Interconnect Defects (ICDs) Explained

What is an Interconnect Defect (ICD)? An ICD is a condition that can interfere with the internal circuit connections in a printed circuit board (PCB). These internal connections occur where the innerlayer circuit has a drilled hole put through it. PCB processing adds additional copper into the drilled hole to connect the innerlayer circuits together and bring the circuit to the PCB board surface where connectors or components are placed to provide final function.

If there is a defect at or near this interconnect or plating and innerlayer copper, it could lead to failure of a specific circuit (or net). This defect typically causes open circuits, but could be intermittent at high temperatures. Of significant concern is that the functionality may be fine as the PCB is built, but will fail in assembly or usage, becoming a reliability risk. This latency for the defect has put ICDs on the serious defect list in the industry. Another item is that ICDs have increased in frequency over the past five to seven years, making this a higher priority issue.

The majority of ICDs fall into two categories: debris-based ICDs and copper bond failure ICDs. Debris-based ICDs are caused by material left behind by the hole drilling process. This material is supposed to be removed from the holes, but is not when ICDs are found. Some causes are drill debris residues, drill smear and particles (glass and inorganic fillers) embedded into the innerlayer copper surface. The increases in this ICD type seems to be related to the increased usage of low Dk/low Df materials that use inorganic filler types. These materials generate more drilling debris and are often more chemically resistant materials, compared to standard FR-4 epoxy materials. This combination of effects makes the drilled holes much more difficult to clean out completely.

Debris-based ICD

Debris-based ICD

Copper bond failure ICDs occur when the copper connection is physically broken. This can be due to high stress during assembly or use, or the copper bond being weak (or a combination). This failure mode is also design related, in particular, increased PCB thickness, increased hole size and wave soldering all tend to increase the risk of copper bond ICDs. It seems that there has been an increase in the rate of this ICD type, which is related to increased lead-free soldering temperatures and increased board thickness over the past 10 years. Note: This condition also occurs on HDI microvias. The causes are similar but the processing is different.

Copper bond failure ICD

Copper bond failure ICD

Reliability testing has been run on both types of ICDs. Copper bond type ICDs are a significant reliability issue. They show up as assembly failures and product with weakness may have increased tendency for field failures. Drill debris type ICDs have not been shown to be a significant reliability issue in several studies, but they are an industry specification failure, so they affect product yield and costs. Well run IST testing, using a valid coupon structure, has been a very valuable testing method for determining risk due to ICDs.

ICDs can be prevented by good PCB design and improved PCB processing methods. Debris type ICDs are a function of drilling parameters and desmearing. Many of the newer materials with fillers do not drill like standard FR-4. Instead of forming a chip during drilling, they break apart into small particles. These particles then tend to coat the drilled hole walls. One factor associated with debris ICDs is drill bit heating. Factors that result in hotter drill bits cause more debris formation and residues.
Desmearing, which is done to remove drilling residues, often needs to be more aggressive when using these material types. This has been effective at reducing or eliminating debris ICDs.

Copper bond failures are a little more complex. In PCB processing, the key factors are cleaning the innerlayer copper surface so that a strong bond can form. In addition, the electroless copper deposit needs to be in good control, having the correct thickness and grain structure, to have the required strength. Testing and experience show a good processing focus, along with appropriate reliability testing can result in consistently robust product.

Design factors also play a big role. As noted above, board thickness and hole size are key factors. These relate to the amount of stress placed upon the interconnect during thermal exposure. Eliminating soldered through-hole connectors is one of the major ways to reduce this issue, as these often contain most of the larger holes. If you need to have thick boards, look into the z-axis CTE and Tg of your material. Lower z-axis CTE values and higher Tg values will result in reduced stress.

With PCB performance requirements constantly on the rise, ICDs will remain an issue. A better understanding of ICDs will help designers reduce the impact that they have on the performance of the board. Better PCB processing practices in drilling and desmear and selecting electroless copper will improve quality. Implementing best practices will reduce opportunities for ICDs, particularly changing connector approaches. Finally, this issue is taken seriously by the PCB suppliers, many of which are working to combat the sources behind ICD failures.

Doug Trobough is the Corporate Director of Application Engineering at Isola Corp. Doug has worked introducing new material introduction and PCB processing enhancement with Isola for five years. Prior to Isola, Doug had almost 30 years of experience building a wide variety of PCB types and interconnections systems, for Tektronix and Merix Corp., in a variety of technical positions, including CTO for Merix Corp. 

This essay appears in Circuit Cellar 300 (July 2015).