AIM Solder Talks Innovations to Address Assembly, Reliability Issues
David Suraski, executive vice president at AIM Solder's assembly materials division, sat down with us at productronica 2015 to discuss the latest industry trends and customer challenges facing the solder industry, and innovations that are helping customers address their issues. Suraski also talked about reliability issues, and how the company is addressing them.
Barry Matties: David, please start with a little bit about AIM Solder.
David Suraski: AIM Solder is a leading global supplier of materials to the electronics industry, specifically solder materials. Within solder materials, the product line consists of solder paste, liquid flux, bar solder, and wire solder. We also sell some epoxies, under fills, cleaners, and pre-forms.
I help to lead AIM’s electronics assembly division. We define electronics assembly as anyone who is assembling a circuit board. Basically, our materials are what enables the components to adhere to a circuit board.
We're a global manufacturer. Our headquarters are in Montreal, Canada. We have facilities in the United States, Mexico, China, Hong Kong, and Poland, and we have technical support personnel and other sales offices throughout the world, including India, Philippines, Singapore, and Brazil.
Matties: How many employees are in your organization?
Suraski: About three hundred in the manufacturing division.
Matties: With regard to your customers, what sort of demands do they come to you with?
Suraski: More and more, they're increasingly relying on their suppliers. First of all, there are product demands. Obviously, in electronics, everyone has always been talking about things getting faster and things getting smaller. That puts a lot of burden and requirements on the materials themselves. A solder paste that used to print a certain pitch several years ago could not be used for the very-fine pitch devices now. There are many requirements on the materials, from everything from wetting to reliability and everything in between, and that requires constant innovation.
We have a very aggressive R&D program. Once the right products are in place, we offer a great deal of support as well. We have more technical support personnel than we do salespeople. We find that's a key to not only winning, but maintaining business. Our support people work with our customers on a regular basis to ensure that they can use the product properly, that they improve their throughput, that they solve any issues that they may be having, even if they're unrelated to our products, and they have the capability to embrace new technologies. For example, going from 0402 to 0201s to 01005s. We want to fix problems before they happen.
Matties: I'm glad you brought up problems. We recently conducted a survey about failures, and the largest area of failure tends to be with solder joints.
Suraski: Yeah, the solder guys always get blamed for it.
Matties: Maybe you're not blamed for it, but it's your product that they're having a difficult time getting 100% quality from.
Suraski: Right, that's true, and the solder joint is critical, of course. Issues with solder joints can be because of the process, the circuit board, or the component, and of course it can be caused by the solder itself. Our job is to become experts in all of those areas. To be able to, first of all, analyze what's going on if there is an issue, and then come up with good practical solutions to our customers.
Matties: If a manufacturer wants to ensure quality, the only way to really do it is through inspection. It doesn’t matter how robust their processes are, because there are so many variables; the defects can happen at any time for any reason, so you have to inspect. Is the goal to get rid of solder? How do we mitigate the amount of failures?
Suraski: People have been talking about alternatives. We're decades away from having everything completely embedded, for example, so there has to be some joining process. Solder remains the best way to join, because of its thermal and electrical characteristics and because it can self-correct component placement errors. It can also be reworked; you can solder and then if necessary you can de-solder without damaging the assembly. This is different than, say, a conductive adhesive, which is very difficult to take apart once it's put together. As long as joining needs to be done, there is going to be soldering. If you get the right products and processes in place, you can have a very repeatable, robust process.
Inspection is going to be important, and there are different types of inspection, but if you're attentive a couple of steps before that, and doing it right, and getting the right support from suppliers, then you can avoid most of those issues.
Matties: What is the advice you would give a fabricator or an assembler?
Suraski: That would be to focus on the process. Get the right products in place. Some perform 100% inspection, some do zero inspection. It really varies depending on their needs, requirements, or whatever they happen to be building. Incoming inspection is very important, as well, to make sure the components you're using are right for the process. We see that a lot of issues are related to the components.
Matties: It's about all the steps prior to where the solder meets the board or the joint.
Suraski: If you have a bad component, no matter how good your solder is, it's not going to work. If you have good parts going on, solid repeatable processes, then you can have a robust process, no matter how complicated it is.
Stephen Las Marias: You mentioned about the quality of the products and the parts coming in. What about if the applications are in really harsh environments, for instance, in aerospace or automotive?
Suraski: That often comes down to the alloy and the flux residue. We work with several automotive manufacturers, for example, and part of it comes down to design. You need the geometry of the solder joint itself to be correct for the application.
Some alloys are better in certain conditions. There are different lead-free alloys, and some are very good for vibration. Some are very good for thermal shock, so it's choosing the correct alloy for that particular application. It's a matter of the supplier working with the manufacturer, in most cases.
Another contributing factor to reliability is the flux residue itself. It’s really our job to develop flux residues that are inert, and be confident we are not going to harm the product after it's produced, no matter what kind of condition it's in.
Las Marias: On that front, what are some of the latest developments in your solder products to address those flux risk issues?
Suraski: Safety is a very important concern, in terms of reliability and SIR. There are different ways to measure the reliability of a flux. I'll give you one example. We developed a liquid flux recently that is called NC280. It's very good for selective soldering. The selective soldering application is different than other applications where everything gets heated up. With selective soldering, not every part of the board is necessarily going to be heated. You may have some flux on the board that hasn't seen a heat cycle. Traditionally, a flux needs to see a heat cycle in order to become inert, so to speak. This particular flux is safe, even when not heated up. That's kind of a unique breakthrough and the industry is trying to move in that direction.
Las Marias: Is there a trend to remove silver from the solder?
Suraski: When solder alloys transitioned from tin lead to lead free—which is still happening, by the way—the default alloys in the industry were SAC alloys—tin, silver, and copper. From there, we came to land on SAC 305, so 3% silver. It's costly, because of the silver content in it, so there was a push for several years, starting in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, to try to get the silver out, if possible.
It's taken years, but there are several silver-free alloys on the market now. We sell several of them, and our competitors sell several of them as well. Generally, they work quite well. For wave soldering, it's the trend. Most of the silver has been taken out of the wave soldering process already. People are using alloys like low SAC alloys with very small silver contents, like .7%. We sell an alloy call SN100C that is completely silver free. Fluxes have been developed to work with these alloys so that it's a robust, reliable process. It’s not for everyone. There are still some people that still use silver in their process for one reason or another.
Now what we see is that this movement is transitioning to SMT. Solder paste users are saying to themselves, “Well, I took the silver out of wave soldering years ago, maybe I can do it with SMT and have a cost benefit, or maybe even a technical benefit.” For instance, maybe it will result in more reliability or a better process. We're in the midst of that happening right now. What that means for us is we're continuing to develop different and better silver-free alloys; we have to develop the fluxes to go along with them, to make sure that the process is robust and that everything works.
Matties: Circuit design plays a big role in the quality of the solder joints as well, right?
Suraski: That's right. We try to work as early as possible with the designers. It's not just the purchasing people. It's not just the engineers that we're working with. We're forming relationships with designers at companies throughout the world, which does two things. It enables us to help them design a product that's going to be practical from a production standpoint, and that is also reliable. It also gives us good insight as to what's coming down the pipe maybe two, five or 10 years from now, and allows us to feed that information back to R&D, or just have R&D in that meeting, to develop products accordingly.
Matties: It almost seems like there could be an AIM design guideline on solder joints, which could create real value for you guys in the marketplace.
Suraski: There is, in a way. It's probably trapped in people's heads.
Matties: Isn’t the placement of a heavy component on the bottom of the board going through a problem also?
Suraski: That's right, and the geometry of the circuit board, and the joint itself.
Matties: You have such a vast amount of knowledge that you can carry, where a designer is limited to the hundred boards that they’ve designed.
Suraski: That's the advantage that we have, that our technical support people offer, too. They're not just seeing one application; they're seeing all of them.
Matties: Is there anything else that we should talk about that we haven't?
Suraski: Our focus is on customer support. There are a lot of people that do things similar to how we do them. They have a global footprint for selling solders. They have good, aggressive pricing. They have good products. Where we really do differentiate ourselves is with support, as I mentioned. Whether it be a last-second shipment because they forgot to order, or because their production jumped up and they weren't expecting it, or technical support on a 24/7 basis. That’s really how we try to differentiate ourselves, and why we've enjoyed some good growth the past several years.
Matties: How does your technical support work for a user? Do they call into a call center, or a local distributor?
Suraski: Normally, our technical support people proactively will contact our customer base. There are two ways it works: One is through regular visits. Some customers we're visiting weekly, some we're visiting monthly, not to solve any issues. Just to know what's going on and if there is anything that we can do or that we should know about. In an emergency basis, since they've formed that relationship already, customers may reach out directly to us if something arises. They can reach out to our tech support people, a call center, a salesperson, a distributor, and it's all going to get funneled back to the appropriate technical support people, who can then attack the issue.
Matties: Do you have an online FAQ for people to access?
Suraski: Yes, including a lot of interesting technical articles. So there is more than an FAQ; they can find an article or white paper on certain issues. Of course, for additional information, we want people to contact us.
Las Marias: Thank you very much.
Suraski: Great, thank you.