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Pros and Cons of Cleaning No-clean
With today's newer chemistries, what are the pros and cons of cleaning circuit boards assembled using a no-clean process?
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Pros and Cons of Cleaning No-clean
We are working with our contract manufacturer to develop the best process for our boards.

With today's newer chemistries, what are the pros and cons of cleaning circuit boards assembled using a no-clean process?
A. S.
Expert's Panel Responses

This is a great question, and one that too few engineers think about. After all, there are lots of smart guys at solder companies making some pretty strong claims about the performance of their fluxes, and touting the cost-savings derived from skipping the cleaning process. So, why WOULD anybody want to clean no-cleans?

Well, it happens all the time. Probably half of the PCB assembly companies across the globe are using "no clean" fluxes and still cleaning. There's lots of good reasons why. Here's a few:

  • Flux residues are not the only contamination being removed (ink, salts and solder balls, fingerprints). If you don't clean the boards, all that junk gets shipped out on the surface, causing unpredictable performance.
  • Flux residues detract from the cosmetic appearance of the boards. This is a major issue for consumer electronics, such as add-on video boards and sound cards.
  • Flux residues make conformal coatings fail. This is a big, big issue for circuit boards that live outside or work in harsh environments.
  • Corrosive no-clean flux activators often are incompletely encapsulated during rework or repair, due to uneven heating from the soldering system. This means the activators are on the exposed circuits, quite likely to cause corrosion and dendrite growth.
  • Often, flux residues make visual QC inspections nearly impossible. In the same way, flux residues can cause automated visual alignment systems to fail, as well as "bed of nails" test systems.
  • Flux residues cannot be tolerated on high-voltage systems.
  • Flux residues can add noise on analog-to-digital conversion circuits.
  • Flux residues make troubleshooting field repairs failures very difficult.
  • Flux residues make R&D work, like troubleshooting new designs, difficult.

It makes you think about the "no clean" claims! Personally, I think the smart customers are going back to easy-to-clean activated fluxes and solders. They get better, stronger circuits and run them through the cleaning system for clean boards with bring solder joints. It's so much easier and more reliable than partially cleaning no-clean production.

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Mike Jones
Vice President
Micro Care
Mr. Jones is an electronics cleaning and stencil printing specialist. Averaging over one hundred days a year on the road, Mike visits SMT production sites and circuit board repair facilities in every corner of the globe, helping engineers and technicians work through the complex trade-offs today's demanding electronics require.

Points to consider:

  • The no-clean flux residues are more difficult to remove than other fluxes.
  • No-clean solder pastes cannot be cleaned with water alone, aqueous based or solvent based cleaning agents are necessary
  • Automated cleaning systems such as conveyorized inline cleaner or a dishwasher (cabinet) style batch cleaner may be required with the use of aqueous or solvent based cleaning agents. In addition, higher temperature and higher spray pressure may be needed than what is used for water soluble residues.
  • No-clean fluxes that contain halides leave the most residues, but are easier to clean. Conversely, halide-free no-clean fluxes produce less residues, but are more difficult to clean.
  • Exposing no-clean solder pastes to excessive temperatures will cause the flux residue to harden and make it more difficult to clean

Advantages of Cleaning:

  • Prevent electrochemical migration, creep corrosion, leakage current etc
  • Improve the yield in-circuit testing r
  • Prevents malfunctions related to flux interference with high frequency signals
  • Better conformal coating/ underfill adhesion
  • Improve cosmetics
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Umut Tosun
Application Technology Manager
Zestron America
Mr. Tosun has published numerous technical articles. As an active member of the SMTA and IPC organizations, Mr. Tosun has presented a variety of papers and studies on topics such as "Lead-Free Cleaning" and "Climatic Reliability".

The pros & cons of cleaning circuit boards are monumental in opinions and applied science from both sides of the camp fire.

We are now in the era of "no-clean". However, this term seems to be an oxymoron as it relates to an expectation that soldering is the only operation in the electronic assembly process.

It is unrealistic to expect electronic assemblies to remain absolutely clean throughout the entire manufacturing life-cycle. Subsequent operations like inspection, touchup, repair/rework, testing, intermediate handling, storage, and final assembly are performed inclusive to soldering operations.

Most of these operations are not carried out under clean room conditions by people who always wear gloves or finger cots. The assemblies thus become contaminated by human handling, sedimentation from the air, natural oxidation, and contact with workbenches, storage bins, and so on.

The level of cleanliness after no-clean soldering bears little resemblance to that existing at the final stage of assembly. Will this be acceptable? Is there value added to clean or not clean? Are your assemblies for garage door openers with a $4 dollar BOM or a board as part of an assembly costing hundreds or thousands of dollars? I know what I will be cleaning!

Ineffective cleaning has been identified, using several reliability test procedures, as a major cause for component and circuit failures. In the era of no-clean, violations of the rules of cleanliness were not manifested as major failures and the industry grew complacent. There seems to be a basic lack of appreciation as to why we clean.

This no-clean oxymoron has left the electronics industry with a legacy of declining product yields and an increase in field failures. We must remember that in the electronics industry, the basic technical reasons for cleaning are as follows:

  1. To prevent electrical problems
  2. To promote coating adhesion
  3. To eliminate corrosion hazards
  4. To preserve mechanical properties
  5. To facilitate inspection (cosmetic)

These objectives, individually and in combination, make the need for contamination control of high-density circuitry of paramount importance.

If you need further assistance in this matter do not hesitate to contact me.

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Charlie Pitarys
Inside Sales Technical Manager
Kyzen Corporation
Charlie Pitarys has thirty years of industry experience and has been with Kyzen Corporation for sixteen years. Charlie is a former Marine and a retired Sargent First Class in the Army Reserves. His previous employers include Hollis and Electrovert. Charlie continues to use his expertise on cleaning processes and machine mechanics to help Kyzen customers and partners improve their cleaning operations.
  • No-clean pastes have been used for the last 20+ years and have had a very good track record
  • 70-75% of global electronics is a no-clean process with no cleaning of the flux residue - big $$$ saving

Cons of cleaning no-clean flux residues

  • DI water alone cannot be used to clean & it will react with the rosin (in the flux residue) to form white powder; solvent-saponifier chemistry needs to be used and this means more $$$; also capital expenditure is involved if there is no cleaner in the first place
  • for low-standoff components, it becomes more difficult to clean
  • the rosin in the no-clean flux provides the inert, non-hygroscopic cover on top of reflowed flux residue and ensures that the ions do not have a path to electromigrate and cause corrosion. If the no-clean flux residue is not cleaned off properly, then it is as bad as leaving water-wash flux residue behind. Ions left behind on the board will cause corrosion

Potential Pros of cleaning no-clean flux residues

  • for post-reflow operations such as underfilling / conformal coating, the no-clean flux residue id left behind may outgass / prevent good adherence with the epoxies and therefore to the substrate; though there are many many applications that underfill / conformal coat over the no-clean flux residue (without cleaning) with no issues
  • allows for good cosmetics though a lot of no-clean flux residues are almost colorless; also cosmetics is subjective and en-reliability is most important
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Karthik Vijay
Technical Manager - Europe
Indium Corp.
Currently with Indium Corporation and responsible for technology programs and technical support for customers in Europe. Over 15 yrs experience in SMT, Power, Thermal & Semiconductor Applications. Masters Degree in Industrial Engg, State University of New York-Binghamton.

There are lots of reasons to remove no-clean flux residues from PCBs. Cleaning came to no-clean fluxes when problems emerged with in-circuit testing. The residues from the first no-clean formulations were gummy, and test pins could not reliably penetrate the flux to make electrical contact with the test pads.

In addition, the residue would gradually build up on the pins, causing problems test accuracy and the increase of maintenance was also a draw back. However, the most of the newer formulations of no-clean solder paste have negated this issue.

Today, one of the most common reasons to remove no-clean fluxes is to prevent malfunctions in circuits with clock speeds over 1 gigahertz. "When you get above 1 gigahertz, the electronscan conducted on the outer surface of the conductor. If you have flux on those conductors that have those high clock speeds, it can interfere with these fast signals."

Another reason to remove no-clean fluxes is to increase the bonding of conformal coatings and under fill materials. Some no-clean flux residue can absorb moisture so when you dispense an under fill material beneath a flip chip, and heat it to curing temperature, you can get a little pocket of steam or gas. Eventually, that can cause the under fill material to separate from the board.

Some very conscientious houses will clean no-clean fluxes to remove any possibility of solder balls. They will also clean PCBs exposed to extreme environments; or simply to improve the cosmetic appearance of the boards.

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Terry Jeglum
President/CEO
Electronic Technology Corporation
Mr. Jeglum has 35+ years experience and is the founder of Electronic Technology Corporation. He is responsible for 22 years of program management for the Company.

Cleaning a no-clean flux requires both, time and effort. It is necessary to match the chemistry to the flux, all of which is added cost.

In terms of reliability, I have no data comparing cleaned with uncleaned, however partially cleaned flux residues can release ionic material that can compromise reliability.

Cleaning is most advantageous when an additional material is to be applied to the assembly (e.g. conformal coating, potting material, etc.). However, the removal of residues eliminates the possibility of adverse interactions between the flux residues and the secondary material.

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Doug Dixon
Global Marketing Director
Henkel Electronics
Mr. Dixon has been in the electronics field for over twenty years and is the Global Marketing Director with the electronics group of Henkel. Prior to joining Henkel, he worked for Raytheon, Camalot Systems, and Universal Instruments.

I believe that there are a lot of new cleaning chemistries in the market today that do clean off no-clean residues. Kyzen, who makes cleaning solutions would be a good company to talk with.

Typically No Clean residues are difficult to remove since they aren't very soluble in most solvents including water. I would typically suggest that if you decide to go down the route of no clean technologies you try to not clean.

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Mike Scimeca
President
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.

In my opinion, "no clean" is a myth, at least the cases I have encountered. There are still oxidation residues (albeit trace quantities) and by products caused during the heating cycles.

In my view, the more critical the application is (in terms of contamination potential from ANY source), cleaning post-process is still the wise path.

I guess the balancing act is what is the cost of product failure, for whatever reason; and, what is the likelihood of contamination from a "no-clean" process. Again, I think that "no-clean" is a marketing over-hype.

Jim Williams
Chairman
Polyonics, Inc.
Jim Willimas is a PhD Chemist in Polymers and Materials Science. He specialize in printing, cleaning, inks, and coatings used in electronics manufacturng operations. Williams has more than 30 years experience.
If it is "no-clean", why do you clean it? Cleaning the "no-clean" residues is not only costly (chemicals $$$) but risky too. With the low profile components, high complexity boards and assemblies that need conformal coating, I am a big fan of water soluble materials.

From my perspective, depending on the manufacturing process, you can still use the clean or the no clean solder. My recommendation is to evaluate all the potential risks before you start the process. Flux residues usually create the opportunity for late failures.
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Georgian Simion
Engineering and Operations Management
Independent Consultant
Georgian Simion is an independent consultant with 20+ years in electronics manufacturing engineering and operations.
Contact me at georgiansimion@yahoo.com.

I would like to change the question from "Pros and Cons of Cleaning No-Clean" to "Pros and Cons of Cleaning".

It is true that all no-clean fluxes and pastes leave behind some residues. In some cases, the residues are tolerable to the assemblies and in other cases they are not. In a recent industry pole of assemblers reflowing with no-clean paste, 53% of respondents indicated they clean the assemblies after reflow. Perhaps we should consider a more accurate description of no-clean flux/paste as "Low Residue".

The bigger issue when an assembler reflows an assembly and does not remove the flux residues is the fact that nothing else is removed. One should consider that a cleaning process cleans everything. There are contaminant species from board fabrication, component fabrication residues, assembly residues, human handling residues, and, of course, flux residues. When we choose not to remove flux residues, we choose not to remove any residues. A defluxing process is more accurately defined as a cleaning process.

Every electronic assembly has a tolerance for residues, some have a higher tolerance and some have a low tolerance.

Assembly design, component placement and density, in-use environment, voltage, etc all play a role in determining an assembly's residue tolerance. The result of intolerable residues is electro-chemical migration (ECM). If one wants to eliminate the possibility of ECM, remove all residues (flux and others).
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Mike Konrad
President
Aqueous Technologies
Mr. Konrad has been in the electronic assembly equipment industry since 1985. He is founder and CEO of Aqueous Technologies Corporation, a manufacturer of automatic de-fluxing equipment, chemicals, and cleanliness testing systems.
Reader Comment
The feedback is one-sided. I would like to hear from the Flux manufacturers who must have data showing no increase in failures by using No-Clean. 53% of board stuffers in a recent Poll (highlighted in todays newsletter) said they clean no clean that still means 47% do not. If there were such danger and defect levels with not cleaning I would expect that the percentage of Board cleaners after no clean fluxes would be much higher. Please show the data that tells us we have to clean? is it a 1% difference or a 40% difference in the defects?
Dave Chapman, Coilcraft
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