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Soldering SMDs: It's Becoming Unavoidable

by Nicholas Vinen

If you’ve been reading SILICON CHIP for a while, you will have noticed that from time to time we publish projects which use surface mount devices (SMDs). We’ve tried to avoid them where possible because many, probably most, home constructors and hobbyists are at least a little apprehensive about using them. For some, building a project which involves one or more surface mount devices may deter them completely from building the project.

And that’s a shame.

The problem is that SMDs are not going to go away – we find we have to use them more and more often. There is a simple reason for that: many newer ICs and semiconductors are not even produced in through-hole packages.

So if you can’t beat ’em, we need to help you join ’em!

What are the major problems, apart from the fact that SMDs are (usually) very much smaller than their through-hole counterparts and even people with perfect eyesight often need a magnifying glass or loupe to identify them?

Probably the biggest is that there is definitely less margin for error – due of course to the thin tracks required for parts with close pin spacing. It doesn’t take a lot of excess heat to lift tracks off the circuit board and repair can be tricky. Another difficulty is one identical with through-hole semis: too much heat risks damaging/destroying them. But it’s easier to apply too much heat with SMDs!

Having said that, if you have a steady hand and some patience, with a bit of practice, dealing with SMDs becomes fairly straightforward. It really helps to have the right tools. In this article we take a look at a selection of tools which make soldering both surface mount and through-hole devices easier and quicker.

This is not the first time that we have written about SMD soldering. Our previous articles have touched on several different techniques suited to specific types of packages, as there are many SMD package types, each of which requires a different approach.

For our previous tutorials see How To Hand-Solder Very Small SMD ICs (October 2009), How To Solder Surface Mount Devices (March 2008) and Working With Surface Mount Components (January 1995).

Those articles covered mainly the “how to” aspects. Here, we are going to look at some of the specialist equipment available. It is by no means an exhaustive list – in fact, much of this article has been generated by various suppliers
submitting equipment for review. It seems they too are now firmly hitched to
the SMD bandwagon!

Nor are we suggesting that all of this equipment is required by the enthusiast, though all of it can be used by hobbyists (noting the sometimes deep pockets required and also sufficient volume of construction to warrant it!).

But it will give a good idea of the type of equipment that is already being used extensively in industry, service/repair and electronics laboratories in
Australia and around the world.

Click for larger image
Click for larger image
"Mini-wave" soldering tip for the T245 handpiece.

Have you heard of JBC soldering stations? We hadn’t either and didn’t know what to expect. What we discovered is a serious unit with some excellent features.

We only had this evaluation unit for a short period but during that time it quickly became apparent that it is something special.

Like many modern soldering stations it features digital control, which allows the tip temperature to be precisely set and monitored.

Two handpieces are available, the standard-sized T245 and the T210 lightweight, fine tip version. The base station has an LCD display and keypad along with the integrated stand and metal wool for cleaning.

That’s all pretty straightforward but when we started using it we made some pleasant discoveries.

Clever temperature management

JBC have designed the heating element and tip in a way which gives two advantages over other models we have tried. Firstly, because the tip is light and has very low thermal mass, it heats up rapidly.

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