Screaming Circuits: PCB Finishes


Fiducials and Odd PC Boards

One of the handy aspects of getting boards assembled at Screaming Circuits is that we don't require fiducial marks for standard process boards. I would say that we build far more boards without fiducials than with. That's cool, but there are sometimes when fiducials really are a good idea. In fact, if you've got room on the PC board, they're always a good idea (just because something isn't required, doesn't mean that it's not a good idea).

Some boards are more in need of the marks than others. For example, not long ago, we got a rigid flex board in. It had three separate rigid boards connected by flex, designed to be folded into a stack. It looked pretty similar to the mock up in this image. Rigid flex mockup

The boards didn't have any fiducial marks. Normally, what we do, is find a via hole, thru-hole pin hole, or some similar feature to use as a fiducial. That usually works, but not always. In this case, the length of the flex varied slightly from board to board. The PCB color was also very low contrast, which made it difficult for the machine to consistently recognize any mark we picked.

That meant our machines had a hard time finding the "home" spot, and we had to reset for each of the connected boards. Finding a spot on one board did not guarantee that we'd know where to place parts on the other two boards in the set.

In this case, it would have been far better if the boards were a consistent distance apart, and if each of the three boards had a set of fiducial marks.

What makes a good fidicual?

Most CAD packages have fiducial marks in their components library. Basically, it needs to be a metal dot surrounded by an area without any copper or solder mask. More than one is best. It should be an asymmetrical pattern that can only be oriented one way.

I've got some more details in this article here.

Duane Benson
Routedd up like a fiducial
Another rigid flex in the night

Happy St Patrick's Day!

In honor of St Patrick's day and all things green, I give you the PCB...

Badge800closeup

And some trivia. You may have noticed that the soldermask used on most PC boards is green, as is the paint used on most steel truss bridges. Why is that? And what do the two things have in common? Why green PCBs and why green bridges?

To answer, I brought in color expert expert Patty O'Patrick O'Dell, who stated: "Many bridges and PCBs are green because they absorb red and blue light, only reflecting the green."

That wasn't quite what I was getting at, but close enough. The important thing, is that, generally, in commercial products, the PC boards are hidden, so the color doesn't matter that much. With prototypes and a lot of the hobby or development boards, that is not the case, so many companies have chosen to use a different color as a part of their identity.

Arduino products are blue, as are most boards from Adafruit. SparkFun makes theirs red. Ti Launchpads are red as well. The Beaglebone uses color, essentially, as a model number; Beaglebone black, Beaglebone green. This is possible because major PC board fab houses have made different colors more economical than they used to be.

I've been asked if the color makes any difference electrically. In general, no. If you're dealing with super high speeds, RF, or other exotic conditions, it's always best to ask your board house. In those fringe areas, a lot of things have the potential to make a difference. Other than that, if you can afford it, and want to make a statement, go for it. You can often get different color silk screen legend too. Just make sure there's contrast between the two. White silkscreen on white soldermask would not be the best choice.

Duane Benson
Beware the monsters from Id

Proper PC board storage - The top three hazards

It's late. Do you know where your PC boards are? Let me rephrase that: Can unused PC boards be stored for future use?

Yes, they can - if stored properly. Keep them wrapped up, or sealed in a bag. Anti-static isn't necessary in this case, but it won't hurt. Keep them in a cool, dark place. Keep them clean. Do your best to avoid dropping them on the floor and stepping on them.

The board in this photo was left out on a desk for a while, and then shoved into a desk drawer. The environment took its toll on the immersion sliver finish, making it very much unusable.

Old Beagleboard

What can go wrong:

#1: Fingerprints: The oils on your finger can etch your fingerprints into ENIG or immersion silver PC board surfaces. If you plan on committing a crime, go ahead and do this so we can catch you. If you aren't going to start a life of crime, be careful to not get your fingerprints on the board surface. Handle on the edges, or at least, don't touch any exposed metal.

#2: Moisture: Moisture is good for your skin, but not for your PC boards. Over time, PCBs can absorb moisture, especially in a humid location, or the ocean. If thrown into a reflow oven, they then might laminate. Do your best to store boards in a dry environment. If stored for a long time, you may want to pre-bake them prior to use.

#3: Atmosphere: Sometimes dirty air can contribute to tarnish or corrosion on the exposed land pads. Dust can settle onto the boards as well. Tarnish and dust can usually be cleaned off, but corrosion can't. Wrap up your boards for long-term storage.

Treat your boards well and you can likely use them at a later date. Don't treat them well and you may need to replace them, wasting a bunch of money. Often, the damage isn't as clear as in the above photo, but could still lead to poor solderability.

Duane Benson
Don't surf on your silver

Panel Rails - What Are They?

I referred to "panel rails" in my blog about V-score panels, but I didn't explain the "whats" and whys" of panel rails. You might find yourself asking "what are panel rails and why would I want to use them?"

Well, first of all, for our Full-Proto service, we don't require panels or panel rails. We'll take just about any old board that's bigger than 0.75" x 0.75" and smaller than 14.5" x 19.5" and run it through our machines. For our short-run production service, we only require panelization for boards less than 16" sq.

That being said, panel rails do have a purpose. They give the machines a spot to grab onto without coming close to components. They're also a convenient place to put fiducials (more fiducial info here).

As you can see in the image below, the panels give a clear area for handling the panel.

Tab routed panel

There are two important things to note about this panel. First, look closely at the four outside corners. You can see the scoring for easy separation of the rails. This designer made sure that there isn't any copper where the scores are. That's the right way to do it. The V-Score blog shows a panel rail done the wrong way - with copper across the cut.

Next, this board has fiducials. Good. But, the fiducials are in a symmetrical pattern. Not so good. IPC-7351b-3-10 specifies a non-symmetrical pattern so that the board can only be processed in one orientation.

Duane Benson
Once I build a panel rail, now it's done
Brother can you spare a diode

Open The Pod Bay Doors, HASL

Does anyone use HASL (Hot Air Surface Leveling) anymore? It's also known as HAL.

Prior to the RoHS days, HASL was probably the most common surface finish. You can get it lead free, but most boards seem to use immersion silver or ENIG (Electroless Nickel Immersion Gold). HASL has traditionally come at a lower cost than those other two finishes, but immersion silver can generally be found at the same price now.

Our friends at Sunstone.com, for example, charge the same for silver and tin/lead HASL. ENIG is still more BGA on HASL closeexpensive no matter where you go though.

One of the chief disadvantages of HASL these days, is the lack of planarity on the surface. (Note the bumps on the BGA land pattern in the image on the right.) With thru-hole or large components, an uneven surface doesn't matter so much. With the increasingly smaller BGAs and QFNs, however, surface irregularities can cause big problems.

Both Immersion silver and ENIG have nice flat surfaces. OSP (Organic Surface Preservative) has a pretty flat surface too, but it's not used much except in high volume consumer goods or specialized applications.

By Duane Benson
Oh, the pain! Save me, William.

How not to trick your BGA friends

Continuing with yesterday's theme, I have a couple examples that should have been fine, but due to issues at the board house, improper storage or contamination, ended up very much not fine.

What is wrongBehind door number one, we have an OSP finish that will make you very unhappy. That's "Organic Solderability Preservatives" in long hand. I've also heard it called "Organic Surface Preservative", but close enough. It is a nice flat surface which is good for BGAs. Years ago, it had a reputation for being poor quality, "cheap", but newer formulas seem to work pretty good in both leaded and lead free. In this case, the darker pads were likely contaminated in some way - either at the board fab house or subsequently in handling.

Siver migration problemNext is the worst example of surface degradation I've ever seen. Yes, it's an extreme outlier case, but this is where a silver board can go if it wasn't built with the best quality control, was stored too long, was exposed to polluted air or other contamination and had bad luck. This board probably has all of those issues, but any one alone can be problematic. Silver board especially should be stored in a cool dark place; preferably sealed in the original packaging.

Duane Benson
OSP can also mean Oregon State Patrol, but they don't care about BGAs. Just safe driving.

How not to treat your BGA friends

Over the years, most of what we see are good PC boards. But some standout in the other direction as examples of what not to do. Some didn't make it through the board house alive. Some were unknowingly rendered useless in layout and some were just held on to too long or not stored properly.

Large BGA via in padIn this first image, we see a guaranteed not to work example. Open vias in BGA pads will ruin your whole day. And you can't just cap them with solder mask either. For BGAs, the only two via solutions are to have them filled and plated over at the board house, or not be in the pads at all. Having a via in a BGA pad is like trying to cook scrambled eggs over a camp fire without a skillet. The eggs will in fact cook, but they'll be all mixed in with the fire and coals and stuff and you won't be able to eat them.

BGAB mask issuesThis next guaranteed not to work example shows a valiant attempt at keeping the vias out of the pads. But, as we used to say on the playground: "close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades - and sometimes atom bombs." Here on the right, first, the mask registration is way off. That's not good but doesn't necessarily spell BGA death on its own. What will kill this assembly is the clear metal path between some of the pads and the vias. You need to have some soldermask blocking the metal path between the pad and the via. If you don't, it's almost as bad as putting the via in the pad. This board has a few places where there is a thin solder mask dam between the via and the pad. But, in the cases where there is no mask, the solder and solder ball will most likely migrate over to and down through the via.

Duane Benson
Close might also count with badgers.

Via Current Capacity

Over on the Circuits Assembly blog, Michael asked a question about my Via in Pad Myth #5. He asked:

"I have a question about vias. I have seen charts on the current carrying capacity of traces, but what about vias?"

That's a good question. I've heard that you first need to know the thickness of the via wall. Then, once you know that, you can calculate the trace-width equivalent for the via by using the formula for the circumference (diameter X pi ). For whatever number that gives you, compare the closest smaller trace width.

Via cross section My related questions to all of you PCB fabrication gurus out there are:

Since vias are not created in the same way as the trace plating is, can that simple formula be used? While the trace copper is laminated onto a nice smooth PCB surface, the vias are typically created by deposition of copper dust in the via and then electroplating more copper. Then the surface finish is applied to all of the exposed metal. The via walls would generally be rougher than the flat substrate surface. Does that have an impact on the current capacity of a via?

Further, since airflow will be somewhat restricted in a via relative to a surface, should the via effective width be compared to an internal trace instead of an exposed surface trace? Should it be a compromise between the two?

If you look closely at this via cross I pulled from Wikipedia, you can see that the via wall looks to be thinner that the traces. You'll have to make sure that your board fab house can give you an accurate thickness of the via wall.

Duane Benson
If you know the via current capacity, can you calculate the past and future capacity?

BGA Woes

Quite a few of the new chips I see coming out stick to the BGA or QFN form-factor. Sometimes they'll be referred to as WSP (wafer scale package) or CSP (chip scale package), but those are still just little BGAs. Some do show up in larger packages, but many of the really new designs seem to stick to these form-factors.

A few years back, we tended to see a lot of design problems related to regular, big BGAs (0.8mm or greater pitch). Things like black padmicrovoids and via in pad cropped up to cause proto-headaches. While those problems still show up from time to time, they have become much less frequent. No, we're seeing issues with the tiny ones - 0.5mm and 0.4mm BGAs, CSPs and WSPs.

With a big BGA, you can route to vias in between the pads. That's easy. With the small ones, especially 0.4mm, you can't. You have to put the vias in the pads. Of course, you have to fill and plate over the vias. Big BGAs tend to prefer non-soldermask defined pads (NSMD) while some of the 0.4mm BGAs require soldermask-defined (SMD) pads. A really flat surface is more important for the tiny parts too. Don't fear extra small parts, but you may need to do a bit more homework and relearn a few old rules-of-thumb.

Duane Benson
I'm solderin, I'm solderin, I'm solderin for you

Electronics Shelf Life

Do parts and PCBs have a shelf life? Well, yes and no. I have some 7400 series logic chips in DIP form 7400 TH that I bought back in 1980. Every now and then, I pull one out and put it into a proto board to test some circuit idea I've got. They still work thirty years later. I haven't taken any special care in storage either. Some are stuck into anti-static foam. Some are not. All are sitting in a mini-parts bin without any moisture protection. I guess they do get a little shielding from light, but basically, they're just hanging out. They've been, at various times, in the attic, in the basement, in the garage or in the house.

That may seem like good evidence refuting a shelf like for parts. And today's parts are even more robustly Bent pins in strip designed to start with. Still though, if I use any of those parts, it's generally in a proto board or a socket. Sometimes I have to straighten the leads a bit. A lot of things don't matter so much at low temperatures, low speeds, low volumes and large geometries.

It's different when you have fine pitch parts being picked up and placed by a robot and then run through a 10 stage reflow oven. Oxidation that doesn't matter for a socketed prototype can interfere with the solder adhesion. Bent pins or missing BGA balls can prevent the part from fitting. Moisture absorbed over time can make the chip act like a pop corn kernel when in the reflow oven.

That's not to say that you can't use old parts for a prototype these days. Just give them a good inspection before sending them off for assembly. And, if they're moisture sensitive parts or have been stored in high-humidity areas, consider having your assembly house bake them before assembly. The same goes for raw PCBs too. Overly moist PCBs can delaminate during reflow. Some PCB finishes such as immersion sliver and OSP can tarnish or degrade over time too.

Duane Benson
Archaeologists, we are not