Wave soldering is a large-scale soldering process by which electronic components are soldered to a printed circuit board (PCB) to form an electronic assembly. The name is derived from the use of waves of molten solder to attach metal components to the PCB. The process uses a tank to hold a quantity of molten solder; the components are inserted into or placed on the PCB and the loaded PCB is passed across a pumped wave or waterfall of solder. The solder wets the exposed metallic areas of the board (those not protected with solder mask, a protective coating that prevents the solder from bridging between connections), creating a reliable mechanical and electrical connection. The process is much faster than manual soldering of components.
Wave soldering is used for both through-hole printed circuit assemblies, and surface mount. In the latter case, the components are glued by the placement equipment onto the printed circuit board surface before being run through the molten solder wave.
As through-hole components have been largely replaced by surface mount components, wave soldering has been supplanted by reflow soldering methods in many large-scale electronics applications. However, there is still significant wave soldering where SMT is not suitable (e.g., large power devices and high pin count connectors), or where simple through-hole technology prevails (certain major appliances).
- 1 Wave solder process
- 2 Process Characteristics
- 3 Fluxing
- 4 Preheating
- 5 Soldering
- 6 Cleaning
- 7 Finish and Quality
- 8 Geometrical Possibilities
- 9 Process monitoring
- 10 Fixtures
- 11 Solder types
- 12 Effects of wave soldering
- 13 Effects of cooling rate
- 14 Thermal profiling
- 15 See also
- 16 References
- 17 Further reading
Wave solder process
There are many types of wave solder machines; however, the basic components and principles of these machines are the same. A standard wave solder machine consists of three zones: the preheating zone, the fluxing zone, and the soldering zone. An additional fourth zone, cleaning, is used depending on the type of flux applied. The basic equipment used during the process is a conveyor that moves the PCB through the different zones, a pan of solder used in the soldering process, a pump that produces the actual wave, the sprayer for the flux and the preheating pad. The solder is usually a mixture of metals. A typical solder has the chemical makeup of 50% tin, 49.5% lead, and 0.5% antimony.
The following are characteristics of the wave soldering process:
- The solder connection is very reliable and also a clean connection
- The process is automated
- The process reuses the flux and solder that is left over
- It does require inspection, some touch ups, and also testing
- The productivity and efficiency is increased
Flux in the wave soldering process has a primary and a secondary objective. The primary objective is to clean the components that are to be soldered, principally any oxide layers that may have formed  or any organic contaminants. The second objective is to work well with the masking on the printed circuit board to ensure the proper surface tension relationship (which helps to avoid unwanted residues). The PCB first enters the fluxing zone, where a fluxer applies flux to the underside of the board. Three types of fluxers are used: spray fluxers, foam fluxers, and rotary fluxers (least common).
Some spray fluxers consist of a robotic arm which travels from side to side while spraying a fine mist of flux onto the bottom side of the board. Other spray fluxers consist of a stationary bar with a series of nozzles that spray a fine mist. There are also additional ones that can consist of a single stationary ultrasonic nozzle and/or an reciprocating ultrasonic nozzle. Some systems will then use compressed air to remove excess flux or to completely remove flux from some areas.
The foam fluxer consists of a tank of flux into which a plastic cylinder with tiny holes is immersed; this is sometimes called a "stone". The plastic cylinder is covered with a metal chimney. Air is passed through this cylinder which causes flux foam to rise up the chimney, forming a cascading head of foam. As the PCB passes over the foam head, flux is applied to the PCB.
For either flux application method, precise control of flux quantities is required. Too little flux will cause poor joints, while too much flux may cause cosmetic, cleanliness, or other problems. An air knife can be used to ensure flux is evenly applied to the bottom of the circuit board and to remove excess flux. Also, the types of flux affect the end result. There are two types of flux, corrosive and noncorrosive. Noncorrosive flux requires precleaning and is used when low acidity is required. Corrosive flux is quick and requires little precleaning, but has a higher acidity.
Once fluxed, the PCB enters the preheating zone. The preheating zone consists of convection heaters which blow hot air onto the PCB to increase its temperature. For thicker or densely populated PCBs, an upper preheater might be used. The upper preheater is usually an infrared heater.
Preheating is necessary to activate the flux, and to remove any flux carrier solvents. Preheating is also necessary to prevent thermal shock. Thermal shock occurs when a PCB is suddenly exposed to the high temperature of the molten solder wave.
The tank of molten solder has a pattern of standing waves (or, in some cases, intermittent waves) on its surface. When the PCB is moved over this tank, the solder waves contact the bottom of the board, and stick to the solder pads and component leads via surface tension. Precise control of wave height is required to ensure solder is applied to all areas but does not splash to the top of the board or other undesired areas. This process is sometimes performed in an inert nitrogen (N2) atmosphere to increase the quality of the joints. The presence of N2 also reduces oxidization known as solder dross.
Solder dross, its reduction and elimination, is a growing industry concern as lead soldering is being replaced by lead-free alternatives at significantly higher cost. Dross eliminators are entering the market and may hold some solutions for this concern.
Some types of flux, called "no-clean" fluxes, do not require cleaning; their residues are benign after the soldering process. Others, however, require a cleaning stage, in which the PCB is washed with solvents and/or deionized water to remove flux residue.
Finish and Quality
Quality depends on proper temperatures when heating and on properly treated surfaces.
|Cracks||Mechanical Stress||Loss of Conductivity|
Lack of flux
|Reduction in strength
|Wrong solder thickness||Wrong solder temperature
Wrong conveyor speed
|Susceptible to stress
Too thin for current load
|Poor Conductor||Contaminated solder||Product Failures|
The typical range of the wire diameter used in wave soldering is about 0.01 in, but the feasible range is from 0.001 in to 0.1 in. The PC board is usually anywhere from about 2 in to 10 in. But it also has a much larger feasible range of about 0.5 in to 600 in.
Due to the precise requirements needed for wave soldering, the soldering equipment must be closely monitored. Common tests include visually inspecting boards for signs of problems such as:
Bridging — if the wave is too high or too low then the board will not make proper contact with the wave and it can lead to undesirable bridging, causing short circuits. Ventilation does not affect the boards' quality, but if the ventilation in the machine is poor, the fumes from the flux as it goes through the pre-heat can lead to a fire, in which case a foam or powder extinguisher should be used. Due to the extreme temperatures of the wave when it comes into contact with the water, the water flashes off so rapidly it can cause splashes or solder jumping into the air with heights up to 1 meter or even more.
Smearing — another flux related problem, is caused by not enough flux being applied during the fluxing stage. Solder sticks to the board and causes streaking. Quality assurance often includes a resistance test, to make sure no flux or other deposits cause conduction between traces, halide content tests to check for proper flux activation, and others. In modern equipment, virtually all control of the process is computerized, with little human interaction needed to monitor and adjust the equipment.
Some defects may occur during the soldering process. Cracks occur due to mechanical stress and can cause loss of conductivity. Cavities, the presence of which is also known as porosity, is caused from either contaminated surfaces, lack of flux, or insufficient heating. Decrease in strength and conductivity is the result. If the wrong solder thickness is produced, the product may be susceptible to stress, or too thin for the load placed upon it. This can be caused by the wrong temperature being used or wrong conveyor speed.
The printed circuit board with through-hole components on top of the board and/or surface mount components glued on the bottom side are sometimes placed on a fixture. The fixture is a fiberglass composite or titanium frame with openings exposing the components to be soldered. Wave solder fixtures are required for PCBs where bottom side components cannot be exposed to the solder, or the board is either too small or has a non rectangular shape and cannot be 'picked up' by the titanium fingers. The fixtures can also be used to incorporate clamping and alignment devices designed to hold components in place and prevent 'lifting' of the components as the leads hit the wave, whilst ensuring correct vertical alignment. In some cases fixtures are also used to reduce changeover time by having fixtures of the same width for different assemblies. This way no changes are needed for the conveyor of the wave solder. The fixture is then placed on a conveyor which will carry the PCB through the machine. The conveyor consists of titanium fingers. Titanium is used because solder will not adhere to this metal.
The introduction of RoHS and the subsequent development of lead free solder (which has a much higher melting point than conventional solder), has caused problems for the manufacturers of material used in fixtures. The higher temperatures causes resin burn out which, in turn, compromises the structural integrity of the fixture. This has created a significant challenge to some manufacturers of both the material and fixtures. Recently fixtures manufactures have introduced higher temperature resistant materials to deal with these challenges. A move from FR4 fiberglass to composite materials has already been made.
Although there are many different types of solder that can be used in wave soldering, tin/lead-based solders are the most common. However, these types of solder are quickly being replaced by lead-free solder. Tin/lead-based solder is highly toxic, and government regulations regarding all lead products are becoming increasingly strict. Workers dealing with tin/lead-based solder can be contaminated at work or carry it home on their clothes, where it can cause contamination. Lead-free solder provides a solution to this problem, but it also has its own set of problems that must be taken into consideration.
Lead adheres best to copper. The next best metals to use are nickel, brass, aluminum, tungsten, and lastly steel.
Lead-free solder problems
In addition to higher material costs, lead-free solder has a higher melting point, slower flow rates, and can sometimes cause leaching in the iron components. Higher melting points and decreased flow rates require a longer contact period (4 – 6 seconds) between the solder and the connections in order for the solder to completely fill the holes. Higher melting points also require a melting pot made of more stable material. The melting pot and ducts also need to be made from material that will prevent dissolution. Replacing those parts in a typical wave soldering machine can cost up to $25,000.
Common solder compositions
Different combinations of tin, lead and other metals are used to create solder. The combinations used depend on the desired properties. The most popular combination is 63% tin, 37% lead. This combination is strong, has a low melting range, and melts and sets quickly. Higher tin compositions gives the solder higher corrosion resistances, but raises the melting point. Another common composition is 11% tin, 37% lead, 42% bismuth, and 10% cadmium. This combination has a low melting point and is useful for soldering components that are sensitive to heat. (Todd p. 395)
Effects of wave soldering
Cracks in the solder can occur and are usually caused by stress on the solder and can cause a loss of conductivity. Cavities, pores in the solder, can be caused by contaminated surfaces, insufficient flux, and insufficient preheating. Cavities can reduce strength and conductivity. Improper solder temperature or conveyor speed can cause an undesired thickness. If the solder is too thin, then it is susceptible to stress and may not support the required load. If it is too thick, then unwanted shorts and bridging can occur. Poor conduction in the solder can be caused by contaminated solder and can cause the product to be dysfunctional.
Excess heat can cause the circuit board to delaminate, become brittle, and become warped. Excess heat can also damage components that are sensitive to heat.
Effects of cooling rate
It is important that the PCBs be allowed to cool at a reasonable rate. If they are cooled too fast, then the PCB can become warped and the solder can be compromised. On the other hand if the PCB is allowed to cool too slowly, then the PCB can become brittle and some components may be damaged by heat. The PCB should be cooled by either a fine water spray or air cooled to decrease the amount of damage to the board.
Thermal profiling is the act of measuring several points on a circuit board to determine the thermal excursion it takes through the soldering process. In the electronics manufacturing industry, SPC (Statistical Process Control) helps determine if the process is in control, measured against the reflow parameters defined by the soldering technologies and component requirements. 
- Seeling, Karl (1995). A study of lead-free alloys. AIM, 1, Retrieved April 18, 2008, from http://www.aimsolder.com/techarticles/A%20Study%20of%20Lead-Free%20Solder%20Alloys.pdf
- Biocca, Peter (2005, April 5). Lead-free wave soldering. Retrieved April 18, 2008, from EMSnow Web site: http://www.emsnow.com/npps/story.cfm?ID=10669