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Wave Soldering vs. Reflow Soldering

Soldering is a huge part of the printed circuit board design process. The only reliable way to get your circuits to stick to your board and stay there is by soldering them on. Without soldering, there are no printed circuit boards. But not all types of soldering are created equal, and it can be important to differentiate between the different types for PCBs.

There are two main types of soldering for PCBs: wave soldering and reflow soldering. What is the difference between the two, and how do you know which type of soldering to use in which circumstances?

What Is Wave Soldering?

Wave soldering is a bulk soldering process that enables one to manufacture many circuit boards in a very short amount of time. It works by passing each circuit board over a pan of molten solder. A pump in the pan creates a “wave” of solder that washes over the board, soldering the components to the board. The PCB then receives a water spray or air blowing to safely cool it and fix the parts in place.

Proper temperatures are very important during the wave soldering process. Failing to sufficiently control for temperature can put mechanical stress on the board, which can lead to cracks and loss of conductivity. Insufficient preheating can cause cavities, which can compromise both board strength and conductivity. The wrong solder temperature can result in failure to obtain the proper solder thickness, which could make the board more susceptible to stress.

What Is Reflow Soldering?

The reflow soldering process is a little bit different than wave soldering, but it’s the most common way to attach surface mount components to a circuit board. Wave soldering is more frequently used for soldering through-hole components. Although it’s possible to use reflow soldering for this purpose, it rarely is since wave soldering is more cost effective.

In reflow soldering, we make a solder paste out of powdered solder and flux, then use that paste to attach components to contact pads. We then heat the entire assembly in a reflow oven or under an infrared lamp to melt the solder and connect the joint. You can solder individual joints with a hot air pencil if necessary.

Wave Soldering vs. Reflow Soldering

So, how do you know which type of soldering to use and when? It may depend on a variety of factors, such as pad shapes, the amount of time you have, component orientations, type of printed circuit board and more. In some ways, wave soldering is more complex. Issues like board temperature and time the board spends in the solder wave need careful monitoring. Failure to create the right wave soldering environment is much more likely to lead to board defects.

You don’t need to be nearly as concerned about controlling the environment when you’re utilizing reflow soldering to fabricate your printed circuit boards. However, even with that being the case, wave soldering tends to be faster and cheaper than reflow soldering. In more than a few cases, it’s the only practical way to solder a board. Reflow soldering is typically used in smaller scale manufacturing products that don’t require a method amenable to fast, cheap mass production.

Keep in mind that you may be able to use both reflow soldering and wave soldering for certain situations. You might reflow solder parts on one side and then wave solder them on the other. Also, you can always manually solder or hand solder PCB components, but this will rarely be a good approach if you have access to one of the mechanical methods of soldering. Manual soldering would only be an alternative to reflow soldering, but reflow soldering is still far superior.

More on Soldering and Printed Circuit Boards

Type of soldering is only one of many elements that go into making the types of printed circuit boards ideal for various industry applications. As a leader in supplying a wide variety of printed circuit boards, Millennium Circuits Limited experts know a great deal about the types of soldering and other elements of PCBs, such as the types of substrate material, variations in boards and important design features.

To discuss any aspect of the printed circuit board fabrication process, or to learn more about quality printed circuit boards in general, contact us today.