Ask the Experts
April 27, 2018 - Updated
May 3, 2010 - Originally Posted

Recommendation for PCB Surface Finish

Our company is now looking into going lead-free. Our products are not very complex with some 25mil pitch components but no BGAs. The average board size is 3" by 3". We would like to order bare PCBs with a surface finish that would work with both our current leaded process and lead-free solder process once we make the change. We currently use HASL. What finish do you recommend that will work with either solder process?

D. G.

Expert Panel Responses

I would suggest that you use Lead Free (SN100CL) Hot Air Leveling as this is one of the most robust finishes on the market today. One of the advantages of the SN100CL HAL process is that the finish will be flatter than what you are currently seeing and since your boards aren't that complex and don't have any issues with coplanarity the obvious answer is SN100CL HAL. This finish easily works for both lead free and tin lead reflow and there are plenty of board shops capable of this final finish (also many service companies).

Mike Scimeca
FCT Assembly
Mike Scimeca created FCT Assembly after the purchase of Fine Line Stencil, Inc., and consists of two major operations: stencil manufacturing and the manufacturing of electronic assembly products such as solder paste, flux and solder bar.

Conversion to OSP should not be a problem for the existing SnPb process due to the superior wetting of Pb containing solder. For lead free, it will be a slightly more challenging, especially if they require a double aided process. There are numerous lead free solder pastes with characteristics that have been fine tuned for various cases. For OSP, and double sided reflow, it sometimes is necessary to choose a lead free solder paste with slightly more activity, since the OSP finish on the second side is compromised during the first side reflow. The exposed copper will slightly oxidize with time, so the time delay between reflow processes can effect the amount of copper oxidation, which is an issue for lead free solder paste. Cookson, and other suppliers with a broad product offering, can recommend and apporpriate lead free paste. Given the higher price of lead free solder, one suggestion is to examine the low silver versions, namely SACX Plus. The lower silver content helps to lower the price, while the presence of some silver and the overall formulation provides excellent performance.

Paul J. Koep
Global Product Manager
Mr. Koep is responsible for product planning and technical marketing for the Preform Products at Alpha. He is the co-author of several patents in the areas of soldering applications focusing on reflow and alternative methods.

Not knowing where this product is being used, there are many alternatives to select. The easiest one that I would recommend would be a Tin HASL process. This board finish can be assembled with either tin/lead solder or lead-free solder and should not impact the process at all. Keep in mind the differences in the thermal requirements of the lead-free process however, as the laminate material may have to be changed to prevent laminate damage during the lead-free assembly and I would recommend reviewing IPC-4101C, Specification for Base Materials for Rigid and Multilayer Printed Boards, to make sure the correct laminate is being used for your application.

Leo Lambert
Vice President, Technical Director
EPTAC Corporation
At EPTAC Corporation, Mr. Lambert oversees content of course offerings, IPC Certification programs and provides customers with expert consultation in electronics manufacturing, including RoHS/WEEE and lead free issues. Leo is also the IPC General Chairman for the Assembly/Joining Process Committee.

There are a few options all with their related good and potentially bad points. Immersion tin is a thin tin layer which normally has good solderability however is easily oxidised or contaminated. Immersion silver has similar issues with the added potential of atmospheric sulphur tarnishing. The best option in my opinion is electroless nickel / gold (ENIG). This provides a long lasting and durable finish which can withstand storage, pre-baking and double sided reflow with few problems. It works well with tin/lead or lead free processing.On the down side it is sometimes affected by so called "black pad" and I'll let you research that one on the internet since books could probably be written! My advice would be to use ENIG with a PEC supplier who hasgood process controls in terms of finish plating chemistry.

Bryan Kerr
Principal Engineer - CMA Lab
BAE Systems
Bryan Kerr has 35 years experience in providing technical support to PEC assembly manufacturing. His experience ranges from analysis of materials and components to troubleshooting and optimizing, selecting reflow, cleaning, coating and other associated processes.

Most of my designs are specifying Lead Free Solder (HAL-LF) and/or ENIG. HAL is good for low tech components and the ENIG gives you a nice flat surface.

James Mahoney
Applications Project Manager
Quick Turn Flex Circuits LLC
James Mahoney is a Technical Operations Manager with a 20 year track record in managing new product introduction. He is a skilled leader, motivator and problem solver with a strong background in Product Knowledge and Engineering Management.

I would recommend ENIG for both leaded and lead free.

Greg York
Technical Sales Manager
BLT Circuit Services Ltd
Greg York has over thirty two years of service in Electronics industry. York has installed over 600 Lead Free Lines in Europe with Solder and flux systems as well as Technical Support on SMT lines and trouble shooting.

Reader Comment
Sounds like a promising finish. One aspect the article did not mention is what is the propensity for tin whiskers? This SN100CL alloy is essentially pure tin. What tests have been run to determine if this finish has a potential for tin whiskers?
Edward Cuneo, BOEING, USA

Reader Comment
I have seen several designs over the years transition from leaded to lead-free. From a production standpoint, the most forgiving finish hands down is ENIG. Cost may be slightly higher, however ENIG will remove the finish of the board as concern factor during your transition. If at a later date you are looking to cut some costs and your board house supports the capability, you can transition to lead-free HASL. That is assuming you are not running fine pitch components or micro BGA's. If so, I suggest sticking with ENIG.
Tod Cummins, Delta Group Electronics Inc.

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