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What is SMT inspection?


SMT inspection is the process of verifying the quality and accuracy of surface mount technology (SMT) printed circuit board (PCB) assemblies. It involves using automated optical inspection (AOI) systems and other methods to check for defects in SMT components and solder joints. Thorough SMT inspection is crucial for ensuring the reliability and performance of electronic devices and equipment. This article provides an overview of the key aspects of SMT inspection.

SMT Assembly Overview

SMT is a PCB assembly method where components are mounted directly onto the board surface rather than through holes. The main steps in SMT assembly are:

  • Solder paste application – solder paste is printed on pads
  • Component placement – SMT components placed onto paste
  • Reflow soldering – heat melts solder to form joint

Common SMT components include resistors, capacitors, integrated circuits (ICs), connectors, LEDs, and many other types.

Importance of SMT Inspection

Inspection of SMT PCB assemblies is critical because defects such as:

  • Missing components
  • Wrong component orientation
  • Incorrect component values
  • Shifted components
  • Insufficient solder
  • Solder bridges

Can lead to circuit malfunctions, equipment failures, and reliability issues if not detected. SMT inspection finds these defects and ensures assembly quality.

Types of SMT Inspection

SMT soldering Process

There are several key methods for inspecting SMT assemblies:

Automated Optical Inspection (AOI)

AOI systems use advanced cameras and software to automatically check assemblies for defects. This is the primary SMT inspection method.

In-Circuit Testing

Electrically tests circuits to verify component values and find assembly faults like shorts or opens.

X-Ray Inspection

Uses X-ray imaging to check component placement, especially for hidden or packaged parts.

Manual Visual Inspection

Human operators visually examine assemblies under microscopes for defects. More time-consuming but finds subtle issues.

AOI Inspection Overview

Automated optical inspection provides thorough and efficient quality control for high-volume SMT production:

  • Uses cameras to capture PCB images
  • Software analyzes images comparing to CAD data
  • Checks component placement, orientation, skew
  • Verifies pad printing quality and solder volume
  • Finds common defects and quantifies pass/fail rate
  • Generates reports showing inspection regions and results

AOI inspection can be done after solder paste printing, after component placement, after reflow, and at various stages depending on the process. Post-reflow AOI is most common.

AOI Inspection Systems

AOI systems consist of:

3D Sensor Cameras

  • High resolution and precision 3D sensor cameras with different magnification levels capture PCB images.
  • Top and bottom side cameras for double-sided inspection.
  • Coaxial angled lighting illuminates inspection surfaces.

Transport Mechanism

  • Linear stages or conveyor belts transport PCBs under cameras.
  • Fiducial markers on PCBs locate their position precisely.


  • Analyzes board images, registering and comparing to CAD.
  • Detects defects and quantifies inspection metrics.
  • Generates reports with images highlighting failures.

PC Workstation

  • Controls inspection procedure and equipment.
  • Runs analysis software to process images and data.
  • Displays results and interfaces with data storage.

AOI Programming

To implement AOI inspection, the system is programmed by:

  • Importing CAD and component library data
  • Aligning to PCB fiducials
  • Defining inspection regions, tolerances, criteria
  • Specifying defect detection algorithms
  • Setting reporting parameters

Careful programming is required so the system knows the acceptable standards to inspect against.

SMT Defects Detected by AOI

Typical defects found during AOI inspection include:

Component Presence

  • Missing parts
  • Wrong components loaded
  • Extra components

Component Value

  • Incorrect component value
  • Wrong markings/orientation

Component Placement

  • Shifted location
  • Misalignment
  • Wrong orientation
  • Tombstoning
  • Billboarding
  • Skew/rotation errors

Solder Issues

  • Insufficient solder
  • Excess solder
  • Solder balls/splatter
  • Solder bridges
  • Open or fractured joints
  • Cold solder joints
  • Voids in solder

PCB Defects

  • Etching errors
  • Copper smearing
  • Nicks/scratches
  • Board damage

AOI inspection provides comprehensive and accurate defect detection to ensure assembly quality.

AOI Inspection Metrics

smt aoi test

Key metrics provided by AOI inspection for process improvement:

  • First pass yield – Percentage of boards passing inspection the first time
  • Defects per board – Quantity of defects per assembled board
  • Defect types – Distribution of different defect categories
  • Defect locations – Where on the board do most issues occur?
  • False calls – Incorrectly flagged defects
  • Escaped defects – Issues missed by the AOI
  • Repair rate – Percentage of defects reworked/repaired

Analyzing these metrics pinpoints problem areas to address and improve. They also indicate the performance of inspection programming.

AOI Programming Optimization

To improve AOI performance, key programming steps include:

  • Adjusting light levels, magnification, focus for problematic regions
  • Adding inspection points to capture more detail on critical components
  • Tuning tolerances on placement accuracy as needed
  • Improving fiducial marking detection reliability
  • Masking regions with many false calls to reduce noise
  • Expanding library of component images as new parts are added
  • Updating programming as board design changes

Optimized programming maximizes defect detection while minimizing false and escaped defects. This improves both efficiency and quality.

AOI Inspection Limitations

While extremely valuable, AOI has limitations including:

  • Difficulty detecting subtle soldering and placement issues
  • Lower resolution than microscopy inspection
  • Limited capability to identify component damage or markings
  • Can miss small foreign objects and contamination
  • Requires frequent program updating for design changes
  • Not as effective for highly reflective or transparent components

Manual inspection and testing helps catch additional defects missed by AOI equipment.

Automating SMT Inspection

The goal of most SMT lines is to implement complete inline automated inspection:

  • AOI inspection after solder paste printing
  • Automated optical component counting after placement
  • AOI after reflow soldering
  • Integration with Manufacturing Execution System (MES) software

This provides quality control and feedback at each critical process stage without slowing production.

Manual SMT Inspection

Manual inspection supplements automated optical inspection:

  • Uses microscopes to closely examine PCBs
  • Checks component quality, orientation, positioning
  • Verifies solder joint integrity and fillet shape
  • Finds subtle defects difficult for AOI
  • Can check product function with electrical tests

Manual inspection is more time consuming but reveals hard-to-find issues.

X-Ray Inspection

X-ray imaging is an additional inspection method that:

  • Provides views inside packaged components
  • Checks component placement and orientation
  • Finds hidden solder defects and foreign objects
  • Is used for densly populated boards difficult for optical AOI

But X-ray inspection requires longer processing times and is lower resolution.

In-Circuit Testing (ICT)

ICT electrically tests assembled boards:

  • Applies signals and measures responses
  • Verifies proper component values are installed
  • Checks for short circuits or open connections
  • Can diagnose improper component placement
  • Provides functional test of circuits and logic

ICT takes more time than optical inspection but is essential for complete electrical verification and fault detection.

Inspection Documentation

Thorough documentation of inspection activities and results is crucial:

  • Automatic logging of inspection failures and images by AOI systems
  • Detailed operator notes recording manual inspection observations
  • Compiling pass/fail rates and defect metrics
  • Generating charts showing defect trends over time
  • Identifying process improvements based on findings
  • Tracking corrective actions taken to resolve issues

Inspection documentation provides production feedback to prevent repeated defects.


  • SMT inspection using AOI, manual, X-ray, and electrical methods is essential for quality control.
  • Automated optical inspection delivers rapid, accurate, and repeatable defect detection.
  • Manual inspection complements AOI to find subtle and functional issues.
  • Inspection metrics feedback into process improvements to reduce defects.
  • Documentation of inspection results provides traceability and preventive action data.
  • Effective SMT inspection is crucial for achieving high assembly yields and reliability.

Rigorous inspection practices are key to successful high-volume SMT electronics manufacturing.

Frequently Asked Questions

In-Circuit Test (ICT)

What is the most important SMT inspection?

Post-reflow AOI inspection after soldering provides the best assessment of true assembly quality and reliability. It finds both component and solder joint defects.

How often should AOI programs be updated?

AOI programs should be updated whenever the PCB design changes significantly. Small revisions may only need minor program adjustments. Updating programs ensures accurate inspection as designs evolve.

Does AOI replace manual inspection?

AOI augments but does not replace manual inspection. AOI provides fast and repeatable automated checking, while manual inspection finds subtle issues missed by automation. The two methods work together for complete quality control.

Can AOI detect all solder joint defects?

While very capable, AOI may still miss some solder defects like small voids or cracks. Additional manual inspection is recommended to complement AOI, especially for critical high-reliability solder joints.

Is X-ray or AOI inspection better?

AOI is lower cost and faster, but X-ray provides unique capabilities such as seeing hidden solder joints or inside packaged components. Applications with dense components favor X-ray, while high-throughput consumer products are better suited to AOI.

PCB Inspection in SMT assembly process: ICT, AOI and AXI

While technology continues to move towards increasing levels of complexity, it is increasingly necessary to improve quality control processes before, during and after manufacturing processes. Other types of tests, such as Automated Optical Inspection (AOI) and X-ray Automated Inspection (XAI), have been added to the traditional In-Circuit Testing (ICT).

When choosing which method or combination of test methods we will use, the level of complexity of the PCB is taken into account, what is the PCB Manufacturing process that predominates in it, as well as what is the purpose of the analysis we are conducting.

In-Circuit Testing (ICT)

The ICT (In-Circuit Test) allows us to search for different type of failures such as opens, shorts, continuity tests, etc. There are two main techniques for it.

Bed of nails,Flying probe test

Bed of nails

This is the traditional exam. It seeks to generate multiple contact points in the circuit through small spring loaded pogo pins, which seen from afar maintain the similarity with a bed of nails and hence its name. Each pogo pin will make contact with a cricut node, this way a pressure is applied to the Device Under Test (DUC) and hundred of connections are simultaneously tested. Using this technique we can find component defects, also search for parameter deviation, solder joint bridging, displacement, opens, shorts, continuity tests, etc.

This type of test is suitable for simple PCBA and also for mass production systems, has a low cost and is fast. However, if we try to apply it to high-density components or large-scale integration PCBs in which miniaturization has taken a leading role, we will find that there are technical difficulties that cannot be overcome. For this reason, over the years, alternative techniques have been developed for this type of test.

Flying probe test

This technique allows us to perform tests with smaller sizes, we can achieve a min test pitch up to 0.2 mm. The PCB is introduced in a test environment in which the different probes will come into contact with the pads and vias. We can analyze it searching for shorts and opens, but also the system is equipped with a camera that analyzes the shape of the electronic components and their size. It allows us to control if elements are missing. Is also capable to allows us analyze the value of the components as resistance and capacitance, for instance. It is also possible to analyze the polarity of the elements.

Automated Optical Inspection (AOI)

Automated Optical Inspection (AOI)

An AOI inspection will allow us to analyze assembly and manufacturing failures. The PCB is analyzed by one or several cameras, these images are then compared through the software with a board that is taken as a parameter usually called “golden board” or with design specifications.

This type of analysis is usually performed at the end of the assembly line to ensure the final quality of the PCB. Some Pick and place machines use this technology to avoid defects in the placement and alignment of components.

Therefore, another fundamental aspect is that it allows us to track processes.

It allows us to monitor the prototype pcb assembly process and then classify and correct displacement and component assembly defects.

Usually the AOI equipment is placed in different stages of the assembly line so that the specific manufacturing situation can be monitored online and the necessary basis for the adjustment of the manufacturing technique is provided.

We can mention three important places to consider:

Before the application of solder paste. This will allow to control that the amount of paste applied is exact, neither more nor less. We can also avoid the lack of alignment by placing it, as well as welding bridges between pads. It is also important to configure an AOI control point Before the reflow soldering process, in this way we can ensure that the components are placed correctly before completing the soldering process.

Finally, of course, also after reflow soldering. This provides an overview of the process that allows to identify faults in both the last and previous stages.

Automated X-ray inspection (XAI)

Automated X-ray inspection (XAI)

The application of X-ray technologies to PCB inspection is a powerful tool for analyzing failures, especially for soldering analysis. It allows us to observe the inside of the solder and discover if there is a lack of filling, bubbles, etc. In PCBs where BGA technologies are present, it becomes essential because we cannot observe the solder joints made under the chip.

An X-ray inspection will allow us to observe the soldering inside and under the chip, analyzing if all the connections have been made correctly. 2D, 3D technologies are used to perform image analysis.

2D inspections look for cracks, bridges, poor alignment or also insufficient solder. This is the low cost option. There is also the option of X-ray inspection in 5D, here we compare the images obtained from the PCB with a CAD file for the differences. Using this inspection method we can make three individual cuts between the BGA and the solder balls, also enter the solder balls and evaluate in depth the connection between the balls and the pad. Therefore, using this technique our engineers may find faults that would be impossible with another technique.

So, what inspection method choose? ICT, AOI or XAI?

First, we must consider that we do not have to choose between them, but we must understand for what we will use each of them, how and when to combine them. This will depend on the level of complexity of our PCB and also on the type of fault we are looking for.

what type of failures each type of inspection can detect

It is important to be clear about what type of failures each type of inspection can detect. This table shows us this clearly.

Notice that some errors can only be detected through ICT, so this test becomes indispensable.


Therefore, our choice of options will be between using AOI, AXI or combining them. As a general recommendation we can take the graph presented here. It should be noted that a PCB may not be complex, but include BGA devices and remember the above: if we have a BGA component, only X-ray technology allows us to analyze in detail. MVI stands for Manual Vision inspection.

We must also bear in mind that time is money and XAI is a slow inspection technology compared to AOI, with which pcba cost will be higher.

As a final conclusion, we must say that it is always advisable to conduct an ICT. In addition, although the cost of the application of XAI inspections is higher, there are PCBs in which we cannot stop doing so due to the presence of BGA components and also because some soldering failures only XAI is able to detect them. A combined use of all techniques will dramatically reduce process failures and scrap.




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