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How Many Zones Needed for Lead-free Profile?
How many zones are required to run a lead-free profile? Does the number of zones dictate capability or do they only matter for throughput?
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How Many Zones Needed for Lead-free Profile?
How many zones are required to adequately run a lead-free profile?

Does the number of zones dictate capability or do they only matter for throughput requirements?
P. L.
Expert's Panel Responses

The number of zones in a reflow oven is only one of many aspects of the oven that will influence a successful lead-free process. The oven stability, zone separation capability, heat transfer rates and uniformity, max heater capability, and many other variables are also critical.

To generalize, additional zones, both heating and cooling, are very helpful when running lead free production, and they are required as you mention to increase throughput. I have seen companies run lead free production in a small 5 zone oven, but that is rare.

The goal with any thermal process is to create an in-spec profile at the required throughput. As you know, the lead-free process window is both much tighter than the eutectic process, and it requires higher temperatures. An oven with fewer zones may require you to really fine tune the oven recipe in order to produce the required profile, if the oven is capable of an in-spec profile at all.

There are profilers and process optimization software on the market that enable you to identify those hard to find suitable oven recipes in a few seconds. Our company KIC is one of the suppliers for such products.

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Bjorn Dahle
President
KIC
Bjorn Dahle is the President of KIC. He has 20 years experience in the electronic manufacturing industry with various manufacturing equipment companies covering pick & place, screen printers and thermal process management.

This is an interesting question.

Profile attainment normally has two factors - amount of heat and time in the heat.

Theoretically, we could obtain a ramp to peak leaf free solder profile in a single zone by adjusting the belt speed and zone length to obtain the time in the heat and the set point and convection rate to provide the amount of heat transferred. Likewise, a profile with a soak and spike could be done with two zones that were sized proportionally for the two times. But neither of these approaches would be flexible or practical.

Today's reflow process needs the ability to process different boards with an assortment of profiles. In general a 6 zone oven with 75 inches of heat can be used if the board is small, the production rate is low, and the profile has a wide process window. But as the production rates and board sizes increase, more zones are required so the profile can be tailored to required process. This tailoring is the relationship between the number of zones used for the soak and the zones used for the spike at the desired belt speed.

Most people are finding that an oven with 100 inches of heat (7 or 8 zones) is good for belt speeds of 30 to 40 IPM. An oven with 125 to 150 inches of heat (10 zones) is good for belt speeds of 45 to 60 inches per minute. Although ovens with 200 inches of heat and 14 zones have been made for even higher belt speed, the costs and footprint usually have people looking at multiple ovens instead of a single big oven.

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Fred Dimock
Manager, Process Technology
BTU International
Mr. Dimock is the manager of Process Technology at BTU International. His extensive experience in thermal processing includes positions at Corning, GE, and Sylvania. He has authored numerous articles on lead free processing and process control, taught classes at SMTAI, and participated in the IPC Reflow Oven Process Control Standard committee.

The more zones you have, the better you are able to sculpture and hence control the profile. The process window is tighter with lead-free and the more zones the better. Of course the more vertical zones, the longer the process tunnel and the faster you can run.

We recommend a minimum of 5 vertical zones for lead-free reflow. For more complex PCBAs, in terms of component mass, density and surface geometry, think in terms of at least 8 zones as sometimes having the flexibility of having two zones for reflow can be very helpful.

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Phil Zarrow
Principal Consultant
ITM Consulting
Mr. Zarrow has been involved with PCB assembly for more than thirty years. He is recognized for his expertise in troubleshooting SMT manufacturing and lead-free implementation. He has extensive hands-on experience with set-up and troubleshooting through-hole and SMT processes throughout the world.

I guess you are assuming the use of convection reflow for your lead free application when you mention "how many zones". Convection isn't your only alternative for Pb free applications.

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David Suihkonen
President
R&D Technical Services Inc.
David is President at R&D Technical Services, a vapor phase reflow oven manufacturer. he has 20 plus years experience in the vapor phase reflow industry.

Interesting as this question is, the profile is based upon the ability of the equipment to provide enough thermal energy to reflow the solder paste within the length of the equipment. I've seen it done with a 4 zone oven, not very fast but it was done.

One has to look at the overall performance of the equipment and the equipment should not be running at its maximum performance limits. A larger oven, perhaps 8 zones would allow a more robust process and yet still have the capability to provide the robustness of the process demanded by the lead-free process.

A concern with the lead-free process is not only the thermal ramp up to reflow the solder paste but also the cooling rate as the lead-free solder alloys do perform differently than the 63/37 leaded alloys, so we need to concern ourselves with the cooling rate to prevent stresses from building up in the laminate and solder joints not to damage the components.

So my bottom line is go with an 8 zone unit at a minimum, which would provide the capability and capacity needed for reflowing lead-free alloys.

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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.

For REWORK you need a minimum of 4 independent top and bottom zones for heating and one zone for cool down.

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Edward Zamborsky
Regional Sales Manager
OK International Inc.
Mr. Zamborsky serves as one of OK's technology advisers to the Product Development group. Ed has authored articles and papers on topics such as; Low Volume SMT Assembly, Solder Fume Extraction, SMT Rework, BGA Rework, Lead Free Hand Soldering, Lead Free Visual Inspection and Lead Free Array Rework.

A higher zone count will definitely help with regards to setting up lead-free profiles.

The higher peak temperatures required for lead-free are not difficult to achieve at board level, but to also achieve Time Above values within spec. is much more difficult when you have a lower number of zones to dedicate to each section of the thermal profile.

Another key consideration is the mix of thermal masses / complexity of the PCB. More complex boards will Inevitably result in the line speed needing to be slowed on a smaller oven, this gives you the additional transfer required but can result in a 'chasing ones tail' exercise to get peak, time above , soak time and ramp rates all in specification for the solder paste.

If the motivation for the question is new machine selection, then I have seen 5 zones machines happily producing lead-free soldered assemblies in our customer base, but 7 zones and above gives much more scope for control over a wider range of assembly size and component mixes. If you already have the oven, another approach would be to look for a solder paste which gives you the most scope in terms of process window.

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Mark Stansfield
Founder / Director
SolderStar Ltd
Co-founder and M.D of UK based thermal profiling equipment manufacturer SolderStar Ltd. He has software and electronic design experience specifically in the development of thermal profiling solutions for the electronics industry.
what do you mean "For REWORK you need a minimum of 4 independent top and bottom zones for heating and one zone for cool down." What kind of rework is done inside of a reflow oven? Or did you mean reflow?
Richard D. Stadem
Advanced Engineer/Scientist
General Dynamics
Richard D. Stadem is an advanced engineer/scientist for General Dynamics and is also a consulting engineer for other companies. He has 38 years of engineering experience having worked for Honeywell, ADC, Pemstar (now Benchmark), Analog Technologies, and General Dynamics.
What do you mean "For REWORK you need a minimum of 4 independent top and bottom zones for heating and one zone for cool down." What kind of rework is done inside of a reflow oven? Or did you mean reflow?
Richard D. Stadem
Advanced Engineer/Scientist
General Dynamics
Richard D. Stadem is an advanced engineer/scientist for General Dynamics and is also a consulting engineer for other companies. He has 38 years of engineering experience having worked for Honeywell, ADC, Pemstar (now Benchmark), Analog Technologies, and General Dynamics.
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