Risk Priority and Tin Whiskers


Tin whiskers continue to generate considerable interest. People often suggest that their risk is great and yet unknowable. RPN may help to clarify the TW risk. What is RPN? It is the risk priority number from failure mode and effect analysis.

As this link tells us:

A failure modes and effects analysis (FMEA), is a procedure in product development and operations management for analysis of potential failure modes within a system for classification by the severity and likelihood of the failures. A successful FMEA activity helps a team to identify potential failure modes based on past experience with similar products or processes, enabling the team to design those failures out of the system with the minimum of effort and resource expenditure, thereby reducing development time and costs. It is widely used in manufacturing industries in various phases of the product life cycle and is now increasingly finding use in the service industry.

RPN is an important part of FMEA. It is the product of three numbers that range from 1 to 10. The first number is the severity (S) of a possible fail. A “10” would be given if the failure injured someone, “7” would be assigned if the failure caused a high degree of customer dissatisfaction, whereas a “2” would be given if the failure has only minor negative effects.

The second number is occurrence (O) of a fail. The highest rating is a “10,” which would be a failure every day (reminds me of Windows ME!) or one fail in 3 events, whereas a “7” would be a failure every month or one in 100 events. A “2” is a six sigma fail rate.

The last number is detection (D) of a potential fail. A”10” would suggest that the detection of a potential fail is either not performed or not possible. A “7” is a manual detection approach that may not be reliable, whereas a “2” is 100% effective potential failure inspection.

So obviously a product with a RPN of 10 x 10 x 10 = 1000 is a disaster, its failure is dangerous, frequent and incapable of being detected beforehand. Industry rules of thumb suggest that and RPN of 200 needs to be addressed and an RPN of 75 is usually considered acceptable.

Let’s look at a “ball park” RPN for tin whiskers. We will assume the application is a critical IC in a PC. Let’s assume that a severity rating of “S” of 8 (failure renders the unit unfit for use) is reasonable. TW are hard to inspect for future fails, so detection, “D,” could be as high as a 10. At this point we are at 8 times 10 equals 80 for both. A bad start.

Occurrence (“O”) for TW failure modes is dramatically different. When trying to assess the occurrence of TW fails, one is often directed to NASA’s web page . Many reference this web site that lists a little more than a score of TW fails. What escapes me is that people don’t seem to appreciate the rarity of less than 100 fails in decades of data collection. Surely TW fails are not common. I could find no report of a failure of a RoHS compliant product anywhere on the internet. So it would be hard to rate “O” any higher than a “2.” I suspect that the reason few TW fails have apparently occurred is due to TW mitigation techniques that are widely practiced.

I would expect that “modern” process defects like the head-in-pillow or graping defects could have a much higher RPN than TW, if assembled without proper process controls and materials. However, there is little need to worry about these defects either, if you use the right solder paste and practice some assembly process precautions.