SMTAI Event Reflects Cautious Optimism and Interesting Trends

14 November 2011

Susan Mucha

An uncertain economy didn’t seem to be dampening spirits at the SMTAI event in Ft. Worth, Texas.

Exhibition space had been sold out for months and show traffic looked good. The overall conference had strong attendance. The EMS providers I’ve been talking with were having mixed results. Some were experiencing double-digit growth and others were flat or seeing a drop in revenues compared the prior year.

One manufacturing technology trend that appears to be growing in popularity is vapour phase technology. Vapour phase, also known as condensation soldering, provides a very repeatable process. The vapour creates an inert atmosphere area without the use of nitrogen, and products immersed in the vapour heat evenly regardless of size or shape of mass.

According to IBL’s CEO Jochen Lipp, lead-free requirements are the primary driver for greater adoption of vapour phase technology. Lipp presented a paper at SMTAI’s Contract Manufacturing Symposium titled, “How can Vapour Phase Technology Support EMS ROHS Challenges?”

A key point in the presentation was that the process temperatures required for lead-free applications in reflow soldering are much higher than those required for leaded applications. In leaded applications, tin lead solder pastes, coatings and solder balls all had the same mixture and melting point of 183°C.

However, in products using lead-free solder, the recommended reflow temperatures have been raised from ranges of 200-225°C to 235-250°C. Varying sized components and mixed technology components which are not always robust enough to withstand the highest temperatures increase the probability of defects at the range of temperatures (260-290°C) needed to achieve uniform melting points.

Comparatively, the even heating found in an inert atmosphere enables lead-free applications to run in a vapour phase machine at much lower temperatures (230-240°C depending on fluid boiling point).

Additional benefits of vapour phase technology include:
• Overheating is physically impossible
• No cold solder joints due to determined heat transfer and absence of shadowing
• One-fifth direct energy consumption
• Reduced heat leakage into the factory
• No compressed air required
• Fast set-up for new products and fast changeovers
• Closed process with limits emissions
• Inert atmosphere doesn’t create hazardous gases such as burned flux
• Neutral process fluid is used.

Concerns about throughput have been one of the biggest reasons slowing widespread adoption of the technology. Early machines did not support medium-to-high volume applications.

According to Lipp, that has changed dramatically. IBL (www.ibl-tech.com) offers inline vapour phase reflow machines for higher volume applications, a vacuum vapour phase machine for void-free solder joints and soft vapour phase machine for lower volume applications.

Over the last 18 months, IBL has sold over 25 machines into US electronics manufacturing firms and worldwide there are more than 750 units in the field. For those of you reading this column in Europe, IBL will be at Productronica 2011 in Hall A, Stand 458.

From what I’m seeing at various shows I’ve attended over the last couple of months (mid-Sept-Oct is almost a non-stop series of electronics shows in the US), companies appear to be continuing to invest in capital equipment and hire employees. OEMs are definitely still “shopping” for outsourced manufacturing. We do not appear to be dropping into the “all stop” mode that characterised the beginning of the recession.

But, I do think softening demand will drive some consolidation in the EMS industry over the next year.


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