Pb-Free Sky is Not Falling

Folks,

Although a few have suggested that lead-free reliability is an oxymoron, currently most people that have studied the reliability of SAC3XX and SAC105 Pb-free solders would conclude something akin to what Denny Fritz wrote in response to one of my posts:

No one I know will dispute your ranking of SAC better than SnPb solder using the commercial temperature cycle [Dr. Greg] Henshall uses – 0C to 100C. But, harsh environment electronics have to perform to either -40C or -55C, and most use a top end cycling temperature of 125C. IT IS IN THAT WIDE THERMAL CYCLE TESTING THAT SnPb outperforms SAC solders.

It is interesting to consider however, that almost all discussions on lead-free solder reliability are based on lab-based thermal cycling and drop shock testing. What about field results? It occurred to me that I knew someone who might have an answer.

Vahid Goudarzi is a Director of NPI Advanced Manufacturing Technology at Motorola and owns a Six Sigma Black Belt. He was the technical leader in Motorola’s efforts for lead-free and RoHS compliant assembly in its mobile phone products. There are few people I know that are more knowledgeable in electronics assembly than Vahid. Motorola was a very early adopter of lead-free, seeking the advantage of tighter lead spacings that lead-free allows. So, Vahid has been working on lead-free processes since the late 1990s. Motorola has been shipping lead-free mobile phones since 2001. With over 100 million mobile phones in the field since then, Motorola has quite a bit of lead-free field data. I asked Vahid if he could comment on these data. Here is his response:

In general, the reliability of lead-free solder is equal or better than leaded solder except for BGA/CSP/WLCSPs. The high silver content in SAC387 resulted in poor drop performance of these packages as the joints are very brittle. This issue can be addressed by reducing the Ag content of the solder balls.

Being an early adopter, Motorola qualified the near-eutectic SAC387 solder. So, with SAC387 and SAC105 solder balls, Motorola’s field data (for about ten years and over 100 million mobile phones) shows equal or better reliability than leaded solder. While these data do not necessarily support other applications, they are encouraging.

Another encouraging thought is that, since its debut (with RoHS now about to celebrate its fifth anniversary),  about $4 trillion worth of lead-free electronics have been manufactured with no shocking reliability problems.

Although admittedly anecdotal, the IT folks at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering have purchased over a million dollars in lead-free electronics since RoHS. They have noticed no difference in reliability. This is enough gear, and time, to have the beginnings of statistical confidence. Compare this to the advent of Microsoft’s Vista, it was viewed by these folks as a step backward and they immediately took action to prevent Dartmouth from adopting it. Yet, lead-free adoption went by unnoticed. The biggest reliability problem with PCs is still hard drive failure.

So concerning lead-free field reliability: The sky is not falling!

Best Wishes,

Dr. Ron

About Dr. Ron

Materials expert Dr. Ron Lasky is a professor of engineering and senior lecturer at Dartmouth, and senior technologist at Indium Corp. He has a Ph.D. in materials science from Cornell University, and is a prolific author and lecturer, having published more than 40 papers. He received the SMTA Founders Award in 2003.
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