Reflow soldering is a process in which a solder paste (a sticky mixture of powdered solder and flux) is used to temporarily attach one or several electrical components to their contact pads, after which the entire assembly is subjected to controlled heat, which melts the solder, permanently connecting the joint. Heating may be accomplished by passing the assembly through a reflow oven or under an infrared lamp or by soldering individual joints with a hot air pencil.
Reflow soldering is the most common method of attaching surface mount components to a circuit board, although it can also be used for through-hole components by filling the holes with solder paste and inserting the component leads through the paste. Because wave soldering can be simpler and cheaper, reflow is not generally used on pure through-hole boards. When used on boards containing a mix of SMT and THT components, through-hole reflow allows the wave soldering step to be eliminated from the assembly process, potentially reducing assembly costs.
The goal of the reflow process is to melt the solder and heat the adjoining surfaces, without overheating and damaging the electrical components. In the conventional reflow soldering process, there are usually four stages, called “zones”, each having a distinct thermal profile: preheat, thermal soak (often shortened to just soak), reflow, and cooling.
Preheat is the first stage of the reflow process. During this reflow phase, the entire board assembly climbs towards a target soak or dwell temperature. The main goal of the preheat phase is to get the entire assembly safely and consistently to a soak or pre-reflow temperature. Preheat is also an opportunity for volatile solvents in the solder paste to outgas. For paste solvents to be properly expelled and the assembly to safely reach pre-reflow temperatures the PCB must be heated in a consistent, linear manner. An important metric for the first phase of the reflow process is the temperature slope rate or rise vs time. This is often measured in degrees Celsius per second, C/s. Many variables factor into a manufacturer’s target slope rate. These include: target processing time, solder paste volatility, and component considerations. It is important to account for all these process variables, but in most cases sensitive component considerations are paramount. “Many components will crack if their temperature is changed too quickly. The maximum rate of thermal change that the most sensitive components can withstand becomes the maximum allowable slope”. However, if thermally sensitive components are not in use and maximizing throughput is of great concern, aggressive slope rates may be tailored to improve processing time. For this reason, many manufacturers push these slope rates up to the maximum common allowable rate of 3.0°C/Second. Conversely, if a solder paste containing particularly strong solvents is being used, heating the assembly too fast can easily create an out of control process. As the volatile solvents outgas they may splatter solder off the pads and onto the board. Solder-balling is the main concern of violent outgassing during the preheat phase. Once a board has been ramped up to temperature in the preheat phase it is time to enter the soak or pre-reflow phase.
The last zone is a cooling zone to gradually cool the processed board and solidify the solder joints. Proper cooling inhibits excess intermetallic formation or thermal shock to the components. Typical temperatures in the cooling zone range from 30–100 °C (86–212 °F). A fast cooling rate is chosen to create a fine grain structure that is most mechanically sound. Unlike the maximum ramp-up rate, the ramp–down rate is often ignored. It may be that the ramp rate is less critical above certain temperatures, however, the maximum allowable slope for any component should apply whether the component is heating up or cooling down. A cooling rate of 4°C/s is commonly suggested. It is a parameter to consider when analyzing process results.