Almost Fail of The Week: Doing Surface Mount Reflow Wrong In Every Possible Way and Still Succeeding

Sometimes the best way to learn is from the success of others. Sometimes failure is the best teacher. In this case we are learning from [Tim Trzepacz]’s successive failures in his attempt to solder one board to another using a reflow oven. They somehow cancelled each other out, and he ended up with a working board. For those of you who have used a reflow oven, there will be eye rolling.

[Tim]’s first mistake was to use regular solder instead of paste. We can see how he got there logically; if you hand solder an SMD you melt solder onto the pads first to make it easier. However, the result was that he had two boards that wouldn’t sit flat on each other thanks to the globs of solder on the pads.

Not to be deterred, he laid the boards on top of each other and warmed up the oven to a toasty 650 degrees. Well, not quite. The dang oven didn’t turn to eleven, so he figured 500 would probably work too. Missing the hint entirely, he let his board bake in a nearly 1000F oven until he noticed some smoke which, he intuitively knew, definitely shouldn’t be happening.

The board was blackening, the solder mask was literally bubbling off the substrate, people were coming over to see the show, and he decided success was still possible. He clamped the heated boards together with a binder clip until they cooled. Someone gave him a lesson on reflow, presumably listened to through reddening ears.

Ashamed and defeated, he went home. However, there was a question in his mind. Sure it looks bad, but is it possible that the board actually works? After a quick test, the answer was yes. It loaded some code and an time later he was happily hacking away. Go figure.

Tools of the Trade – Through Hole Assembly

In our last installment of Tools of the Trade, we had just finished doing the inspection of the surface mount part of the PCB. Next in the process is the through hole components. Depending on the PCB, the order may change slightly, but generally it makes more sense to get all the SMT work done before moving to the through hole work.

Through hole used to be the standard, but as the need for size reduction and automation increased, SMT gained favor. However, there are still a lot of reasons to use through hole components, so they aren’t going away entirely (at least not any time soon). One of the biggest advantages of THT is mechanical strength, which makes it better suited for connectors than SMT. If you’ve ever popped a microusb connector off a PCB by breathing on it heavily, you’ll understand. So, how do we most efficiently get through hole components on a PCB, and how do the big boys do it?

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DIYing Huge BGA Packages

One day [Andy] was cruising around eBay and spotted something interesting. Forty Virtex-E FPGAs for two quid each. These are the big boys of the FPGA world, with 512 user IO pins, almost 200,000 logic gates, packed into a 676-ball BGA package. These are not chips designed for the hobbyist. These chips are not designed for boards with less than six layers. These chips aren’t even designed for boards with 6/6mil tolerances from the usual suspects in China. By any account, a 676-ball package is not like a big keep out sign for hobbyists. You don’t turn down a £2 class in advanced PCB design, though, leading to one of the most impressive ‘I just bought some crap on eBay’ projects we’ve seen.

halfbuiltThe project [Andy] had in mind for these chips was a generic dev board, which meant breaking out the IO pins and connecting some SRAM, SDRAM, and Flash memory. The first issue with this project is escape routing all the balls. Xilinx published a handy application note that recommends specific design parameters for the traces of copper under the chip. Unfortunately, this was a six-layer board, and the design rules in the application note were for 5/5mil traces. [Andy]’s board house can’t do six-layer boards, and their design rules are for 6/6mil traces. To solve this problem, [Andy] just didn’t route the inner balls, and hoped the 5mil traces would work out.

With 676 tiny little pads on a PCB, the clocks routed, power supply implemented, too many decoupling caps on the back, differential pairs, static RAM, a few LEDs placed just for fun, [Andy] had to solder this thing up. Since the FPGA was oddly one of the less expensive items on the BOM, he soldered that first, just to see if it would work. It did, which meant it was time to place the RAM, Flash, and dozens of decoupling caps. Everything went relatively smoothly – the only problem was the tiny 0402 decoupling caps on the back of the board. This was, by far, the hardest part of the board to solder. [Andy] only managed to get most of the decoupling caps on with a hot air gun. That was good enough to bring the board up, but he’ll have to figure some other way of soldering those caps for the other 30 or so boards.

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Ask Hackaday: How Hard Is It To Make A Bad Solder Joint?

When you learn to solder, you are warned about the pitfalls of creating a solder joint. Too much solder, too little solder, cold joints, dry joints, failing to “wet” the joint properly, a plethora of terms are explained  if you read one of the many online guides to soldering.

Unsurprisingly it can all seem rather daunting to a novice, especially if they are not used to the dexterity required to manipulate a tool on a very small-scale at a distance. And since the soldering iron likely to be in the hands of a beginner will not be one of the more accomplished models with fine temperature control and a good tip, it’s likely that they will experience most of those pitfalls early on in their soldering career.

As your soldering skills increase, you get the knack of making a good joint. Applying just the right amount of heat and supplying just enough solder becomes second nature, and though you still mess up from time to time you learn to spot your errors and how to rework and fix them. Your progression through the art becomes a series of plateaux, as you achieve each new task whose tiny size or complexity you previously thought rendered it impossible. Did you too recoil in horror before your first 0.1″ DIP IC, only to find it had been surprisingly easy once you’d completed it?

A few weeks ago we posted a Hackaday Fail of the Week, revolving around a soldering iron failure and confirmation bias leading to a lengthy reworking session when the real culprit was a missing set of jumpers. Mildly embarrassing and something over which a veil is best drawn, but its comments raised some interesting questions about bad solder joints. In the FoTW case I was worried I’d overheated the joints causing them to go bad, evaporating the flux and oxidising the solder. This was disputed by some commenters, but left me with some curiosity over bad solder joints. We all know roughly how solder joints go wrong, but how much of what we know is heresay? Perhaps it is time for a thorough investigation of what makes a good solder joint, and the best way to understand that would surely be to look at what makes a bad one.

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PinJig Soldering Clamp has Pins Seized by Airport Security

There’s an old adage that when performing a live demo, previously working hacks will mysteriously go awry. In this case, the hardware demo was doomed before it ever arrived at the conference.

PinJig is an interesting take on though-hole soldering. As its name indicates, it’s a jig which holds through-hole components in place as the board is flipped on its side (or even upside down). This is accomplished by 2000 steel pins which are locked in place after being nestled around all of the board’s components. Unfortunately, carrying this prototype onto an international flight didn’t work out. [Niall Barrett] told us that on his way from Ireland to Bay Area Maker Faire he was required to ditch the 3-inch steel pins that make up the jig, or not get on the plane.

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Fail Of The Week: Where’s Me Jumper?

Just in case you imagine that those of us who write for Hackaday are among the elite of engineering talent who never put a foot wrong and whose benches see a succession of perfectly executed builds and amazing hacks, let me disabuse you of that notion with an ignominious failure of my own.

I was building an electronic kit, a few weeks ago. It’s a modular design with multiple cards on a backplane, though since in due course you’ll see a review of it here I’ll save you its details until that moment. In my several decades of electronic endeavours I have built many kits, so this one as a through-hole design on the standard 0.1″ pitch should have presented me with no issues at all. Sadly though it didn’t work out that way.

Things started to go wrong towards the end of the build, I noticed that the temperature regulator on my soldering iron had failed at some point during its construction. Most of it had thus been soldered at a worryingly high temperature, so I was faced with a lot of solder joints to go over and rework in case any of them had been rendered dry by the excessive heat.

In due course when I powered my completed kit up, nothing worked. It must have been the extra heat, I thought, so out came the desolder braid and yet again I reworked the whole kit. Still no joy. Firing up my oscilloscope I could see things happening on its clock and data lines so there was hope, but this wasn’t a kit that was responding to therapy. A long conversation with the (very patient) kit manufacturer left me having followed up a selection of avenues, all to no avail. By this time a couple of weeks of on-and-off diagnostics had come and gone, and I was getting desperate. Somehow I’d cooked this thing with my faulty iron, and there was no way to find the culprit.

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It’s Time to Finally Figure Out How to Use KiCAD

KiCAD has been making leaps and bounds recently, especially since CERN is using it almost exclusively. However, while many things are the same, just enough of them are different from our regular CAD packages that it’s hard to get started in the new suite.

[Chris Gammell] runs Contextual Electronics, an online apprenticeship program which goes from concept to assembled electronics covering everything in between. To take the course you pay a nominal fee, but [Chris] posted a very excellent ten-part video series made during the last run of classes which you can watch without charge. The videos go through the basics of KiCAD while hitting the major points to consider when designing and manufacturing your electronics.

The project [Chris] chose is a simple circuit that blinks an LED with a 555. The first videos cover navigating KiCAD’s component schematic editor and library system. Next comes creating circuit schematics and component footprint creation. [Chris] covers PCB layout, the generation of Gerber files, and finally ordering the design from OSH Park — the purveyors of purple boards we’ve come to know and love. The series finishes up with simulating the circuit in LTSpice, ordering the parts, and finally soldering and debugging of the board. If all goes correctly you should now have a single blinking LED.

If the bright summer sun is burning your delicate skin, and you’d rather be locked inside with solder fumes, add this to your watch list now!

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