PCB Planarity, Not Polarity

Via-in-pad can ruin a manufacturer’s whole day. Or, if properly done, can go completely unnoticed. There are a number of ways to properly put a via in a pad but the best is to have it filled and plated over at the board fab house.Copper filled via bulge

Copper filled via droop If you do that, check with them on their planarity standards. If they don’t hold tight, you can end up with a  dip or a bump where the via is. Neither of those are as big a  problem as an open via, but they can still lead to some difficulties.

Speaking of bumps, the old standby, HASL, generally leaves bumps on the pads too. And, across the span of a BGA, the bumps can vary in size and shape. That’s not such a good thing either. If you’re designing with a fine-pitch BGA, you might want to consider a flatter surface such as ENIG or immersion silver.

Duane Benson
Fight Uni

Random Via-in-Pad Myth #7

Myth #7: In regards to via-in-pad, all PCB finishes are the same


Well, it might seem so, but let’s look a little closer. No. Not that close. Back the camera up a bit.

Here’s a good example: In some cases, it’s okay to seal off the via with soldermask on the opposite side of the board. It’s not the optimal way to do it, but when the geometries aren’t that small, it can work. It needs to be a part where voiding isn’t an issue, because the solder may still go down the via and cause some of those voids. “Void” may be accepted in C code, but it’s usually bad form in a PCB.

Getting back to the subject… Immersion silver gives a nice smooth surface. It’s fairly easy to solder and provided the boards are used promptly or stored properly, it’s a good RoHS choice.

BGA via in pad Silver But, it’s not a good choice for a situation where you cap a via with soldermask on the underside of the PCB. The immersion silver finish will likely out-gas a bit and when contained, as in the sealed off space between the solder on the top and the soldermask on the bottom, that outgassing can be corrosive and lead to reliability issues sometime during the life of the product. So if you do need to have vias that are capped on the bottom side, you should consider a surface finish other than immersion silver.

Duane Benson
No more silver on Walden Pond


Another Via-in-Pad Reason

Just the other day — no not that one; the other one — I was reading through some of the open source Beagleboard information again and I came across an interesting tid bit. In one of the early revisions, they had some issues with SMT connectors ripping off the board. The pads detached from the board. I know that’s not  a common issue, but it does happen.

BB Empty pcb via in connector pads

Their solution was to put vias in the pads to strengthen the connection between the pads and the PCB. I hadn’t thought of that, but it makes perfect sense. Note the four dimples in each of the pads on the audio connector footprint in the image above. Also note that they are small and closed off.

If you are concerned about losing your SMT connectors, you might want to consider the via-in-pad solution. Please cap or plug them, though.

Duane Benson
Who plays pinochle on your heart?


Via in Pad – Tenting the Bottom Side

Speaking of vias in pads, here’s a reason we’re not terribly fond of the technique of using solder mask to tent the bottom side of a via in a BGA pad.

As I mentioned in my last post, capping the bottom of the via with soldermask is sometimes an acceptable method for dealing with a via in pad. It’s not a desirable method, but it does sometimes work. However, with BGAs, the top-open via can still wick solder down to fill the space. At the very least, you will end up with a hefty void in the BGA solder ball. At worst, you will end up with an open, as illustrated here.

Best option: Fill and plate over the via.

Duane Benson
Does cheap mass production = this perfect day?


Large Via In Pad

I haven’t written about via in pad in a while, but the issue hasn’t quite gone away yet. This particular QFN, below, has the vias tented, which is good. However, it could be better. If you look close, you’ll see that they’re tented on the bottom of the board with solder mask.

Tenting on the bottom will usually prevent solder spillage out on the back side of the PCB, but with vias this large, the solder will probably flow down into the space, leaving quite a bit of voiding under the part. Sometimes outgassing will pop open the little tents too causing the spillage. And with immersion silver boards, outgassing can cause corrosion in the vias if you have the bottom tented and the top also sealed — like by the part.

If it’s a low speed, low temperature QFN that just needs a little ground connection to the center pad, that voiding might not matter. But, in most cases with QFNs, you need minimal voiding for thermal or noise reasons.

The best option for manufacturability is always to have the vias filled and plated over at the board house, but that can be expensive. If you are going to tent with solder mask, this next image illustrates the three ways to do it.

A is the best: a cap on the component side about 100 to 125 microns bigger than the via. B, a larger cap on the component side, or C, a cap on the bottom, will also work but both come with a greater risk of excessive voiding.

Duane Benson
Do solder mask tents need a rain fly?
In Oregon – probably yes.


More Thoughts on Via Near Pad

The other day, I wrote about vias near pads. The post got a couple of interesting comments.

In one of the comments, Mitch said, “When I was learning PCB design in the 1980s, I was taught by a mentor that understood assembly very well.” I think that highlights a big component of the problem. I suspect that a lot of folks doing layout today were not taught by anyone but themselves.

CAD packages may have instruction manuals and tutorials, but learning how to use a software package is a lot different than learning how to do the actual process well. It’s possible to be very proficient at using a word processor, but still not know how to write well.

It’s not an uncommon scenario these days, especially after the economic suckiness of last year, to come in to work expecting to hand off a schematic to the layout engineer only to find that “tag you’re it.”

Howard, in another comment, suggested that in his experience, filling and plating over vias in pads typically only adds about 8% to the PCB cost. In smaller prototype quantities, it may be a little more then that, but what’s the cost of a failed assembly? If you have the room to move the vias off the pads, the only cost may be in layout time. If space is critical or if there are signal/noise/thermal issues that force the vias to be in the pads, then you’ll just have to spend the extra to fill and plate.

If you do find yourself suddenly tasked with layout and you’ve never done one before, find a mentor (or maybe a Minotaur), read up online, call up a manufacturing person, study the Screaming Circuits blog. What ever you do, figure out all these little traps like vias in pad, components library foot print issues, spacing issues, thermal issues, etc. Then dive into the layout and learn from each one. Drink some tea too. It can relax you. Just try to stay away from Oreos and ice cream late at night.

Duane Benson
What’s the deal with 1729?


Parts Substitution Gone Big

I’ve mentioned some cautions with parts substitutions before; wrong V values on barrier or flyback diodes, counterfeit parts and things like that. Here’s another example of something to watch out for if your supply is tight and choices are limited.

One of the things that I’ve run across a couple times, especially when hunting down capacitors, is the package size issue. Say, I need a 16uf, 10V cap on one of my boards. It’s not a critical app. I don’t particularly care about ESR, temperature or even much about tolerance. I just need a little head room in case of minor spikes or power line ripple. I’m not expecting a lot. I just want that safety margin.

But when I run over to my parts supplier, the specific cap I picked two weeks ago, when I started the design, is out of stock or jumped in price. I want to get building, so I just look through my parts drawers for something close. There it is, a 22uf, 50V. It’ll still work just fine. The problem is, of course, that I neglected to realize that the part  jumped up a notch in size. Bummer days.

I’ve run across the same problem, not due to a sloppy sub, but also due to picking the wrong footprint in my CAD package. I find that particularly easy to do with SMT electrolytic caps.

The other thing in these examples to watch out for is the open vias next to the pads. Granted, they aren’t in the pads, but they are close and without any kind of a break in the metal before the via. In the left pad of the yellow tantalum cap, I added in an example of a little solder mask dam between the pad and the via. That’s the way you should do it. Even though the vias are off pad, solder can still wick away and down the via – especially with leaded solder. Bad news if that happens.

Duane Benson
Have no fear, Underdog is here…


Via-In-Pad — Let It Slide?


Sometimes, you can get by with vias in your pads. Sometimes, but not very often. I wrote about this a while back here. The thing is, I was talking about big pads — like QFN or QFP thermal pads and stuff like that. We never like to see it and it’s always a manufacturing risk at some level, but as described in the earlier post, sometimes you can just roll with it.

Pretty much never with a BGA pad, though. The picture above shows just about a worst-case scenario. Very big. Very bad. Relatively very big holes anyway. (This is for a 0.5 mm pitch Bluetooth module BGA.)

The vias in the image below worked okay with a QFP because they’re really small — practically closed up — and it was Pb-free solder.

We still wouldn’t want to see a via, even that small, in a BGA pad though. Process variations leave enough opportunity for a few of the vias to be open all the way through and even if one BGA ball gets sucked off the BGA, you’re out of luck. Even if it’s just partially sucked off and still connected, it’s much more susceptible to cracking and things like that. (By the way, we did find a way to build the board on the left and make it work. We won’t guarantee that we can make something like this work though.)

A lot of fabricators will epoxy fill vias these days. Even microvias. And, yes, you should even have your microvias filled and plated. Especially with small BGAs. It’s just not worth all the risks that come along with it.

Duane Benson
We need little moles to fill those holes


On My Via-In-Pad Soapbox (Again)

There’s never enough time. There’s never enough money. There’s never enough room.

I certainly say those things often enough, and sometimes it’s actually true. But other times, I’m just not looking in the right places. Here’s a board that is pretty much plumb out of room. Everything is so tight that many of the vias have to be put in the pads. Well, maybe.

Take the IC footprint (above). It needs a via to take a couple of connected pads to the other side of the PCB, but there isn’t enough room between the IC and the part just below it. Naturally, the logical thing seemed to be to put the via in the pads. Unfortunately, doing so will make it difficult to get a good solder joint. The big open hole will wick solder down to the other side of the board.

At first glance there doesn’t seem to be anything to do. But upon closer examination, there is some unused space here. I’d just slide the part up a little, as in the illustration below.

Then move the via south a bit and connect it to the pads with a trace just long enough to accept some solder mask. The solder mask will stop the solder from chasing the via off the pad and getting sucked down.

Duane Benson
Some solder suckers sit South of Sunday