Manufacturers of electronic assemblies are currently facing numerous challenges – including the advancing miniaturisation of the components to be processed, an ever increasing component density on the PCBs to be processed and the growing variance of different assemblies. In order to keep the overview here and to be able to continuously improve processes, traceability and precise process data documentation in assembly production are becoming more and more important

Published in: EPP 11/2021
Author: Julian Gress

Manufacturers of electronic assemblies are currently facing numerous challenges – including the advancing miniaturisation of the components to be processed, an ever increasing component density on the PCBs to be processed and the growing variance of different assemblies. In order to keep the overview here and to be able to continuously improve processes, traceability and precise process data documentation in assembly production are becoming more and more important. Traceability has long been an integral and indispensable part of the machine soldering process, for example in reflow, wave or selective soldering. More than half of all newly delivered systems are equipped with a network connection and the software necessary to enable traceability in real time.

The situation is different with traceability in the reworking of assemblies, e.g. after the automated soldering process. To correct machine soldered joints, depending on the type of component, either manual soldering or a rework system is used. However, as soon as rework is carried out with a soldering iron, complete documentation of the entire soldering process was previously no longer possible. For this reason, many electronics manufacturers have completely dispensed with a manual soldering process or only permitted this following elaborate special approval. In many cases, this has resulted in complete assemblies being scrapped as soon as one faulty solder joint is discovered, which should be avoided at all costs, not only for economic but also for ecological reasons.

Precise documentation of the individual soldering process

To guarantee traceability even of manual soldering, each individual soldering process must be documented precisely. Among other things, the assembly to be processed, the materials used (such as soldering tip, solder wire and flux) as well as process temperature and soldering time must be recorded electronically and made available for tracing.

With the i-CON TRACE, Ersa is offering the first soldering station specifically designed for use in a digitally networked environment and for complete traceability in manual soldering. It already comes with connectivity features such as WLAN and Bluetooth. If there are restrictions regarding wireless transmission methods at a production site, wired communication is available as an option. For this purpose, a network card is used to connect the soldering station to a server via a network cable. The software for operating the soldering station is available free of charge as a download and does not have to be installed on each individual PC or mobile end device as this was previously the case – the i-CON TRACE software “Ersa TRACE Cockpit” is installed once on the customer’s server. As soon as a soldering station is integrated into the company network, all mobile end devices (PC, tablet, smartphone) that are in the company network and have the appropriate authorisation can access the soldering stations. Access is easy via a common web browser (Google Chrome, Firefox, Microsoft Edge).

New level thanks to connectivity

The connectivity of the i-CON TRACE brings manual soldering up to a new level. It makes the process transparent, traceable and allows documentation of each individual soldering process. The PCB, the component to be processed, the soldering tip used, the process temperature and soldering time are recorded electronically and can be traced – for your own documentation and as proof for customers. Certain tasks which were previously not possible or could only be reworked mechanically can now be processed manually without risk.

Connection to an MES (Manufacturing Execution System) also permits the integration and saving of the soldering parameters used in complex, networked manufacturing processes which already run via an MES. Thus it is already possible to download a recording of the entire soldering task via a desired file format and save this in a higher-level control system. For real-time communication between the soldering stations in production and the customer’s MES, Ersa offers the possibility of a customised solution by means of a gateway.

Another important factor is the possibility to centrally pre-set all essential parameters of the soldering process with regard to the respective soldering task by qualified personnel. Thus, for example, a customer-specific soldering task can be created for a certain sensitive component and the respective parameters can be predefined. As soon as this component has to be processed, the corresponding soldering task is assigned and the soldering specialist can only start work when all the parameters for this corresponding component have been selected and set. This significantly increases process reliability. The operator can concentrate entirely on soldering – the susceptibility to errors decreases. Any malfunctions e.g. soldering temperature outside the process window, defective heating element, wrong soldering tip in relation to the component, are detected and displayed by the system.

Device management is also made so much easier by the server-based software concept. Firmware updates, calibration intervals, in future even soldering tip wear – everything can be monitored and individually traced. Since every mobile device in the network can communicate with every soldering station in the network, firmware updates are child’s play. The firmware of each individual station can be updated with just a few clicks via a PC in the office of the production manager. A similar scenario arises for the regular calibration intervals e.g. every two years. In many cases, the individual soldering stations are calibrated at different times of the year. The calibration intervals are stored in the software and can also be viewed for all soldering stations in a production area via a central PC and even be provided with a reminder function.

Operation: smart & demand-oriented

The second essential feature is the operating concept of the i-CON TRACE. With only one on/off switch and three LEDs, the interface of the soldering station differs significantly from all other industrial soldering stations with their complex setting options and a display. Due to the fact that the software is centrally located on a customer server and not on each individual PC, access and operation is quick, easy and demand-oriented via any mobile end device.

Economic-ecological benefit for all electronics manufacturing

Via a mobile app for smartphones and tablets, the i-CON TRACE can be used like a conventional stand-alone soldering station even without a connection to a company network. The program for controlling the soldering station runs on the mobile end device – relevant information such as set and actual temperature is displayed on a smart device via Bluetooth or WLAN and can also be changed there. This enables demand-oriented, smart operation for the user.

The i-CON TRACE sets new standards with new features not only with regard to connectivity and a new operating concept – Ersa has also broken new ground in terms of hardware in order to raise technologies that have proven themselves thousandfold to a new level. For example, both the heating element and the soldering tip of the i-CON TRACE can still be changed separately from one another without any loss of soldering performance. With a maximum of 150 W, the soldering iron provides enormous power, and the soldering tips, which have been redesigned from the scratch, deliver this power precisely to where it is needed – to the solder joint. The fact that the soldering tips can be changed independently of the heating element means that each wearing part only needs to be replaced when it is really necessary. This significantly reduces costs over the entire life cycle of the soldering station and additionally saves material and resources. The i-CON TRACE is therefore not only an economical but also an ecological benefit for all electronics manufacturing.

In order to always have the right soldering tip on hand for the various soldering applications, Ersa offers a variety of different shapes and sizes of soldering tips. Even customised tip shapes for special applications are no problem. Tip´n´Turn is the patented concept for joining heating element and soldering tip, which enables tip change in record time. Each tip has a bayonet lock which, in combination with the multifunctional holder, allows particularly fast and safe changing of the soldering tip. The soldering iron including tip only has to be placed in one of the openings provided and turned through approx. 10° – the old soldering tip can then be removed and a new, suitable tip can be fitted. This can be done by hand, even without the storage stand. Even while hot.

Complete traceability for manual soldering

With the i-CON TRACE as “The Missing Link”, the gap in terms of Industry 4.0 and traceability in electronics production is finally closed – and in the future allows complete traceability for the hand soldering process as well. With its unique software concept and the intuitive and smart user interface, the manual soldering process is safer than ever before. Together with the enormous power and the low operating costs, the Ersa i-CON TRACE takes your manual soldering process to a new level. See for yourself and get to know the i-CON TRACE at the Productronica 2021!

Advantages of traceability

Conserve resources through rework:
With a high level of control over the manual soldering process, even PCBs that have defective solder joints after mechanical soldering and need to be reworked using a soldering iron can be reused.

Targeted root cause analysis:
On the one hand, the “tracing” of electronic assemblies simplifies the analysis of potential problems even before the product is delivered. On the other, it is possible to determine the extent of the problem and isolate its cause if assemblies are returned.

Continual improvement:
Traceability provides information that contributes to a lean manufacturing process, minimises waste and promotes improvements in series production.

More information

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Julian Gress
Product Manager Soldering Tools

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