Soldering Competency

Tim HooksI began my education in 1992 in an electronic assembly course. There, I learned about electronic components, printed circuit boards, and soldering. A dozen years later I am going on my ninth year in the biomedical industry.

My first position in the biomedical industry was as a technician at Medical Cables, Inc in 1995. It was there that I really developed my wiring and soldering skills and noticed all of the poor soldering that was being done by both the manufactures and out in the field, ie, in hospitals, medical centers, and doctors offices. As the years progressed I noticed that many of the companies that I worked for did not emphasize the subject of “soldering competency.”

Over the years I have been fortunate enough to have given technical discourses and presentations on a variety of subjects, including one on soldering competency. I feel attention needs to be given to soldering competency, especially since some colleges are not teaching in-depth soldering courses; instead they use computer simulated bread boards to simulate the old bread boards of years past. We cannot let this vital element of our heritage die out.

What has happened to our soldering skills? Soldering skills are some of the basic teachings of the biomedical industry. Unfortunately, through lack of use, many of us—myself included—have lost the ability to properly make a good solder connection.

In this industry, fixing or not fixing the problem on a piece of equipment doesn’t just affect a machine but also affects people’s lives. Servicing technology for life: Does this sound familiar? Will that man have to take another day off work to come in for a diagnostic exam because the analyzer in the laboratory couldn’t be repaired, since the BMET could not properly solder a microswitch onto a PCB? Will that family that has just been in a car accident have to drive to the next city 30 miles away in order to get their CT scan, because the BMET had to order a new PCB instead of soldering a wire back onto the old board? Isn’t repairing the equipment and assisting in patient throughput an important part of what we BMETs are paid to do?

So, how can you fix the problem even if you know what is wrong if you cannot properly remove and replace the failed part? I am not here to give any one a lecture; I just want to remind those of you out there that a little solder goes a long way. As mentioned earlier, I learned the importance of a good solder joint while working at Medical Cables, Inc. We consistently received a large number of probes and small devices that just needed a little solder TLC.

Some things to watch for are a dull color to the solder, as well as gaps between the components and the PCB. A flashlight and a magnifying glass can prove to be very useful in these instances. Many times during the manufacturing process, solder is not thoroughly applied to the components on a PCB. The problems arise when that device functions and makes it through the inspection portion of the manufacturing process and reaches the market—in this case, health care facilities. Over time, the areas that contain improper soldering lose their ability to provide proper electron transfer. This can eventually result in failure of that area of the electronic circuit.

I have had the opportunity during my career to apply techniques such as solder touch-up and solder removal and re-application to bring a once-dead PCB back to life. It is widely know in the biomedical industry that many manufactures and independent service organizations will replace complete PCBs in the field, and component level trouble shooting, if done, tends to be performed at a repair depot. Even if you are not component-level troubleshooting, being solder-conscious can still be advantageous. There are many applications that involve soldering, and I don’t think they are going to completely disappear: terminal wiring, connectors with solder terminals, connector pins requiring solder, and PCB modifications, among others. In the end, it is up to you. Do it right the first time or spend more time and money fixing the problem later.

Tim Hooks, CRES, CBET is East Coast field engineer for Medstone Technologies in Aliso Viejo, Calif.

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