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White labels with Data Matrix Codes affixed to circuit boards

Barcodes on Electronics

Note for our customers: This article was written prior to 2007–some of the information shared here may have changed.

Meeting Tough Requirements for Printed Circuit Boards

Electronic equipment manufacturers benefit from automated assembly, processing, test and packaging systems which include automatic identification. A barcode label is commonly adhered to a printed circuit board before soldering for automatic identification. It must withstand harsh thermal and chemical exposures and still meet optical requirements for reliable scanning.


Barcodes facilitate rapid identification and data entry. Scanning the barcode initiates an appropriate automated action: Display of Information on A CRT or Data Capture.

For example, production starts when a bare board is taken from the Stockroom and a label is affixed to it. At each work center thereafter, the barcode is scanned to identify the board and help to:

bullet Get information into the database quickly. Information may include flux density and solder temperature, quantity and lot number of components used, and test data.

bullet Update the database in real time so a summary of process data and correlation to test results can be prepared and interpreted rapidly. This helps improve yield.

bullet Relieve inventory levels as components are inserted so unused components are available for immediate alternate use. This reduces work in process inventory.

bullet Get information to the work centers via CRT. Information may include parts picking list, insertion instructions, test procedures and individual board test results. This eliminates paper clutter and reduces setup time.

Label Materials Durability

The information that is to be printed on the labels is determined by overall automation objectives and strategy. However, whatever the information content of the labels, the materials must withstand harsh environmental requirements as well.

Labels can sometimes:

bullet Fall off
bullet Curl
bullet Shrink
bullet Absorb chemicals which later leach out

In order to provide for broader and more successful barcode use, we investigated the thermal, chemical and optical requirements for labels adhered before soldering. We also investigated static dissipative properties of labels that help protect circuits from static discharge. We then identified and developed candidate materials and tested them for durability. Results follow.

Thermal Requirements

For through-lead component boards, labels adhered to the bottom surface contact a solder wave commonly in a temperature range of 450°F to 510°F (232°C to 266°C). Occasionally solder temperatures as high as 550°F (288°C) are used. Solder contact time is 2 to 6 seconds. With a 4 foot per minute conveyor speed and a 3-inch solder zone, contact time is 3.8 seconds.

Labels adhered to the top surface of the board may experience considerably different temperatures depending upon whether or not they are placed near through-hole vias. In order to obtain a worst-case estimate of the highest temperatures likely to be encountered on the top surface, thermocouples were adhered to 1.5 mm thick epoxy coated circuit boards which were subjected to 10-second solder contact times. Measurements showed the top surface temperature is below 350°F (177°C) in a region without through-hole vias. Temperatures near through-hole vias are considerably hotter.

Moreover, the heat capacity of the thermocouple may cause an understatement of the board temperatures. When labels came in incidental contact with edge holders carrying the board through the wave or adhered to a metal bracket or handle contacting the wave, temperatures approaching the solder temperature were observed.

It should be noted the temperature of a metal bracket may vary significantly from run to run due to variations in the height of the wave. In the extreme case, the wave may contact the bracket on one run and miss it on another run.

Because top surface temperatures vary substantially, one safe approach is to select label materials which withstand the solder temperature. Another approach is to dedicate a through-hole-via-free region of each board to the label. In the latter case, it may be advisable to measure the top surface temperature for each board thickness and material in order to assure the selected label material is adequate.

For common surface mount technology methods, solder paste containing flux and solder powder is screen printed or stenciled on the precise points of the circuit boards where component terminals will be located. Components are placed in the solder paste. Then the printed circuit board is heated, activating the flux, melting the solder and bonding the components to the board. Depending on the solder alloy, a different temperature and time is required.

For example, for Sn63/37PB Futronix1 preheats 150 to 180 seconds at 302°F (150°C) and then reflows for 60 seconds with a peak oven temperature of 419°F (215°C).

Polyester or tamper evident labels are commonly used to be applied after soldering. Tamper evident labels help administer warrantees by assuring the serial number cannot be transferred to another board.

Chemical Requirements

Labels are sometimes directly exposed to fluxes—when they are located on the bottom of the board or on the edge; they are usually exposed to defluxing fluids.

The purposes of a flux are removing and preventing formation of oxides and promoting wetting so that complete covering of copper occurs. An unwanted side effect can be leaving unwanted contaminants on the board. Thorough removal is essential for certain types including OA, RA, and RSA. Otherwise ionic contaminants will cause humidity sensitive electrical leakage currents and long-term corrosion.

Common defluxing methods used are detergent-water washing at 150°F to 170°F (66°C to 77°C) and vapor degreasing. Trichloroethane is rarely used. Methyl ethyl keytone is commonly used to remove conformal coating during rework of military circuit boards.

Versatile label materials must withstand a variety of fluxes and defluxing solvents and avoid absorbing or otherwise entrapping them. Laminate, when used, must be tightly joined to the layer beneath so flux or other liquids do not seep between layers. The adhesive must resist solvents and be thick enough to conform closely to uneven contours such as printed wires.

Optical Requirements

Most printed circuit board barcode systems use bars as narrow as 0.005 inches (.19 mm) and scanners which have peak spectral response at 633 nanometers, the wavelength of the helium-neon laser. Widely used standards (e.g. ANSI MS 10.8-1983 and MIL STD 1189A) require a minimum of 50% reflectance for spaces and in effect there is a required bar-space reflectance ratio.

Automatic Identification Manufacturers uniform symbology specification is different. It requires a minimum bar-space reflectance difference of 37.5% and is considered to more closely characterize scanner operation requirements.

Surfaces which are “matte” (i.e. not specularly reflective) are preferred as they are said to scan more consistently with laser scanners.

Static Dissipation

Labels can help protect circuits from static discharge damage by having appropriate surface resistivity. If the surface resistivity is below about 105 ohms/square, discharge can occur with a large peak current which can damage the circuit. If the resistivity is between 106 to 109 ohms/square, charge dissipation is fast enough to prevent charge buildup and slow enough so any residual charge is safely dissipated; these labels are termed “static dissipative”. If the resistivity is between 109 and 1012 ohms/square, charge accumulation is avoided; these labels are termed “antistatic”.

Testing of Labels

Polyimide, paper and polyester label materials were wave solder tested.

Polyimide labels consist of successive layers of chemically resistant acrylic adhesive, Kapton© polyimide film, printable coating, a second layer of adhesive and a second layer of film. Labels were prepared in two ways. Some had wider laminate than the printable facestock. Some were slit after printing and lamination. In both cases the overlaminate entirely covered the print and the white printable coating.

Extensive testing was done in through-lead wave solder systems. A wide variety of fluxes were brushed on before soldering. Solder contact times up to 10 seconds were used to test for “worst case” conditions. Appropriate post-solder washing was done in Freon-alcohol azeotropes, detergent water and trichloroethane. Labels on the top and the bottom of the circuit board were subjected to three passes through flux, wave solder and cleaning to simulate rework and repair cycles. Polyimide labels withstood the flux, solder and cleaning cycles, remaining well-adhered and exhibiting no tendency to curl. Moreover, 15-minute exposure to methyl ethyl keystone showed no effect. Label materials to satisfy SMT methods are available.

Optical characteristics of the barcodes were tested using a verifier with a 633-nanometer light source. The labels had appropriate bar and space dimensions. The bar reflectance was 4% and the space reflectance was 64% yielding a reflectance difference of 60% and exceeding the optical requirements referenced above. Labels scanned readily with wand and hand-held laser scanners.

Paper labels over-laminated with polyimide survived the solder contact but they tended to absorb flux and cleaning fluids through exposed edges. Polyester labels showed promise in top surface applications, although laminated polyester labels exhibited frequent curling or lifting of their edges. This effect was attributed to the noticeable shrinkage which occurred. Some reduction in curl was observed with the use of labels having rounded corners. Photo processed polyester shrank less and exhibited less label curl.

One new alternative to polyimide works equally well in many applications and is less expensive. Our plastic label handles the range of temperatures between the 572°F (300°C) maximum for polyester and the approximately 932°F (500°C) maximum for polyimide.


Printed circuit board label material selection should be done carefully so thermal, chemical and optical scanning requirements are matched to your specific application needs. The following chemically durable materials are recommended.

bullet Polyimide facestock (or high temperature polyimide alternative with matching thermal transfer ribbon) for in-plant printing when the label is applied before soldering.

bullet Polyimide facestock with polyimide over-laminate for pre-printed labels applied before soldering.

bullet Polyester facestock (or tamper evident facestock with matching thermal transfer ribbon) for labels applied after soldering.

About the Author
Paul Henkel is the Founder of Electronic Imaging Materials Inc. in Keene, New Hampshire. Paul has retired and his son Alex Henkel is now President of the company.

1) “Step Soldering Aids Intrusive Reflow”, Karl Seelig and Joe Peek, SMT September 1996, P88.

Electronic Imaging Materials