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SMT Assembly – What Should You Know About it?

Introduction to SMT Assembly

Surface-mount technology (SMT) assembly is a method for producing electronic circuits in which the components are mounted directly onto the surface of printed circuit boards (PCBs). SMT has largely replaced the through-hole technology construction method of fitting components with wire leads into holes in the circuit board. Both technologies can be used on the same board for components not suited to surface mounting such as large transformers and heat-sinked power semiconductors.

SMT has many advantages over the older through-hole technique, including:

  • Smaller components
  • Much higher component density (components per unit area) and many more connections per component
  • Lower resistance and inductance at the connection
  • Better mechanical performance under shake and vibration conditions
  • Fewer holes need to be drilled through the PCB
  • Simpler and faster automated assembly
  • Solder joint quality easily checked
  • Small errors in component placement that would cause a defect in through-hole assembly generally do not cause a defect in SMT
  • Components can be placed on both sides of the circuit board
  • Lower initial cost and time of setting up for production

The main disadvantage of SMT is that the solder connections are not as physically robust as through-hole connections. This makes them more vulnerable to damage and cracks caused by mechanical stress, thermal changes, and/or physical trauma. For example, bending a circuit board can cause SMT solder joints to fracture.

Despite this disadvantage, SMT is the dominant circuit manufacturing process today due to its many advantages. Let’s take a deeper look at the SMT assembly process and what you should know about it.

The SMT Assembly Process

The SMT component placement process involves several steps:

  1. Solder Paste Stenciling – A thin stainless steel stencil is placed over the PCB. This stencil has holes cut out where the solder paste needs to be applied. A squeegee is used to apply solder paste through these holes and onto the PCB pads underneath. The stencil is then removed, leaving the solder paste deposits in the correct locations.

  2. Component Placement – The PCB is placed into a pick-and-place machine that picks up SMT components from tape reels or trays and places them onto their designated locations on the PCB. High-end machines can place thousands of components per hour with great accuracy.

  3. Reflow Soldering – After component placement, the PCB goes through a reflow soldering oven. The oven gradually heats the board to melt the solder paste. The surface tension of the molten solder causes the SMT component leads to align and connect properly with their pads on the PCB. The oven then cools the board to solidify the solder joints.

  4. Inspection and Testing – Various inspection and testing methods are used to check for defects and ensure the assembled PCBs function properly. These include automated optical inspection (AOI), X-ray inspection, in-circuit testing (ICT), functional testing, and more.

Here is a simple table outlining the SMT assembly process:

Step Process Description
1 Solder Paste Stenciling Solder paste is applied to PCB pads through a stencil
2 Component Placement SMT components are picked and placed onto the PCB
3 Reflow Soldering The PCB is heated to melt solder and form joints
4 Inspection & Testing The assembled PCB is checked for defects and functionality

Solder Paste Stenciling

The solder paste stenciling process is a critical step in SMT assembly. The solder paste consists of tiny solder balls mixed in a paste of flux and other ingredients. It must be evenly applied in the right amounts and at the precise locations.

Some key aspects of the solder paste stenciling process include:

  • Stencil Design – The stencil aperture sizes and shapes must match the PCB pad sizes and shapes. Any mismatch can cause solder defects.
  • Solder Paste Selection – The right type of solder paste must be selected based on the SMT components and PCB characteristics. Properties like metal composition, particle size, flux activity level, and viscosity need to be considered.
  • Squeegee Pressure and Speed – The squeegee blade pressure and speed must be optimized to achieve the desired solder paste deposits without smearing.
  • Stencil Cleaning – The stencil must be periodically cleaned to prevent clogging of apertures and solder smearing. Understencil cleaning systems are used for this.

Component Placement

Modern SMT pick-and-place machines are highly automated and extremely fast. They use computer-vision systems to identify and align components, vacuum nozzles to pick them up, and high-precision, multi-axis motion systems to place them accurately on the PCB.

Some advanced capabilities of SMT placement machines include:

  • Placing chip components, SOICs, QFPs, BGAs, and other common SMT packages
  • Placing oddly-shaped components using special nozzles
  • On-the-fly component centering and rotation correction
  • Dispensing adhesives and encapsulants
  • Placing components on both sides of the PCB
  • Direct tray feeders and tape & reel feeders
  • Auto nozzle changing and auto feeder replenishment
  • Board stretch compensation
  • PCB Warpage compensation using multi-zone vacuum conveyors

Here is a table comparing the typical specs of low-end, mid-range, and high-end pick-and-place machines:

Spec Low-End Mid-Range High-End
Placement Rate (cph) 5,000 40,000 120,000
Component Range (mm) 0402 to 15×15 01005 to 32×32 008004 to 150×100
Placement Accuracy (μm) ±100 ±50 ±25
Feeder Inputs 80 160 320
Board Size Range (mm) 50×50 to 330×250 50×50 to 510×460 50×50 to 1200×510

Reflow Soldering

After the SMT components are placed, the PCB needs to go through a reflow soldering process to permanently attach the components to the PCB. The goal of reflow soldering is to melt the solder paste, bond the component leads to the pads, and then cool to form solid solder joints.

The reflow soldering process involves a carefully controlled heating and cooling cycle. A typical reflow oven has multiple heating zones that can be individually controlled to optimize the thermal profile for the specific PCB and components.

The key steps in the reflow soldering process are:

  1. Preheat – The PCB is gradually heated to evaporate the solvents in the solder paste and activate the flux.

  2. Thermal Soak – The PCB temperature is held steady to allow all areas to be evenly heated and to allow the activated flux to clean the component leads and pads.

  3. Reflow – The temperature is rapidly increased to 20-40°C above the solder melting point. The solder paste melts, solder bonds form between component leads and pads, and surface tension causes components to self-align.

  4. Cooling – The PCB is cooled, solidifying the solder joints. Proper cooling is important to form solder joints with good appearance and mechanical strength.

The exact temperatures and times of each reflow process step must be optimized based on the solder paste characteristics, PCB thermal mass, component thermal requirements, and other factors.

Some advanced features of modern reflow ovens include:

  • Nitrogen atmosphere for oxidation-free soldering
  • Vacuum soldering to remove voids
  • Ramp rate control to reduce PCB warpage
  • Forced convection for even heating
  • Optimal reflow (OPR) control using real-time PCB thermal profiling

Here is an example reflow soldering thermal profile with typical temperatures and times:

Phase Min Temp (°C) Max Temp (°C) Time (seconds)
Preheat 150 180 60-120
Thermal Soak 180 200 60-120
Reflow 235 250 30-90
Cooling 230 100 60-120

Inspection and Testing

After the PCB has been assembled and reflowed, it must go through various inspection and testing steps to verify the assembly quality and functionality. Some common SMT inspection and testing methods include:

  • Visual Inspection – Manual visual checks by operators for obvious defects like missing components, tombstoning, solder bridging, etc.

  • Automated Optical Inspection (AOI) – Automated visual inspection using high-resolution cameras and image analysis software to check for component presence, position, polarity, solder defects, and other visual anomalies.

  • X-Ray Inspection – Inspection using X-rays to check solder joints hidden under BGAs, popcorned components, voids, and other defects not visible externally.

  • In-Circuit Testing (ICT) – Electrical testing using bed-of-nails fixtures to check for shorts, opens, resistance, capacitance, and other basic electrical properties of the PCB.

  • Flying Probe Testing – An alternative to ICT that uses mobile probes instead of a bed-of-nails test fixture. Slower than ICT but requires no custom test fixtures.

  • Boundary Scan Testing – Embedded testing using built-in test circuitry (JTAG) in chips to test chip interconnects and some chip functionalities.

  • Functional Testing – Testing the actual functionality and performance of the assembled PCB in its intended application or under simulated conditions.

The specific testing and inspection strategy used depends on the product type, reliability requirements, regulations, manufacturing volume, and other factors. In general, it’s a good practice to use a combination of methods to maximize coverage.

SMT Design Considerations

To ensure a successful and efficient SMT assembly process, it’s crucial to follow good design for manufacturability (DFM) principles during the PCB design stage. Here are some key SMT design considerations:

  • Component Selection – Select SMT component packages that are well-suited for your PCB size, layer count, and assembly process. Avoid using packages that are too small or have very fine pitches unless absolutely necessary.

  • Footprint Design – Make sure the footprints for your SMT components have the correct pad sizes, shapes, and spacings. Consult vendor datasheets and follow IPC standards.

  • Placement Clearances – Provide adequate clearances between components for the pick-and-place nozzle to access during assembly. Follow vendor guidelines and consider your assembly partner’s capabilities.

  • Thermal Design – Select components with suitable power ratings and temperature specs. Provide adequate copper area for heat spreading. Use thermal reliefs, vias, and heatsinks as needed.

  • Solder Mask Design – Ensure solder mask openings are slightly larger than the copper pads to allow for proper solder wetting. Provide solder mask dams between pads to prevent solder bridging.

  • Panelization – Design your PCBs to be panelized for efficient SMT assembly. Include fiducials, tooling holes, and breakaway tabs or mousebites in your panel design.

  • Stencil Design – Work with your stencil vendor to ensure the aperture sizes, shapes, and wall thicknesses are optimized for your solder paste and PCB design.

  • Testability – Include test points, vias, or pads for inspection and testing purposes. Make sure they are accessible and not blocked by components or connectors.

By following these SMT DFM guidelines, you can avoid many common assembly issues and improve your production yield and reliability.

Choosing an SMT Assembly Partner

Selecting the right SMT assembly partner is crucial for the success of your electronic product. Here are some key factors to consider when choosing an SMT assembler:

  • Capabilities – Make sure the assembler has the necessary equipment, processes, and expertise to handle your specific PCB types, component packages, and volumes.

  • Quality – Look for an assembler with robust quality control processes, certifications (e.g. ISO 9001, IPC-A-610), and a good track record of producing high-quality boards.

  • Capacity – Ensure the assembler has sufficient capacity to meet your production needs and can scale up as your business grows.

  • Communication – Choose an assembler that communicates clearly, responds promptly, and is willing to collaborate closely with your team.

  • Location – Consider the location of the assembler and how it impacts shipping costs, lead times, and supply chain risks.

  • Cost – Get quotes from multiple assemblers and compare their pricing, NRE costs, and MOQs. However, don’t choose based on cost alone – consider the total value they provide.

  • Value-Added Services – Some assemblers offer additional services like PCB design, component sourcing, box build, testing, and fulfillment. Decide if you need these services.

Take the time to thoroughly evaluate potential SMT assembly partners. Visit their facilities, talk to their engineers, and get references from their existing customers. Finding the right assembler can make a big difference in your product’s cost, quality, and time-to-market.


What is SMT assembly?

SMT (surface-mount technology) assembly is the process of manufacturing electronic circuits by mounting components directly onto the surface of a printed circuit board (PCB). It involves steps like solder paste printing, component placement, reflow soldering, and inspection.

What are the advantages of SMT assembly?

SMT assembly offers many advantages over through-hole assembly, including:
– Smaller PCB size and higher component density
– Faster and more automated assembly
– Lower cost and shorter setup time for high volumes
– Better mechanical and thermal performance
– Allows components on both sides of the PCB

What are some common SMT defects?

Some common SMT assembly defects include:
– Solder bridging or shorts
– Open solder joints
– Component misalignment or shifting
– Tombstoning (chip components standing on end)
– Insufficient or excessive solder
– Component damage or wrong part placement

How can I ensure good SMT assembly quality?

To ensure good SMT assembly quality, follow these practices:
– Design your PCB following SMT DFM guidelines
– Select a reputable and capable SMT assembly partner
– Use high-quality components and materials
– Implement thorough inspection and testing processes
– Monitor and control your SMT process parameters
– Continuously improve your design and process based on data and feedback

What should I look for in an SMT assembly partner?

When selecting an SMT assembly partner, look for:
– Technical capabilities that match your needs
– Strong quality control processes and certifications
– Sufficient capacity and scalability for your volumes
– Clear communication and willingness to collaborate
– Competitive pricing and value-added services
– Good location, reputation, and references


SMT assembly is a complex process that requires careful design, process control, and partner selection to achieve high-quality and reliable results. By understanding the fundamentals of SMT assembly, following DFM principles, and working with a capable assembly partner, you can unlock the many benefits of this powerful electronics manufacturing technology.

Whether you’re a startup bringing a new product to market or an established OEM looking to optimize your production, SMT assembly can help you create more innovative, compact, and affordable electronic devices. As with any manufacturing process, there are challenges and trade-offs to navigate, but with the right knowledge and partners, SMT assembly can be a key enabler for your business success.