Surface mount technology (SMT) stencils are among the most widely used tools in the soldering industry. Commonly known as laser stencils, PCB stencils, or solder paste stencils, these tools help transfer solder paste onto bare circuit boards. Contrary to manual soldering techniques, using SMT stencils helps soldering professionals maintain consistency and time-efficiency in their work.

SMT Stencils

How Do Manufacturers Create SMT Stencils?

The best SMT stencil manufacturers use laser-cutting to create their solder paste stencils. Computer-controlled lasers are used to cut openings in the stencils in a highly precise manner. The best manufacturers also use top-quality lasers, which allow them to create spaces between openings as tight as 0.15 millimeters. After properly aligning the SMT stencil on top of the bare board, solder paste can be applied through the openings using metal squeegees. After detaching the stencil from the board, the solder paste stays and is ready to help manufacture surface-mount devices (SMDs).

It’s highly important to purchase SMT stencils from top-rated manufacturers because their design, composition, and thickness will determine how successful the solder paste depositing processes are. For instance, an SMT Stencil with poorly shaped and sized apertures will lead to several assembly process issues. Since these openings’ sizes determine how much paste is deposited on the boards, oversized openings can lead to an excess amount of solder paste being deposited.

These issues often lead to tombstoning, bridging, or balling. On the other hand, undersized openings can lead to inadequate amounts of solder paste being deposited on the boards. Insufficient amounts of solder paste lead to issues like dry solder joints. All PCB boards’ electrical functionalities depend on the quality of the SMT stencils that were used in the assembly line. So, purchasing these tools from the best manufacturers is the safest option.

How to Avoid Defects? 

Around 60% to 90% of soldering problems and defects are caused by incorrect solder paste printing. Before soldering professionals start working with SMT stencils, they must know what causes these defects.

  • The thickness of the Stencil: SMT stencils that are too thick will lead to solder bridge shorts. Stencils that are too thin will result in the application of insufficient amounts of solder paste.
  • Size of Openings: When the openings on SMT stencils are too big, excessive solder paste is applied, leading to solder bridge shorts. When they’re too small, insufficient solder paste is applied.
  • The shape of Openings:Although there isn’t much evidence regarding how the shape of the openings on SMT stencils affects their performances, most industry experts recommend using circular-shaped stencil opening designs. The sizes of these circular openings need to be somewhat smaller than the PCB pad’s size so that no bridging defects are detected during reflow processes.
  • Release:The solder paste must also release freely from the opening walls of the stencils. Operators must check how efficiently the solder paste releases from the stencils’ opening walls before they start working.
  • Positional Accuracy:Lastly, the solder bricks printed on the boards need to be in proper alignment with the SMT stencils.

Using SMT Stencils – What are the Options?

The SMT market was valued at $3.24 billion in 2016 and is expected to reach a $5.42 billion valuation by 2022. SMT is the main manufacturing technique in the PCB assembly industry, and it’s highly important for soldering professionals to know how to use different types of SMT stencils. Here are the different types of SMT stencils that are being used by countless soldering professionals in assembly facilities across the world –

  • Foil and Prototype Stencils:Foil SMT stencils are laser-cut solder paste stencils used mainly for hand printing. Operators can also use them with stencil tensioning systems. They are cost-effective because they don’t need to be permanently glued in frames. Storage space requirements are minimal with these prototype stencils, and professionals don’t need special machines to use these stencils. These SMT stencils are still the best options for low-cost projects. However, while manually applying solder paste, operators need to be extremely careful while lining up these stencils.
  • Framed Stencils:These laser-cut stencils are designed for SMT printing machines. These SMT stencils come permanently glued to frames, so they’re perfect for machine-driven productions and can facilitate high-volume productions. The frames of these SMT stencils are compatible with special solder paste application machines and hence are ideal for carrying out repetitive tasks with maximum accuracy.
  • Nano Coating: SMT stencils with Nanocoatings are ideal when working with tiny components. Since the PCB assembly industry has constantly been following the miniaturization trend, SMT stencils with water-resistant Nanocoatings are set to become extremely popular in the next decade.
  • Electroformed SMT Stencils: Electroformed SMT stencils are constructed just like framed SMT stencils. The only difference is that electroformed SMT stencils are nickel-based and manufactured with the use of electroforming foils.

SMT stencils are key tools for anyone involved in the PCB assembly industry. So, it’s important to purchase these from top-rated SMT stencil manufacturers!