Screaming Circuits: PCB Finishes

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, 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

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 oCopper filled via bulgever at the board fab house.

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. BGA on HASL close

Duane Benson
Fight Uni

To Lead or not to Lead. That is the question

Back at the Embedded Systems Conference in September, I had a number of folks ask me about mixing leaded and lead-free components on a PCB. It's a difficult situation for some people - especially when using old and very new BGA form-factor components.

We generally tell people to follow the BGA. Since the BGA has those little solder balls on it, it's the most sensitive to temperature as far as soldering is concerned. Reflow a leaded BGA at no-lead temperatures and the flux may all burn off and the solder may sag down too far and bridge or dry and crack. Do the reverse and reflow a no-lead BGA at leaded temps and you won't get a good intermetalic mix and the solder joint will be prone to cracking and other bad stuff.

In most cases no-lead components, other than BGAs can be used on a leaded board. Going the other way isn't always so easy though because of the additional 20 degrees C in the no-lead process. Everything's more sensitive to moisture absorption so baking parts or keeping them sealed in moisture-free packaging is more important. Some components may melt, especially chip LEDs. And metal can capacitors can pop.

In a prototype world, where you just need to see if something works, you can sometimes get away with a lot more than you can in production, but it's still not an easy question to answer. Unfortunately if you're in the situation of one of the guys that asked about it and have one leaded BGA and one no-lead BGA, you may have to get one of the BGAs re-balled or you may just need to redesign on of them out. No easy answer there.

Duane Benson
My 24 hours is almost come
When I to sulphrous and tormenting flames
Must reflow up myself