutes. I’m almost at the hospital now,” Rob’s mother, Hilde Gunther replied.

“I’ll see you there,” Patty said.

Both Sam and Mike insisted that someone take her to the hospital, but Patty refused.

Patty looked at her watch, it was 9AM. Rob was working a “swing shift” for six weeks and didn’t have to go into work until 10AM, so he went to the gym from 7:30 to 9AM most days. Patty had been teasing Rob that his workouts were getting too vigorous. She knew he was trying to snatch over 250 pounds as he was in a friendly competition with one of his friends, Fred, to see who would be the first to accomplish this significant feat. She wondered if this goal led to his accident.

The drive seemed to take forever, but soon she was at his emergency room bed. Rob was awake but his face was black and blue.  Patty didn’t notice her mother-in-law, as she quickly ran to Rob’s side.

“Rob, what happened?” Patty cried.

“The good news is, I snatched 250!” he chuckled, which caused him to grimace in pain. “It was 260 pounds that was my downfall, I collapsed under the weight,” Rob went on.

“How bad are your injures?” Patty asked, a little frustrated with Rob’s levity.

“My back hurts so much, I can hardly walk, my face just looks bad. I’m going for an MRI in a few minutes, they’re worried I might have a slipped disk,” Rob answered, becoming much more serious.

Just then an MRI tech came.

“Well Mr. Gunther, we are going to squeeze you in, so I need to put you ‘On Deck’ for an MRI that opens up. Realistically, it could be two or three hours,” the tech commented.

Both Patty and his mother kissed Rob on the part of his head that wasn’t black and blue as he left. After Rob was taken away, Patty chatted with her mother-in-law for about 30 minutes.

Even though to some people it would seem strange, Patty had a way of compartmentalizing things, she knew she could not help Rob, except to pray for him which she had already done. So, she decided to do some work on her laptop. Fortunately the hospital had WiFi.

Patty had some unfinished business from what she learned on her trip investigating NMAC/I/O. She wrote an email to the GMs of the sites using that cheaper solder paste that had the response to pause problems or that required kneading before being used, suggesting that they change to one of two corporate-approved pastes that didn’t have these issues. She also wrote a note to the people that were using a full wavesoldering process for a PWB that had only two through-hole components, saying solder preforms should be used with the reflow process.

As Patty finished the emails, she observed the activities of the MRI section of the hospital where she was waiting. It occurred to her that this was a process, just like assembling electronics. Instead of stencil printers and component placement machines, there was an MRI machine. There were techs that ran the MRI machines, just as there were operators on an SMT line. The nurses were like the process engineers, and there were some medical doctors that were like mangers and execs at her company. Instead of producing electronics, the MRI section was producing MRI scans. There was little difference.

Patty got curious and she decided to ask the scheduling assistant a few questions.

“Excuse me, my husband is getting an MRI and I have a few questions,” she asked Sara Carter the assistant.

“Sure,” Sarah said, “go ahead.”

“About how much does an MRI scan cost?” Patty asked.

“It varies depending on the extent of the scans needed, but $3,000 is a good estimate,” Sarah responded.

Patty asked more questions and learned that there were 5 MRI units and she assessed the headcount and floorspace needed to support the MRI unit. She also found out that each of the 5 MRI units averaged 9 scans per day. It then occurred to her that she could use ProfitPro to estimate the cost of a typical MRI scan. Under The Professor’s tutelage she has gotten quite good at estimating burden labor rates, etc, which would be needed for the calculation. She got her laptop out and using ProftiPro, in a few minutes estimated that the hospital’s cost of an MRI scan should be only $390!

“Why does it cost our insurance $3,000?” she thought.

It then occurred to her that her good friend from her days at Tech, Emily Chen, was a radiology resident at the hospital. She decided to send her a note and, in addition to telling her about Rob, ask about the MRI scan cost.

After sending the email, she asked her mother-in-law if she would like to get a cup of coffee. In a short time, they were heading to the hospital cafeteria. Before they left, they found out that Rob was just starting his 45-minute MRI scan.

Fifteen minutes later they returned, and Patty was surprised that she had already received an answer from Emily.

“Patty, I’m so sorry to hear about Rob. You probably won’t hear the official news on his MRI until tomorrow, but I will take a look at it and call you later today. BTW, my boyfriend works in the finance department here. I’ll find out about the cost. But, your numbers sound way off.”

Twenty minutes later Rob was finished. His doctor had given him some pain killers and muscle relaxers, so Rob was a little more comfortable, but the doctor wanted Rob to stay overnight for observation. Rob soon fell asleep from the medication. Patty decided to stay with Rob and by 4PM, she asked her mother-in-law if she could pick the boys up from day care.

At 4:30 PM another email arrived from Emily.

“Patty, good news. I looked at Rob’s MRI scan and it looks fine. He probably just severely strained a muscle. He’ll be as good as new in a month or so” Emily’s note began. Emily’s note went on, ”My boyfriend looked up the cost for the hospital to run an MRI scan. You were close, it costs $410. Neither of us can believe it. Where does the extra $2600 go?”

Dr. Ron note: I have done some investigations into MRI scan costs. As surprising as it sounds, these numbers are about right, the base cost for a hospital to perform an MRI scan is in the $400 range, but they have to charge $3,000 to break even. Considering that many hospitals are non profits and are losing money adds to the confusion.  At this point, I don’t claim to understand the cost structure of running a hospital, but one would think that one of the most critical questions in the current healthcare cost crisis in the United States, would be to understand why $3,000 must be charged for a $400 procedure to break even.  


Revelations at ACI


I’m taking a few moments from Wassail Weekend, held annually in my village, Woodstock, VT (“The prettiest small town in America”), to write a post about the recent workshops at ACI.

Indium colleague Ed Briggs and I gave a three-hour presentation on “Lead-Free Assembly for High Yields and Reliability.” I think Ed’s analyses of “graping” and the “head-in-pillow” defect are the best around.

There was quite a bit of discussion on the challenges faced by solder paste flux in the new world of lead-free solder paste and miniaturized components (i.e., very small solder paste deposits.) One of the hottest topics was nitrogen and lead-free SMT assembly. There seemed to be uniform agreement that solder paste users should be able to demand that their lead-free solder paste perform well with any PWB pad finish (e.g., OSP, immersion silver, electroless nickel-gold, etc.) without the use of nitrogen. Not only does using nitrogen cost money, but it will usually make tombstoning worse. However, in the opinion of most people, nitrogen is a must for wave soldering and, since it minimizes dross development, it likely pays for itself.

After Ed and I finished, Fred Dimock, of BTU, gave one of the best talks I have ever experienced on reflow soldering. He discussed thermal profiling in detail, including the importance of assuring that thermocouples are not oxidized (when oxidized they lose accuracy). He also discussed a reflow oven design that minimizes temperature overshoot during heating, and undershoot when the heater is off. Understanding these topics is critical with the tight temperature control that many lead-free assemblers face.

Fred Verdi of ACI finished the meeting with an excellent presentation on “Pb-free Electronics for Aerospace and Defense.” Fred’s talk discussed the work that went into the “Manhattan Project.” A free download of the entire project report is available.

There appears to be agreement that acceptable lead-free reliability has been established for consumer products with lifetimes of five years or so, but not for military/aerospace electronics where lifetimes can be up to 40 years and under harsh service conditions. These vast product lifetime and consequences of failure differences are depicted in Fred’s chart (see the pdf link). Commercial products are in quadrant A and military/aerospace products in quadrant D.

One of the greatest risks faced by quadrant D products is tin whiskers. Fred spent quite a bit of time discussing this interesting phenomenon. One of the challenges of this risk is that there is no way to accelerate it, so you can’t do an equivalent test to accelerated thermal cycling or drop shock. Fred mentioned that there have now been verified tin whisker fails, the Toyota accelerator mechanism being one.

In addition to tin whiskers, lead-free reliability for quadrant D products (with a service life of up to 40 years) in thermal cycle and other areas remains a concern.  I mention that tin pest was not on the list of issues for this quadrant.

Fred and the Manhattan Project Team have identified many “gaps” that need to be addressed to determine and mitigate the risk of lead-free assembly for quadrant D products.  They plan to start this approximately $100 million program in 2013.

For those that missed this free workshop, another is planned in about six months.


Dr. Ron

‘Hot’ Blog!

Today we added a link to ProfilingGuru.com, a new blog launched by the good folks at KIC Thermal. As the name suggests, the blog — and it’s really more informative than that — covers tips on profiling.

You may recognize the names behind it: Mike Limberg, who has been kicking around our industry for some 20 years between Intel, Seika USA and KIC. He estimates he has worked on on hundreds, if not thousands, of production lines.

His partner in crime is the funny and energetic Brian O’Leary, Americas Sales Manager at KIC. Brian has worked for KIC and Sono-Tek, and the pair teamed up on the recently published 2009 Profiling Guide, an entertaining and informative guide for the reflow process.

Check it out.