Ask the Experts
January 15, 2019 - Updated
July 5, 2007 - Originally Posted

Regarding lead free, can I use the reflow ovens I currently have in production?

We are a very small US based EMS company doing work for small customers and none are specifically asking for lead free. If we are asked to build assemblies to this new standard, can I use my reflow ovens which I currently have in production, a Heller about 5 years old and a Vitronics about 7 years old?


Expert Panel Responses

As with any equipment related conversation there is selling and there is engineering and sometimes the line between the two can get blurry. At the end of the day, the proof is in the profile. In other words, there are certainly advantages to having more zones—with the greatest advantage being the ability to "Sculpt" the profile to address the tighter process window requirements of the lead free process. Basically, with more zones you can divide the 3.5 - 4 minute reflow profile into smaller segments and control those segments with greater precision. This can lead to tighter control over liquid time for example or faster ramp up or tighter Delta T across the product. But for a large majority of the applications out there a 5 zone oven is more than adequate for the task. See This Link At SMTNet Check out the link to the User Forum above and you will see real customers talking about their experiences with 5 zone ovens and having no problem running lead free on them—and this dialog is over a year old. You'll have to weed through it a bit but the initial thread and the threads from Jan 20 – Feb 5 are particularly appropriate. Bottom line is that the answer to most applications questions is typically application specific. So what works for one application may or may not work for another. So the best advice is to try it and see. Companies like Soldering Technology International offer Lead Free Training kits with boards and parts and can recommend pastes for testing. Kits can be chosen to mirror your customers' products so you can show the customers that you are "ready" by testing an equivalent assembly. Attach some thermocouples to the board and run some test profiles. Your oven vendor can work with you to optimize the profiles or get you set up with some good starting points for zone temperatures and belt speed. If the current oven can satisfy the profile, you're done! If not, you may want to send the board to your oven vendor to have it run on a machine with more zones and see how that performs. Bottom line: DATA RULES! Avoid rhetoric or debates on number of zones or nitrogen vs. air and use what works best for the application. You don't have to live with the Sales Person—you have to live with the oven. Let it do the talking!

Marc Peo
Heller Industries Inc.
Mr. Peo has been with Heller Industries for over 20 years and has been President for the past 8 years. Marc has authored several industry articles on Soldering, Flux collection, nitrogen use and Lead Free conversion.

Much will depend on the physical characteristics of the assemblies and the condition/configuration of your ovens. Most likely, your Heller and Vitronics ovens will handle lead-free. But the only way to tell for sure is to run some profiles. Ask your solder paste rep for some tech data sheets on their lead-free pastes and see if your ovens can stand the heat. The use of a thermal profiler will be essential when setting up for lead-free assemblies. Products like the Datapaq Rapid Oven Setup will automatically convert your standard profiles to lead-free profiles base on the characteristics of the oven and the assembly.

Richard Burke
National Sales Manager
Mr Burke currently has eight years of thermal profiling experience in the Electronics Assembly industry including SMT, Wave, Curing, Wafer Bumping, Ceramics and a host of other thermal processes. He is a Graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania School of Business.

You will have to ask Heller and Vitronics. One of the problems with older ovens is that they can reach Pb-free temperatures for small to medium loading, but the ramp rates are too high and large boards with large components have problems reaching sufficient temperatures.

Dr. Craig D. Hillman
CEO & Managing Partner
DfR Solutions
Dr. Hillman's specialties include best practices in Design for Reliability, strategies for transitioning to Pb-free, supplier qualification, passive component technology and printed board failure mechanisms.

Typical ovens of this vintage have 5 heating zones, most newer ovens have a minimum of 7 zones. While it is possible to use the existing ovens, you can expect a reduction in throughput and an increase in the time spent perfecting the reflow profile.

Edward Zamborsky
Regional Sales Manager
OK International Inc.
Ed Zamborsky is a Regional Sales & Technical Support Manager for Thermaltronics, located in New York. His position requires frequent customer visits throughout North America and the Caribbean and his position encompasses not only sales but the role of trainer and master applications engineer for all of Thermaltronics products. His expertise includes such specialties as hand soldering, convection and conduction reflow techniques, array rework, fluid dispensing equipment, and fume extraction. Ed has authored many articles and has presented many papers on topics such as; Low Volume SMT Assembly, Solder Fume Extraction, SMT Rework, BGA Rework, Lead-Free Hand Soldering, High Thermal Demand Hand Soldering, Lead Free Visual Inspection and Lead Free Array Rework.

To handle both the higher temperature of a lead-free solder, and in order to avoid contamination of the solder pot, modifications to the machines are needed for a "RoHS-Compliant" manufacturing process. Talk to the machine manufacturer, and find out whether your machine type can be upgraded, and whether it may require additional equipment to produce RoHS-Compliant products. Please note that lead also works as a "lubricant" in the solder pot, and that a tin-only solder mixture will also lead to higher levels of abrasion and even possible corrosion.

Arnold Offner
Industry Standard Manager
Phoenix Contact
With over 15 years service at Phoenix Contact, Mr. Offner has worked in South Africa and Germany. He speaks both English and German, is based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and is responsible for the RoHS/WEEE Training activities in the Americas.

Almost any reflow oven MAY be capable of soldering lead free materials depending on the mass of the product, cycle time requirements, profile requirements, etc. You should evaluate the profile and cycle time requirements for the lead free products that you are building and determine if your existing ovens are capable of achieving them.

Joe Belmonte
Principal Consultant
ITM Consulting
Mr. Belmonte has been a process engineer and process engineering manager in the electronic manufacturing industry for over 25 years, with experience in all aspects of electronic product assembly operations. He is well-known throughout Asia and SE Asia for both his process work and teaching engagements.
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