Soldering/desoldering stations evolve in technology and hardware design

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Soldering and desoldering stations cater to various production demands of the electronics industry. A soldering station is used for soldering electronics components on a PCB, and in some cases, it can also be utilised as a desoldering tool. Some soldering stations come with special desoldering extensions, which make desoldering operations easier and cleaner.

By Richa Chakravarty

Friday, August 12. 2011: Suitable for medium to high density soldering processes, these systems are available in numerous models to meet the exact requirements of manufacturers.

Over the years, these machines have evolved in technology and hardware design to meet the growing demands of customers. Today, these machines are stringently tested for quality on the parameters of performance, operational fluency and construction specifications.

Soldering is a process where two or more metal items are joined together by melting and pouring a filler metal into the joint. There are three forms of soldering—soft soldering, silver soldering and brazing. Each of these forms requires higher temperatures and produces an increasingly stronger joint strength by using different alloys as fillers. Where soft soldering uses a tin-lead alloy as the filler, silver soldering uses an alloy containing silver, and brazing uses a brass alloy for the filler. The joint strength is dependent on the filler metal used. A soft solder is the weakest and the brass alloy used for brazing is the strongest. However, based on their specific requirements, these machines find major applications in production and service centres in the electronics and telecom industry, in R&D labs and in hardware centres.

What’s new

SK Jain, MD, Sumitron Exports

Soldering operations can be done for through-hole, SMT, hybrid and other soldering applications. Today, the market offers the latest advances in technology and productivity enhancing solutions for production. Presently, these systems offer a wide range of single channel soldering stations to meet the exact specifications with efficiency and reliability. Innovations have always kept this segment growing. Right from alloys (used as fillers) to temperature regulations, manufacturers have been adding innovative features to respond to ever growing customer requirements. Space saving designs, longer tip life, sleep mode, high temperature recovery mode, etc, are just a few of the innovative features introduced by manufacturers in soldering and desoldering stations. The latest soldering stations consist of a complete benchtop control unit into which a special low voltage soldering iron is plugged. Some versions have a built-in digital temperature read-out and a control knob to vary the setting. The best stations have soldering irons that are well balanced, with comfortable handles that remain cool all day.

Sanjay Merchant, MD, Klapp Heating Tools

Also, proper temperature controlled stations have some form of built-in thermostatic control, to ensure that the temperature of the bit (the tip of the iron) is maintained at a fixed level (within limits). This is to ensure that the temperature does not overshoot in between times, and also guarantees that the output is relatively stable.

Informs Dilip Rane, regional sales manager, South East Asia, OK International, India, “New soldering tip geometries are being added to the range, constantly, in order to respond to ever growing customer applications, and custom tips are also being designed for specific customers or markets.” The latest PS-900-Solar (soldering station) offered by OK International combines the STV-DRH440A hoof tip which is specially designed to optimise the power delivered to the work surface (solder joint), thus providing high performance efficiency with increased tip life.

Kumud Tyagi, VP, Bergen Associated

From normal stations that are ESD compliant to lead free stations, Klapp Heating Tools offers a wide range to meet customer requirements. “We offer double diaphragm heavy duty desoldering stations, which can desolder from a 10 layer PCB without damaging the tracks. We also make SMD rework stations to meet the preferences of our customers,” adds Sanjay Merchant, managing director, Klapp Heating Tools Pvt Ltd.

RoHS compliant stations for lead free applications from Sumitron Exports display the latest innovations by its principal Hakko Corporation, Japan. “The latest features introduced by our principal include the ‘control card’ to lock temperature settings, the ‘sleep function’ for extended tip life, and compact space saving and energy saving designs,” shares SK Jain, managing director, Sumitron Exports. Hakko FM203 ESD safe station has multiple modes of soldering, desoldering and SMD rework. It includes powerful thermal recovery and an energy saving design with auto power shut-off.

Dilip Rane, regional sales manager, South East Asia, Ok International

Representing its principal, Goot of Japan, Advance Tech Services offers soldering and desoldering stations that range from the economical to high end advanced technology systems. Quick heat generation and recovery, longer tip life, programmable solder joint time, sleep mode and auto power-off are some of the new features it offers. “Our latest model, the RX-852AS, is a high watt station (150 watt) that can solder heavy joints in no time. Also, the new PTH desoldering model, the TP-250AS, has the special quick vacuum feature for better results. In the SMD range, we have economical, feature packed solutions depending on customer needs,” informs Ajay Gupta, director, technical, Advance Tech Services Pvt Ltd.

Technological innovations

From handheld soldering irons to temperature controlled soldering stations, there have always been advancements in technology in soldering and desoldering stations. There are various types of soldering and desoldering stations available in the market, with old as well as the latest technology. “Today, we have a new generation of intelligent soldering stations, which might seem costly on the face of it, but eventually, their advanced features that ensure high reliability, lead to a low cost of ownership. Several stations come with inert gas based where the joint can be of really high quality,” adds Ajay Gupta.

Ajay Sethi, GM, Apex Tool Group

Today the market is moving towards digital, ball grid array (BGA) rework stations, electrostatic discharge (ESD) safe stations for SMD components and lead free soldering stations.
The latest soldering stations available in the market come in with perfect combination of innovative features to not only help in design and operations but are equally efficient and productive. Features like multiple language selection, graphic LC display, versatile connectivity, 240 W power supply, robust touchscreen, multi-purpose USB port and intelligent tools
(built-in analogue to digital converter and data memory read) options are some the new features being installed in soldering stations.

The innovative WX 2 from Weller is designed for ease of use. From its uniquely responsive touchscreen to its exceptionally intuitive user interface. This 240 W soldering station can be used as benchtop controllers, and has features like multipurpose USB port, graphic LC display, multiple language menu navigation and energy saving sleep mode. “Behind the impressive design of the WX 2 lies a powerful and easy to use two channel soldering system. A variety of connectivity options, intelligent soldering tools and a number of brand new features make the WX 2 an ideal tool for today’s requirements when it comes to soldering work on LED backplanes, solar applications and micro soldering joints. With the WX 2, Weller has raised the bar for soldering performance once again,” says Ajay Sethi, general manager, Apex Tool Group, LLC.

Ajay Gupta, director, technical, Advance Tech Services

Digital soldering stations have outsmarted the analogue stations because of their inbuilt auto temperature and wattage control options. While analogue units have knobs to control (increase or decrease) the temperature, there is no display to show the temperature that has been currently set. Also, the temperature setting in these units is not very accurate. On the other hand, digital units have settings to control the temperature digitally. These also have a display that shows the temperature that has been currently set. They offer better accuracy but cost more than their analogue counterparts.

The market offers a wide range of digital, compact and high power soldering and desoldering solutions. “Ersa HR 100 and IRHP 100 from our principal Ersa GmbH (Germany) is a rework system that offers unique concept of hybrid heating (infrared and convention) for rework applications,” informs Kumud Tyagi, vice president, Bergen Associates Pvt Ltd.

Several systems in the market come with analogue controls but digital displays. Often, customers mistake them for digital stations. Soldering stations where both the controls and the display are digital can be termed digital stations. These are capable of controlling various process parameters. Says SK Jain,  “Both the analogue and digital types are used in production lines as well as in R&D centres. Repair centres also use both types, depending on the application.”

BGA rework stations:
As the name suggests, these are basically an array of metal alloy balls arranged in a grid. A BGA package simply looks like a thin wafer of semiconducting material that has circuit components on only one face. It is a type of memory chip (package type) that is directly mounted to the module by solder balls found on the underside of the chip. “BGA rework is now possible with these stations, which earlier could only be done by large machines. Also, there are now high frequency machines being manufactured, which make it better for lead free soldering,” says Sanjay Merchant. The growing popularity of BGA rework stations is because of its reduction in package size. Further, it allows better heat dissipation and greater module densities.

ESD soldering stations guarantee that the static energy from a person’s body (hands, etc) will be dumped to the ground via the plastic soldering iron handle or solder station plastic housing, which are called ESD safe or EDS proof soldering stations. These solder stations essentially discharge the static charge of the user’s body to the ground every time the soldering iron is picked up. Failure to protect sensitive electronic components from ESD can damage the component to the extent of failure. Most stations available today are ESD compliant.

Lead free soldering stations are gaining popularity in the market for the simple reason that lead, being one of the harmful metals, has been banned in certain categories of electrical and electronic equipment. Among the evolving technologies, lead free soldering stations are being used. In soft solders, where the filler is an alloy of tin and lead,  another alloy of tin, silver and copper is now being used. Despite being expensive, this lead free soldering station is gaining acceptance as it offers high reliability and good solderability.

Following the latest technology trends, OK International has developed the SmartHeat conduction soldering systems, which can uniquely sense the exact thermal requirements for each solder joint, and respond by delivering the precise amount of thermal energy at the rate required to create a reliable connection. “SmartHeat powered soldering and desoldering stations have variable power and a fixed temperature. All our Metcal and OKi soldering, desoldering and rework systems have SmartHeat technology built in. They operate at lower and safer temperatures with the power delivered in proportion to the load,” shares Dilip Rane. These SmartHeat powered stations offer a high degree of control without resorting to the higher tip idle temperatures required by conventional ceramic heater technologies, thus minimising the risk of component/board damage.

How to choose the right station

Choosing the right kind of soldering station depends on the application as well as the budget. A wide range of stations for various applications, innovative features, numerous brands, different levels of quality and price, all combine to leave buyers in a dilemma. “Buyers should go for a product that requires minimal training time, is easy and comfortable to use, meets every application need and improves productivity,” suggests Dilip Rane.

While price is an issue for buyers, one should make sure that quality does not suffer. Productivity and applicability should be major parameters while making a purchase decision. “Stations with the latest technology are costly, so buyers seek to procure cheaper products. The price trend has been quite stable, in fact, the prices are moving down except for lead free stations,” informs Sanjay Merchant.

Chinese products flourishing in the Indian market is another issue of concern—not just for manufacturers but for buyers as well. Buyers are lured by the low prices of these soldering stations and later suffer on account of poor quality, while manufacturers have to compete on price and quality parameters. Suggests Ajay Gupta, “Instead of going for cheap products, buyers must look for the supplier’s credibility, availability of spare parts/consumables and reliability of the product. In order to acquire the optimum solution, it is advisable to discuss one’s soldering needs with the supplier.”

Here are some more tips to choose the right kind of soldering and desoldering stations:

  • Choose a soldering station with a desoldering tool if you perform extensive repairs. Since these are expensive, and your budget does not cover this option, you can also go in for a simple soldering station with a desoldering copper braid.
  • Choose a soldering station with multiple tips of different sizes and shapes if you work on boards with different kinds of components. Electronic chips with a large number of pins require fine tips for soldering, while through-hole components can be soldered using thick tips. It is, therefore, a good idea to have tips of different sizes and types.
  • Choose a soldering station with temperature controls if you need to work on boards with different types of components and large ground planes. Since using excessive heat can damage a component, a temperature controlled soldering station should be a preferred choice.
  • Check the manufacturers’ credibility and reliability and ensure that they offer after sales support as well.
  • Check for the availability of spare parts in your local market.
  • Always choose quality over price.
Electronics Bazaar, South Asia’s No.1 Electronics B2B magazine

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