Surface-mount technology (SMT) is a method for producing electronic circuits in which the components are mounted or placed directly onto the surface of printed circuit boards (PCBs). An electronic device made with SMT is called a surface-mount device (SMD). In industry it has largely replaced the through-hole technology construction method of fitting components with wire leads into holes in the circuit board. Both technologies can be used on the same board, with the through-hole technology used for components not suitable for surface mounting such as large transformers and heat-sinked power semiconductors.
By employing SMT, the production process speeds up, but the risk of defects also increase due to component miniaturization and to the denser packing of boards. In those conditions, detection of failures has become critical for any SMT manufacturing process.
An SMT component is usually smaller than its through-hole counterpart because it has either smaller leads or no leads at all. It may have short pins or leads of various styles, flat contacts, a matrix of solder balls (BGAs), or terminations on the body of the component.
Surface mounting was originally called “planar mounting”.
Surface-mount technology was developed in the 1960s and became widely used in the mid 1980s. By the late 1990s, the great majority of high-tech electronic printed circuit assemblies were dominated by surface mount devices. Much of the pioneering work in this technology was done by IBM. The design approach first demonstrated by IBM in 1960 in a small-scale computer was later applied in the Launch Vehicle Digital Computer used in the Instrument Unit that guided all Saturn IB and Saturn V vehicles. Components were mechanically redesigned to have small metal tabs or end caps that could be directly soldered to the surface of the PCB. Components became much smaller and component placement on both sides of a board became far more common with surface mounting than through-hole mounting, allowing much higher circuit densities and smaller circuit boards and, in turn, machines or subassemblies containing the boards.
Often only the solder joints hold the parts to the board; in rare cases parts on the bottom or “second” side of the board may be secured with a dot of adhesive to keep components from dropping off inside reflow ovens if the part has a large size or weight. Adhesive is sometimes used to hold SMT components on the bottom side of a board if a wave soldering process is used to solder both SMT and through-hole components simultaneously. Alternatively, SMT and through-hole components can be soldered on the same side of a board without adhesive if the SMT parts are first reflow-soldered, then a selective solder mask is used to prevent the solder holding those parts in place from reflowing and the parts floating away during wave soldering. Surface mounting lends itself well to a high degree of automation, reducing labor cost and greatly increasing production rates.
Conversely, SMT does not lend itself well to manual or low-automation fabrication, which is more economical and faster for one-off prototyping and small-scale production, and this is one reason why many through-hole components are still manufactured. Some SMDs can be soldered with a temperature-controlled manual soldering iron, but unfortunately, those that are very small or have too fine a lead pitch are impossible to manually solder without expensive hot-air solder reflow equipment[dubious ]. SMDs can be one-quarter to one-tenth the size and weight, and one-half to one-quarter the cost of equivalent through-hole parts, but on the other hand, the costs of a certain SMT part and of an equivalent through-hole part may be quite similar, though rarely is the SMT part more expensive.
Different terms describe the components, technique, and machines used in manufacturing. These terms are listed in the following table:
|SMp term||Expanded form|
|SMD||Surface-mount devices (active, passive and electromechanical components)|
|SMT||Surface-mount technology (assembling and mounting technology)|
|SMA||Surface-mount assembly (module assembled with SMT)|
|SMC||Surface-mount components (components for SMT)|
|SMP||Surface-mount packages (SMD case forms)|
|SME||Surface-mount equipment (SMT assembling machines)|
Where components are to be placed, the printed circuit board normally has flat, usually tin-lead, silver, or gold plated copper pads without holes, called solder pads. Solder paste, a sticky mixture of flux and tiny solder particles, is first applied to all the solder pads with a stainless steel or nickel stencil using a screen printing process. It can also be applied by a jet-printing mechanism, similar to an inkjet printer. After pasting, the boards then proceed to the pick-and-place machines, where they are placed on a conveyor belt. The components to be placed on the boards are usually delivered to the production line in either paper/plastic tapes wound on reels or plastic tubes. Some large integrated circuits are delivered in static-free trays. Numerical control pick-and-place machines remove the parts from the tapes, tubes or trays and place them on the PCB.
The boards are then conveyed into the reflow soldering oven. They first enter a pre-heat zone, where the temperature of the board and all the components is gradually, uniformly raised. The boards then enter a zone where the temperature is high enough to melt the solder particles in the solder paste, bonding the component leads to the pads on the circuit board. The surface tension of the molten solder helps keep the components in place, and if the solder pad geometries are correctly designed, surface tension automatically aligns the components on their pads.
There are a number of techniques for reflowing solder. One is to use infrared lamps; this is called infrared reflow. Another is to use a hot gas convection. Another technology which is becoming popular again is special fluorocarbon liquids with high boiling points which use a method called vapor phase reflow. Due to environmental concerns, this method was falling out of favor until lead-free legislation was introduced which requires tighter controls on soldering. At the end of 2008, convection soldering was the most popular reflow technology using either standard air or nitrogen gas. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages. With infrared reflow, the board designer must lay the board out so that short components don’t fall into the shadows of tall components. Component location is less restricted if the designer knows that vapor phase reflow or convection soldering will be used in production. Following reflow soldering, certain irregular or heat-sensitive components may be installed and soldered by hand, or in large-scale automation, by focused infrared beam (FIB) or localized convection equipment.
If the circuit board is double-sided then this printing, placement, reflow process may be repeated using either solder paste or glue to hold the components in place. If a wave soldering process is used, then the parts must be glued to the board prior to processing to prevent them from floating off when the solder paste holding them in place is melted.
After soldering, the boards may be washed to remove flux residues and any stray solder balls that could short out closely spaced component leads. Rosin flux is removed with fluorocarbon solvents, high flash point hydrocarbon solvents, or low flash solvents e.g. limonene (derived from orange peels) which require extra rinsing or drying cycles. Water-soluble fluxes are removed with deionized water and detergent, followed by an air blast to quickly remove residual water. However, most electronic assemblies are made using a “No-Clean” process where the flux residues are designed to be left on the circuit board, since they are considered harmless. This saves the cost of cleaning, speeds up the manufacturing process, and reduces waste. However, it is generally suggested to wash the assembly, even when a “No-Clean” process is used, when the application uses very high frequency clock signals (in excess of 1 GHz). Another reason to remove no-clean residues is to improve adhesion of conformal coatings and underfill materials. Regardless of cleaning or not those pcbs, current industry trend suggests to carefully review a pcb assembly process where “No-Clean” is applied, since flux residues trapped under components and RF shields may affect surface insulation resistance (SIR), especially on high component density boards.
Certain manufacturing standards, such as those written by the IPC – Association Connecting Electronics Industries require cleaning regardless of the solder flux type used to ensure a thoroughly clean board. Proper cleaning removes all traces of solder flux, as well as dirt and other contaminants that may be invisible to the naked eye. No-Clean or other soldering processes may leave “white residues” that, according to IPC, are acceptable “provided that these residues have been qualified and documented as benign”. However, while shops conforming to IPC standard are expected to adhere to the Association’s rules on board condition, not all manufacturing facilities apply IPC standard, nor are they required to do so. Additionally, in some applications, such as low-end electronics, such stringent manufacturing methods are excessive both in expense and time required.
Finally, the boards are visually inspected for missing or misaligned components and solder bridging. If needed, they are sent to a rework station where a human operator repairs any errors. They are then usually sent to the testing stations (in-circuit testing and/or functional testing) to verify that they operate correctly. Automated Optical Inspection (AOI) systems are commonly used in PCB manufacturing. This technology has proven highly efficient for process improvements and quality achievements.
The main advantages of SMT over the older through-hole technique are:
- Smaller components. As of 2017 smallest component is metric 0201 measuring 0.25mm × 0.125mm
- Much higher component density (components per unit area) and many more connections per component.
- Components can be placed on both sides of the circuit board.
- Higher density of connections because holes do not block routing space on inner layers, nor on back-side layers if components are mounted on only one side of the PCB.
- Small errors in component placement are corrected automatically as the surface tension of molten solder pulls components into alignment with solder pads. (On the other hand, through-hole components cannot be slightly misaligned, because once the leads are through the holes, the components are fully aligned and cannot move laterally out of alignment.)
- Better mechanical performance under shock and vibration conditions (partly due to lower mass, and partly due to less cantilevering)
- Lower resistance and inductance at the connection; consequently, fewer unwanted RF signal effects and better and more predictable high-frequency performance.
- Better EMC performance (lower radiated emissions) due to the smaller radiation loop area (because of the smaller package) and the lesser lead inductance.
- Fewer holes need to be drilled. (Drilling PCBs is time-consuming and expensive.)
- Lower initial cost and time of setting up for mass production, using automated equipment.
- Simpler and faster automated assembly. Some placement machines are capable of placing more than 136,000 components per hour.
- Many SMT parts cost less than equivalent through-hole parts.
- A surface mount package is favored where a low profile package is required or the space available to mount the package is limited. As electronic devices become more complex and available space is reduced, the desirability of a surface mount package increases. Concurrently, as the device complexity increases, the heat generated by operation increases. If the heat is not removed, the temperature of the device rises shortening the operational life. It is therefore highly desirable to develop surface mount packages having high thermal conductivity.