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Trends in Surface Mount Technology and Its Relevance with PCB Surface Finish

It is necessary to mass-produce electronic circuit boards in a highly mechanical manner for ensuring the lowest cost of manufacturing. Traditional through-hole electronic components with leads did not lend themselves to this approach. Therefore, since the 1980s, virtually all electronics hardware is being mass-produced using surface mount technology (SMT). Compared to the through-hole technology (THT) used earlier, the surface mount devices (SMD) associated with SMT offer several advantages in terms of manufacturability and performance.

Trends in Surface Mount Packaging

Almost all electronic components are available in forms suitable for surface mounting. SMDs do not have long leads that necessitates passing through the printed circuit board (PCB). Rather, they have very short leads that can be soldered directly to the copper pads on the PCB. Manufacturers use different types of SMD packaging, with the evolution tending towards increasing package and pin densities.

The popular dual in line (DIP) packaging for ICs with two rows of pins for soldering has now diverged into the PGA, QFP, and TSOP type SMD packages. Compared to DIP, these packages have improved on the packaging density enormously. However, modern electronic equipment design demands even higher densities. As a consequence, we now see extremely dense SMD packaging in the form of BGAs, LQFPs, and TCPs. Now, SMD packages are converging towards chip scale packaging (CSP) types, offering better heat dissipation, higher package densities, and increased flexibility.

This trend towards miniaturization is visible for other passive components as well. All types of resistors, capacitors, and inductors are now available in small SMD packages. For instance, although the 0603 and 0402 packages are most commonly used, smaller sizes of 0201 are also available.

Trends in Soldering Techniques for SMT

Most countries have realized the hazards of using the element Lead in electronic equipment, and as a result, the use of lead and tin combination for production and use of solder has almost stopped. Instead, the industry now uses various forms of lead-free solder, although these have more stringent process requirements.

With the advent of new types of SMD packages, the trend in soldering techniques is also evolving. From the commonly used wave soldering for through-hole devices, the trend is towards use of non-contact soldering using infrared and hot gas reflow methods for SMDs.

Trends in Machinery for SMT

Mass production and high mechanization has replaced manual insertion of through-hole components with sophisticated pick-and-place machines for SMD components. These take the form of precision nozzles, intelligent feeder systems, multi-functional mounters, and 3-D molded interconnect devices.

Apart from advances in automated machinery used for SMT, the introduction of special SMD packages such as BGAs has necessitated use of specialized equipment for inspection of PCBs after assembly. Since it is visually impossible to inspect the underside of a BGA chip after it has been soldered, it is necessary to use X-rays to inspect the soldering. With high volumes of production and miniaturization, it is nearly impossible to inspect PCBs manually after assembly. Therefore, the current trend is towards in-circuit testers (ICT) and computerized automated test equipment using high-resolution digital cameras and special algorithms.

Relevance of Surface Finish of PCBs with SMT

The solderable surfaces of a PCB need protection from oxidation while the PCB moves from manufacturing to assembly. Oxidization of the copper surface prevents formation of a good solder joint. Quality of the surface finish affects first pass yield (FPY) and the final product reliability. Primary reasons for this involve non-uniform surface finish and poor solderability. Although there are other known factors for poor FPY, but surface finish issues are the main.

Typical surface finishes manufacturers use are:

  • Hot Air Solder Leveling (HASL)
  • Organic Solderability Preservatives (OSP)
  • Immersion Silver (ImAg)
  • Immersion Tin (ImSn)
  • Electroless Nickel/Immersion Gold (ENIG)
  • Electroless Nickel Electroless Palladium Immersion Gold (ENEPIG)

Hot Air Solder Leveling (HASL) is the most common PCB finish, for both lead and lead-free compositions of solder. The process involves application of molten solder to the exposed pads in a vertical or horizontal panel orientation, with excess solder being blown away with a forced hot air knife. The typical thickness of HASL solder on the copper pad ranges from 0.3-1.5 mil, melting at 183°C for lead solder and at 228°C for lead-free solder, with a typical 12-month shelf life.

However, for HDI applications, the HASL process presents a highly variable topography, or inconsistent surface planarity because of the formation of solder beads/balls not conducive to SMT, especially for QFP and BGA packages. In addition, depending on the alloy used for lead-free solder, the HASL process may be aggressive on copper, reducing the shelf life. While the thermal shock may cause warping of the PCB, there can be PTH diameter issues and bridging of fine pitch traces with solder mask residue preventing HASL from flowing. In addition, contamination on the surface of the copper or resin residue on the laminate may cause poor bonding.

Organic Solderability Preservatives (OSP) is a low-cost transparent coating of organic material, which preserves the copper surface from oxidation until assembly. The process involves application in a dip tank with the PCB in a vertical position, or the use of a conveyorized chemical process, which leaves a very thin coating of the material, typically 100-4000 Angstroms thick. Although OSP is a flat, reliable planar surface, well suited to BGA and QFP packages, the shelf life is rather low, being typically 6 months or lower.

OSP is difficult to inspect, and does not stand multiple reflows very well. This raises questions of reliability of exposed copper pads after assembly. As OSP is not conductive, ICT test pads need to be soldered.

Immersion Silver (ImAg) is a metallic solderability preservative, and the process deposits 8-15 micro inches of nearly pure silver on the copper surface. Although it provides a flat, planar surface, excellent solderability, and about 6-12 months of shelf life, immersion silver is sensitive to handling, packaging, electrical tests, and suffers from creep corrosion from salt and sulfur in the environment.

Immersion Tin (ImSn) forms an intermetallic joint with copper to provide a uniform, dense coating with excellent hole-wall lubricity. As it is possible to engineer immersion tin to be non-porous and with very fine grain, it is the top choice for backplane panel assemblies requiring press-fit pin insertions.

However, immersion tin has a shelf life of 6 months, and is sensitive to handling. In addition, processing of immersion tin requires using Thiourea, a carcinogen with environmental issues.

Electroless Nickel Immersion Gold (ENIG) is a complicated chemical process, involving nickel plating over the copper pad and subsequent gold plating over the nickel. The gold layer prevents the nickel from oxidizing during storage, while also providing low contact resistance, good wetting for solder, and excellent shelf life of typically 12 months. The flat planar surface is well suited for fine pitch devices such as BGA and QFP. Being conductive, ENIG offers good ICT contacts.

However, ENIG is an expensive process, with non-wetting issues if the process has not been executed properly. Slow intermetallic growth can result in poor joint reliability and strength.

Electroless Nickel Electroless Palladium immersion Gold (ENEPIG) is another complicated chemical process, involving depositing electroless nickel on the copper surface, followed by a coating of electroless palladium layer, topped with a layer of immersion gold. The triple layer helps to form a superior solder joint with lead-free solder. As the process allows a thinner layer of gold, the process is less expensive when compared to ENIG, although the extra process step offsets this. The flat planar surface suits fine pitch devices such as BGA and QFPs. As the shelf life is typically 12 months, ENEPIG is the fastest growing surface finish.


PCB manufacturers prefer ENIG and ENEPIG to others because of the relative advantages the two techniques offer, although between the two, their advantages vary. ENIG is suitable for SMT, especially for BGA and other fine pitch components. The technology works well for lead-free soldering, and is highly reliable, which is why the flex PCB market prefers ENIG.

On the other hand, ENEPIG has a much wider acceptance and is suitable for multiple types of packages including THT, SMT, wire bonding, press fit, and more. Apart from being suitable for fine-pitch SMD components such as BGA and QFPs, ENEPIG is applicable to PCBs with different manufacturing technologies, requiring higher densities and reliability.

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