Metcal Brings Big Science and High Reliability to Hand Soldering

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Warner: You're really applying more science to it at the molecular or chemical level.

Roush: Absolutely. As the industry's been evolving in the last decade, technologies haven't really changed much. A company can come out next week with a little bit more power, a slightly more accurate thermocouple control loop, or some aspect to finely control the things they know they can do.

We've taken a different approach and looked at the joint and provided something that examines the process that people care about. You can add more and more power, but it doesn't tell you whether your solder joint has been formed correctly.

Warner: At what point do you find out that joint has been formed improperly? Is it in the field? Is it after multiple heat excursions through the oven? When does it usually fall apart?

Roush: If you're lucky, you'll catch it during some final inspection stage before your PC board leaves the production line. But many times, you’ll find it in real life, where it's failed at some point after it's been installed in the next assembly.

One of the major reasons we looked at what constitutes a "good" solder joint is the number of industry failures, where the solder joint was the point of failure. Could we have corrected this if we found it early enough? Because of how the processes are controlled today, it's hard to tell. You're looking at the solder joint, and it looks good. So, it must be good. But that wasn't sitting well with us. We knew we could do better. Think about solder joints going into brake assemblies, for example; lives are on the line.

Warner: That is so often the case.

Roush: There are cases in the industry when a failed solder joint might be an inconvenience, where the product was just buggy and you exchanged it with a new one. But you don't want it to happen when you’re driving and your brakes give out because the solder joint was faulty. Automotive is such a harsh environment, with temperature extremes; the demands on the electronics are so high that you want some assurances that at least the solder joints are correct and everything else was designed correctly.

You don't want it to go into an airplane or a satellite where it’s hard to repair. You don't want a failure where there's a lot of liability on the line.

Warner: What kind of testing and case studies have you done to prove out the technology? And what hurdles do you anticipate ahead, either in the technology itself, or in the industry adoption of it?

Metcal_CV.jpgRoush: We understand there are challenges associated with any new technology. I think the biggest one associated with that is adoption from the line operator, the person who's going to be wielding the tool. We've talked to all types of people, across the industry, whether they've been in the industry for six months or 20 years; they've all done the same thing and developed their habits over time. They're stuck in their ways.

When you introduce a new technology that may require the operator to stay slightly longer on a joint to make sure it has formed the intermetallic compound, it may be challenging to adjust, simply based on their entrenched habits. It makes it challenging for any operator, myself included. I've been soldering for decades. It takes a while to let go a little bit and trust that the tool is doing its job. That's probably the biggest challenge—getting the operators to rely on the feedback from the hand piece.

When you're a pioneer, it's always challenging to get people to accept a new idea that really works. You must really prove it. From a testing standpoint, that's what we've done with the development of this technology. We've done numerous joints, and then we’ve gone back out and cross-sectioned them. We've controlled every other variable, and then cross-sectioned using this tool, to make sure it is meeting our requirements.

In every case, it has absolutely performed right in that optimal zone of IMC formation.

This new technology allows errors to be found that customers didn't even realize existed in other aspects of the soldering process; they didn't bother to do cross-sectioning because it looked good.

One example: Barrel fill is always a challenge with through-hole components—making sure there is enough solder through the entire barrel so that it meets requirements. We've had customers come back and say, "We used your tool and then we cross-sectioned it and we realized that we weren't getting barrel fill even." So an added benefit is that it’s prompting customers to go back and look at how they’re doing their soldering processes.

Warner: Giving them verifiable feedback is crucial. Like you said, "Old habits die hard," and trusting something new can be challenging. However, taking the time and discipline to cross-section and check their work will help build confidence in time, I would think.

Roush: It really harkens back to the fundamentals of soldering—proper tip selection and proper application of solder. When you do that, and use the new technology we've developed, it works in conjunction and it prompts you. Ironically, we've had production managers and line supervisors saying the technology is great, while operators initially push back, because it exposes the bad habits they’ve developed and didn't realize they had. Inherently, they have developed bad habits over time, and that is really the challenge associated with our new technology. Fortunately, process engineers are seeing the benefit, staying with it, and helping their operators work through the initial adoption stage.

Warner: Will Metcal provide a training program or something similar? As new customers adopt this technology, will you have people help walk customers through that?

Roush: Absolutely. We spent a lot of time developing the technology, but also training our own internal staff. We've done numerous training sessions to really understand and delve into analyzing the application itself, and then matching the new tool to their application, to make sure that they're getting the most out of it. And we're developing programs to optimize tip selection and expanding our cartridge and product selection in conjunction, to make sure customers can go to this tool box and pull out what they need to solve a problem. Compare that to today, where the common solution is to use a 2.5 mm chisel in most cases.

We've fine-tuned our tip selections going forward to really optimize the system to match the joints and loads, to increase chances of best performance and decrease issues where it seems to take a little longer. We want to make sure that customers are getting the same performance today. You may be happy with today’s system, but with the new system tomorrow, you're getting the same performance plus the added benefit of knowing that the inner metallic formation has been correctly formed.

metcal_booth2.jpgWarner: What an amazing story. How did you demonstrate this technology in your booth at APEX?

Roush: CV was the centerpiece of our newly designed booth. We did live demos, and walked people through exactly how this technology works. We had multiple stations where people came up and experienced the technology live.

In conjunction, we have also developed a technical white paper, "Risk Mitigation in Hand Soldering," which is clearly at the crux of what our new product addresses. You can download it on our website at:

Warner: The stations in your booth were hands-on?

Roush: Yes, hands-on. We walked people through exactly what’s happening and demonstrated the results. We're extremely excited about it; we’ve been working on it for about three and half years. It’s been a long time coming to get the technology to the point where we’re comfortable and excited to take it to market. We think it’s going to shake up the status quo in such a positive way.

Warner: Do you have any final thoughts on our discussion?

Roush: Yes, at APEX we also revealed our new brand and logo. We're really excited about it, and we feel that it much better represents Metcal and our brand essence and values in the market. Also, we see this new Connection Validation technology as a foundation for lots of new developments. You will hear much more about this technology as it evolves, and as we roll out other features and benefits in the coming months and years.

Warner: This has been fun to learn about, Robert. Thank you so much for your time. Good luck with your new product; it sounds like you’re bringing something great to market.

Roush: Thank you.

About Robert Roush 

Robert Roush is a 9-year veteran of Metcal. He learned soldering applications and techniques first hand while spending 11 years in the U.S. Marine Corps prior to obtaining both a BS and an MBA. Robert is responsible for getting Metcal's top NPIs to market.

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