How to do reflow-type soldering at home

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What to do when you need to mount a ball-grid array (BGA) package on a circuit board without sophisticated equipment? One popular option is to create something called a “reflow oven” which is able to control your circuit boards temperature with respect to time. The idea behind reflow soldering is that we may want to apply a thin layer of solder paste (solder with flux) over the exposed pads on a printed circuit board, then place all of the surface-mount components on that side, and then heat the board so the solder melts and the components become electrically attached. This is pretty much the only method for attaching components whose pads are completely on the underside making them inaccessible to soldering irons. The temperature profile is fairly standardized (here, here and here) and consists of first removing any excess moisture from the packages, then ramping up to the temperature required to melt the solder, then to cool off in a safe manner that prevents component or joint damage. It should be noted that these temperature profiles aim to limit the time components spend at elevated temperatures (>250C) to minimize the risk of damage due to heat.

What I am proposing is something much simpler: lets use a hot  plate to heat the PCB and achieve the same sort of reflow process. The main disadvantage is that the process is much less controlled and the dimensions of the board must be small enough to fit on the hotplate. The primary benefits are its simplicity. I am fortunate enough to have a hotplate which has a thermocouple to the surface and can measure the surface temperature with some degree of proficiency, so an alternate method will be required for other types. Some kind of infra-red measurement method would probably work well.

The idea is that we first apply solder paste to the board, when necessary. In this example, I am mounting a MICROSMD8 package where there is ample solder on the board and the chip to achieve connection. It is often a good idea to put some clean-free flux on the board in any case. Everything is first pre-heated for ten minutes at 50-80C to get rid of some of the moisture. The assembly is then heated to about 230C. At this point, the chips should already be aligned over the target pads. The reason for this temperature is that unlike the oven, the top surface of the PCB is exposed to air and thereby creates a thermal gradient. We need to control the heat on the top surface so that the solder just barely melts. This can be noted when watching the PCB under a microscope or with a magnifying glass as the solder will become very shiny when it melts.  As the solder melts on the chips and PCB, the surface tension will pull the chip into alignment. The whole assembly can then be slowly cooled and tested electrically. When populating larger projects, it is best to put on the larger chips first and then place something to act as a heat-sink on top. I have had success with larger DSP chips where I placed inverted bolts on top to radiate away some of their heat while adjusting other components. Finally, don’t forget that a cold PCB looks the same as a hot one, so be sure to avoid burning yourself.

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