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Transitioning from Water-Soluble Solder Paste Flux to No-Clean Solder Paste Flux

I just visited a customer that was converting from water soluble solder paste to no-clean. Not exactly a slam dunk transition as this customer found out.

During my visit, solder balls and solder beads were observed in the no-clean flux residue adjacent to discrete components (capacitor/resistors). These could potentially be a reliability concern…electrical shorts.

In water soluble processes, solder defects such as solder balling and beading can be washed away in the cleaning process…no worries. However, introducing a no-clean solder paste often requires that the process be “cleaned” up a bit. Here are some ways to do it:

My first step was to investigate the stencil design for these discrete components. Why? Because, since water soluble post-reflow residues (including solder balls & beads) are washed away, many customers will opt to place as much solder (1:1 ratio) as possible on the pads - to achieve a good solder joint. This is especially true for military or medical applications where a robust solder joint fillet is vital. However, because no-clean residues are typically not cleaned, the solder balls and solder beads remain in the flux residue and may produce electrical shorts.

When printing in a 1:1 ratio, especially if the stencil is thicker than average, solder paste is often pushed under the component and onto the solder mask during component placement. Upon reflow, the sub-component solder paste may not pull back into the solder joint. This is one way that solder balls/solder beads are produced.

No one wants to hear that they need to buy new stencils with reduced apertures, but I did recommend, in this case, that some aperture reduction be considered (generally down to 0402 components). Usually a 10-15% reduction, with home-plate or similar design, is common. Many stencil manufacturers are fully aware of the issue and can make suggestions on aperture designs.

Simultaneously, the reflow profile often needs to be adjusted. In the preheat portion of the typical reflow profile, the first few oven zones are used to drive off flux volatiles, making the paste less "mobile". A balance in the ramp rate is vital; too fast - and small “explosions” may cause paste to spatter into other areas; too slow - and two bad things happen: the flux will spread excessively and the flux activity can be exhausted.

Good Starting Points:

COMMENT to share your solder paste transitioning story or question. Thanks!