Hand soldering contest draws considerable attention

The first hand soldering competition drew a full house

September 26, 2011

by Terry Costlow, IPC online editor

As spacings get tighter and circuit board density soars, it takes a steady hand and keen eye to do manual soldering. Those who grab soldering irons to build prototypes and perform rework had a chance to show their skills and compete for up to $500, a trip to IPC APEX EXPO in San Diego and an OK International/Metcal MX-5010 soldering workstation.

The first Annual IPC Midwest Hand Soldering Competition filled its 22 time slots and often filled the aisles with spectators watching two views of the heated competition — both in large overhead mirrors and directly into the solder stations.

Nichole DeVries of Raven Industries won with a score of 97, edging out her co-worker, Monica Poppens, who received a 93 from the judges. Third place went to William Randall of Hegel Holdings LLC, who scored a 91.

IPC focuses on quality more than speed, basing the judging on IPC-A-610E Class 3 criteria. Had there been a tie, speed would have been a tie breaker.

DeVries, a Certified IPC Trainer who has been soldering for 15 years at Raven Industries, won $500, the OK International/Metcal soldering station and a trip to IPC APEX EXPO in San Diego in February. She and Poppens won the right to represent Raven by winning an internal competition with 27 entrants.

That was a common approach at the companies that sent contestants. International Control Services had two in-house soldering contests, with the top finishers coming to IPC Midwest to compete against regional rivals. To get other employees excited about the competition, the company also awarded the person who correctly picked the winners of the internal contests.

“After the contest, we all went out for dinner, so it provided a lot of camaraderie,” said Dennis Espinoza, president of International Control Services.

All the contestants noted that while the majority of soldering is done through mass reflow, there’s still a lot of need for people with a steady hand and an eye for detail. Khang Nguyen, who represented Evotronics, rarely goes long without sitting down at a soldering station. “I solder daily at work for prototype boards,” Nguyen said. Evotronics makes prototype and production boards.

On the show floor, Master IPC Trainers Leo Lambert, EPTAC Corporation, Jay Patel, Accelper Consulting, and Floyd Bertagnolli, Service To Mankind, judged the competition, carefully watching during each 20–30 minute round of soldering action. Since contestants all knew how to make functional connections, the judges focused on the steps contestants took and how the boards appeared when finished.

“Most of the contestants are experienced, so they know how to make connections. One of the main factors for our ranking is the way they use the equipment. They may not be tinning the soldering iron tip properly,” said MIT Patel.

Being an IPC trainer had both benefits and negatives for DeVries. On one hand, she knows the criterion for a good solder joint. But on the downside, she doesn’t have a lot of time to solder as much as she did when she was an operator on the line. To prepare for the competition she soldered as much as she could, making lists of the steps involved. “Every other step was ‘tin the tip, tin the tip,” she said.

IPC hand soldering contests have been growing in popularity worldwide. The contests began in Europe, and have become very popular in China, where crowds can be large enough to flow into neighboring booths.