Picking the Right Heat Sink Attachment to Avoid Costly PCB Damage

The design of a printed circuit board (PCB) is a complicated process that requires engineers to consider a number of different issues before the board is ready to move beyond prototype and into production. Engineers must think about the physical constraints of a board on component size and placement, the electrical interaction between components, the signal loss through wires and traces, and the thermal management of each component and the system as a whole. [1]

Heat Sink Attachment

ATS maxiFLOW heat sink with superGRIP attachment on a PCB. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

With all of that to consider, it is no wonder that many designs go through several iterations before moving into the production stage. Since the process is already complex and there is a certain amount of trial-and-error in designing a PCB, engineers will look for ways to avoid unnecessary rework that will add significant cost to the project in terms of both time and money.

As noted in a previous article, the type of heat sink attachment technology that an engineer chooses will impact the ease with which a design can be reworked and the amount of damage to the board that will be caused if a change needs to be made.

Push pins, threaded standoffs and z-clips require holes or anchors be drilled into a board, which leaves permanent damage if a component needs to be moved to a new location and could also impact signal routing. There is even the possibility of a short in installation, which also would damage the board. [2]

Non-mechanical attachments such as thermally conductive tape and epoxy are not guaranteed to provide the optimal thermal management because there is “risk of die damage and poor thermal performance due to uneven heat sink placement,” according to a case study from the Altera Corporation. [3]

The case study also said that thermal tape and epoxy have “high risk of damaging the device or PCB” when compared to mechanical attachment technology coupled with thermal interface material (TIM) or phase change material (PCM). In fact, to remove a heat sink attached with epoxy requires an even temperature of 115-120°C.

As the video below shows, removing thermal tape from a heat sink (even one that is not attached to a board) requires a lot of work and tools. If the heat sink is attached to a component, the process to remove it could damage the board or other devices in the vicinity:

A recent chart from NEMI (National Electronics Manufacturing Initiative) indicated that the cost of assembly can be very high per I/O (input/output) on the PCB – considering some of the new BGAs have hundreds of I/O and there are dozens of BGAs on the board, the cost can be prohibitively expensive to put together a board irrespective of the product sector. [4] Obviously, full reworks necessitated by the use of damaging heat sink attachments raise those costs exponentially.

Heat Sink Attachment

Board assembly roadmap from NEMI showing the conversion costs by product sector. [4]

Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc. (ATS) has created a mechanical attachment technology that makes rework easy and allows engineers to make changes to the design without damaging the PCB or the components. superGRIP™ is a two-part attachment system with a plastic frame clip that fastens around the edge of the component and a metal spring clip that fits between the fins of the heat sink and quickly and easily attaches to the frame.

As the video below demonstrates, superGRIP™ can be installed and removed with common household tools and will provide a steady, firm pressure to ensure optimal thermal performance of the heat sink and the reliability of the device:

The advantage of superGRIP™ is not limited to its ease of use and the time and money that will be saved in reworking a PCB design. The pressure strength and security of the superGRIP™ attachment system allows the use of high-performance phase change materials that can improve heat transfer by as much as 20 times over standard thermal tapes. [4]

superGRIP™ comes with Chomerics Thermflow T-766, a foil PCM with a thickness of 0.0035 millimeters that has an operating range of -55°C to 125°C. According to Chomerics, the T-766 and other traditional non-silicone thermal interface pads “completely fill interfacial air gaps and voids. They also displace entrapped air between power dissipating electronic components. Phase-change materials are designed to maximize heat sink performance and improve component reliability.” [5]

Chomerics added, “Upon reaching the required melt temperature, the pad will fully change phase and attain minimum bond-line thickness (MBLT) – less than 0.001 inch or 0.0254 mm, and maximum surface wetting. This results in practically no thermal contact resistance due to a very small thermal resistance path.”

The combination of frame and spring clip provides uniform force over the heat sink and ensures no movement to optimize the impact of the PCM, while not damaging the solder holding the BGA component in place on the board. ATS engineers designed the attachment technology so that the in-plane and normal forces of both the frame and the spring clip hold the heat sink without stressing the solder even through NEBS (Network Equipment Building Systems) shock and vibration testing. [6]

Save time, save money, and avoid unnecessary headaches during the design phase by using ATS superGRIP™ technology.

[1] http://www.electronicdesign.com/boards/11-myths-about-pcb-layout
[2] “How the maxiGRIP™ attachment system impacts component mechanical behavior,” Qpedia Thermal eMagazine], May 2008.
[3] https://www.altera.com/content/dam/altera-www/global/en_US/pdfs/literature/an/an657.pdf
[4] http://thor.inemi.org/webdownload/newsroom/Articles/CA0599.pdf
[5] https://www.qats.com/cpanel/UploadedPdf/ATS_superGRIP_Launch_Release_

[6] http://vendor.parker.com/852568C80043FA7A/468ea5de5ac341d385257d39005641c7/

[7] “How the maxiGRIP™ attachment system impacts component mechanical behavior,” Qpedia Thermal eMagazine, May 2008.

For more information about Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc. (ATS) thermal management consulting and design services, visit www.qats.com or contact ATS at 781.769.2800 or ats-hq@qats.com.

Choosing the Right Heat Sink Attachment for Densely Populated PCB

In 1965, Fairchild Semiconductor Director of R&D and soon to be Intel co-founder Gordon Moore wrote “The Future of Integrated Electronics,” which was intended as an internal paper to define the most cost-effective number of components per integrated circuit. As he looked ahead to the next decade, Moore argued that the number of components per chip would double every year.

The paper was edited and published by Electronics in 1965 as “Cramming More Components onto Integrated Circuits”. Ten years later, Moore, then with Intel, spoke at the IEEE International Electron Devices Meeting and showed that his initial prediction was correct and estimated that the rate of increase would slow to “a doubling every two years, rather than one.”

Heat Sink Attachment

superGRIP heat sink attachment technology offer minimal addition to component footprint on densely packed PCB. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

This prediction has now become widely known as Moore’s law. It has become a tenet of the electronics community and continues to propel the industry forward at a time when the number of transistors on a chip (which was around 65,000 in 1975) now exceeds one billion. [1]

These high-powered components are common on printed circuit boards (PCB) in every day electronics from mobile devices to computers to automobiles. Recently, the Defense Advanced Research Program Agency (DARPA) announced that it will spend $200 million on the Electronics Resurgence Initiative to seek new materials and manufacturing techniques in expectation that Moore’s law will come to a natural end. [2]

Not only are the components themselves getting higher-powered, but increased demand for functionality in ever-smaller packages has meant that these components are increasingly being squeezed into tighter areas. A 2012 article on Tech Design Forums, based on information from Mentor Graphics’ Technology Leadership Awards, indicated that while PCB size had been “relatively constant,” the “average number of components has quadrupled in 15 years.” [3]

As the forum noted, “Despite attempts by IC (integrated circuit) suppliers to cut power dissipation, as IC speeds and densities increase so does the heat they dissipate. And putting these ICs into smaller and smaller form factors compounds the problem. This causes significant thermal management challenges that must be met at the IC package, PCB and system levels.”

OCM Manufacturing, a low- to mid-volume manufacturer of electronics products, offered a chart that detailed standard spacing of components on a PCB, but also added, “With that said, there are no hard and fast rules for component spacing. Tightly packed components may have very good yield and problems may arise only during rework.” [4]

Heat Sink Attachment

Match each component in the rows with whatever it’s adjacent to in the columns to see the preferred and minimum spacing between those two components, in millimeters. [4] (OCM Manufacturing)

Of course, all of that power will inevitably lead to increased heat across the system. Coupled with the decrease in space between components, which puts constraints on the amount of airflow across a component and leads to heat from one chip being passed on to the next, thermal management is a critical aspect of PCB design to an even greater extent than before. [5]

Heat sinks remain the most cost-effective method for cooling chips. The benefits of heat sinks, the thermal impact of different materials, and the development of new fin geometries are all discussed in depth elsewhere on this blog, but this article asks, “What is the best way to attach heat sinks, especially in a component-dense environment?”

As Dr. Kaveh Azar, founder and CEO of Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc. (ATS), wrote in ECN Magazine, “An engineer starting the process of thermal management must first determine the cooling needed and then consider the mechanical aspects of attaching the heat sink.” [6]

He added, “The thermal consideration is foremost on our decision tree. Once we have resolved the cooling issue, including the heat sink size and the type of thermal interface material (TIM) needed, we need to ask the question of how this heat sink will be attached to the device or the PCB.”

There are several options for design engineers to consider, but each comes with its own set of challenges. Thermal tape and thermal epoxies [7] would obviously add nothing to the existing component footprint, but tape has proven better for low-powered chips and epoxies require time to cure and are essentially permanent, making potential rework more time-consuming and costly.

Push pins, threaded standoffs and z-clips are mechanical attachment technologies that are common in the electronics industry but all require expanded footprints as well as holes or anchors in the PCB, which may not be available on high-density boards. Holes and anchors also make signal routing more difficult in the design phase and there is a possibility of a standoff or solder anchor causing a short during installation that could result in damage to the board. [8]

To meet this need, ATS developed superGRIP™. The two-part attachment system features a plastic frame clip that fastens securely around the perimeter of the component and a metal spring clip that slips through the fins of a heat sink and locks to the frame clip on both ends. [9]

The system is designed to need minimal space around the component. [10] The frame clip is made of a plastic resin that allows it to be very thin but also very strong, which was demonstrated during shock and vibration testing. The interior frame profile locks securely around the bottom edge and sides of the component package. The horseshoe tabs secure the clip to ensure the proper pressure on the heat sink.

The following chart shows the superGRIP™ clearance guidelines, although custom options are available and may be needed depending on the design:


The required board keep-out region for ATS superGRIP heat sink attachment technology. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

superGRIP™ was also designed and tested to ensure maximum airflow through the heat sink. In a tightly-packed system where airflow is at a premium, superGRIP™ provides the necessary attachment security with only minimal impact on the flow. In addition, the plastic used in the frame clip stays cool in high-heat environments, rather than adding fuel to a potentially combustible situation.


CFD simulations with ATS superGRIP attachment demonstrating its minimal impact on airflow across a system. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

Unlike other attachment technologies, superGRIP™ also requires no separate tooling and can be installed or released with a common tool such as a screwdriver. [11] This makes any potential rework easier. It is important to note the direction of the airflow when placing a heat sink, so it must also be considered when placing the frame clip as well.

[1] http://www.computerhistory.org/siliconengine/moores-law-predicts-the-future-of-integrated-circuits/
[2] http://www.eetimes.com/document.asp?doc_id=1331974 and https://www.darpa.mil/news-events/2017-06-01
[3] http://www.techdesignforums.com/practice/technique/overcoming-increasing-pcb-complexity-with-automation/
[4] http://ocmmanufacturing.com/resources/resource/dfm-tip-spacing-components-on-a-pcb/
[5] http://www.electronicdesign.com/embedded/engineer-s-guide-high-quality-pcb-design
[6] https://www.ecnmag.com/article/2011/09/know-your-choices-mounting-heat-sinks-hot-components
[7] https://www.masterbond.com/industries/heat-sink-attachment
[8] “How the maxiGRIP™ attachment system impacts component mechanical behavior,” Qpedia Thermal eMagazine, May 2008.
[9] https://www.qats.com/cpanel/UploadedPdf/ATS_superGRIP_Launch_Release_FINAL_with_Photo_0427092.pdf
[10] https://www.qats.com/cms/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/superGRIP-Clearance-Guidelines1.pdf
[11] https://www.qats.com/cms/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/superGRIP-Installation-Guidelines.pdf

For more information about Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc. (ATS) thermal management consulting and design services, visit www.qats.com or contact ATS at 781.769.2800 or ats-hq@qats.com.

Heat Sink Design: ATS Engineers Bring Ideas to Life

Marketing Communications Specialist Josh Perry sat down with Product Engineering Manager Greg Wong to discuss the process that Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc. (ATS) engineers go through to create a heat sink and find a thermal solution for customers.

Watch the full conversation in the video below and scroll down to read the transcript of the interview.

JP: Greg, thanks again for joining us here in marketing to explain what it is that goes into designing a heat sink for a customer. So, how does that process begin?
GW: We usually start with a few basic parameters; we call them boundary conditions. So, we start with a few boundary conditions, basics like how much airflow we have, how much space constraint we have around a heat sink, and how much power we’re dissipating, as well as the ambient temperature of the air coming into the heat sink.

So, those are the real basic parts that we need to start out with and sometimes the customer has that information and they give it to us, and usually we double-check too, and then other times the customer has parts of the information, like they know what fan they want to use and they know what kind of chassis they’re putting it in and we take that information and we come up with some rough calculations so we can arrive at those things like air flow and stuff like that.

JP: When you get the data from the customer, how do you determine what the problem is, so that way you can move forward?
GW: We usually start out with an analytical analysis. So, we put pen to paper and we start out with basic principles of heat transfer and thermal resistance and stuff like that so we can understand if what we’re trying to achieve is even feasible and we can come up with some basic parameters just using that analytical analysis.

Like we can calculate what kind of heat sink thermal resistance we need or we can calculate how much air flow we need or, if we have several components in a row, we can calculate what the rough air temperature rise is going to be along that chain of parts. So, there’s a lot we can do when we get the basic information from the customer just on pen and paper.

JP: What’s the next step beyond analytical?
GW: Well, we can do some lab testing or a lot of times we also use CFD simulations and, if our customer has a model they can supply us, we can plug that into the CFD simulations and we can come up with an initial heat sink design and we can put that into the simulations as well and then we set those up and run them.

The great thing, having done these analytical analyses beforehand, we know what to expect from CFD simulations. So that way, if the simulations don’t run quite right, we already have an understanding of the problem, we know what to expect, because CFD is not 100 percent reliable.

I mean, you can go and plug all this stuff in there but you really have to understand the problem to know if the CFD is giving you a good result. So, oftentimes that’s the next stage of the process and from there we can actually produce low-volume prototypes right here in Norwood (Mass.), in our factory. We have CNC machines and manual milling machines, lathes, all that kind of stuff, and we can produce the prototypes and test them out here in our labs.

JP: How much of a benefit is it to be able to create a prototype and to be able to turn one around quickly like that?
GW: Oh, it’s great. I mean, if we had to wait to get parts from China it will take weeks to get. We can turn them around here in a few days and the great thing about that is we can test them in our labs and, you know, when it comes to getting results nothing beats the testing.

I mean, you can do analytical analysis, you can do CFD simulations, but when you actually test the part in a situation that is similar to what the actual thing is going to be that’s where the real meat comes down.

Heat Sink Design

ATS engineers take customer data and using analytical modeling and CFD simulations can design the right cooling solution to meet the customer’s specific thermal needs. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

JP: So, we test the prototypes before sending them out to the customer? We do the testing here or do we send it to them first?
GW: It all depends on what the customer requires. Sometimes the customer has a chassis that we really can’t simulate in our labs, so we might send the prototype heat sinks to the customer and the customer will actually put them into their system to test them out.

Other times, a customer might have a concept and they don’t actually have a product yet, so we’ll mock something up in our labs and we’ll test it and it all just depends what the customer needs and also how complex the problem is.

If it’s a simple heat sink and pretty simple airflow, we might not need to test that because we understand that pretty well, but the more complex the chassis is and how the airflow bends and stuff like that, the greater benefits we get out of lab testing.

JP: Well, I appreciate it Greg. Thank you for taking us through the process of making a heat sink and solving thermal problems for our customers.
GW: Sure Josh. We love seeing new thermal challenges and coming up with ways of keeping stuff cool.

For more information about Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc. thermal management consulting and design services, visit www.qats.com or contact ATS at 781.769.2800 or ats-hq@qats.com.

ATS Releases New Line of Tube-to-Fin, Liquid-to-Air Heat Exchangers

Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc. (ATS) has introduced a new line of tube-to-fin, liquid-to-air heat exchangers that “push the boundaries of the technology with the industry’s highest density fins.” These new heat exchangers, available with or without fans, come in seven different sizes and 49 different options and are part of the array of liquid cooling products that ATS offers.

Heat Exchangers

ATS has released a new line of tube-to-fin, liquid-to-air heat exchangers that boast the industry’s highest density fins. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

ATS heat exchangers maximize heat transfer from fluid to air, which allows liquid to be cooled to lower temperatures than other heat exchangers on the market. The fins and tubes are made of copper and stainless steel and are suitable for a variety of different liquids, including water, dielectric fluids and custom designed heat transfer fluids.

Read the full product release announcement at https://www.qats.com/News-Room/Press-Releases-Content/1183.aspx.

ATS heat exchangers can be used in a variety of applications including laser cooling, cooling medical equipment and imaging devices, compressor cooling, semiconductor processing, HVAC, food and beverage processing, and other liquid cooling applications.

The following table shows the different heat transfer capacities and dimensions of the different heat exchangers that ATS has released:

Heat Exchangers

The heat exchangers have silver-solder brazed joints and have been internally cleaned and externally coated for corrosion protection. They are available with or without fans.

Watch the short video below to learn more:

For more information about Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc. thermal management consulting and design services, visit www.qats.com or contact ATS at 781.769.2800 or ats-hq@qats.com.

Case Study: Designing Air-to-Air Heat Exchanger With Heat Pipes

Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc. (ATS) engineers were tasked by a client to design an air-to-air, aluminum heat exchanger with multiple copper heat pipes that could meet high power demands (more than 400W) with a thermal resistance requirement of 0.046°C/W and could withstand a wide range of ambient temperatures from -40°C to 60°C. Also, the separation between the heat pipe’s evaporator and condenser sections needed to be air tight.

Heat Exchanger

ATS engineers were tasked with designing an air-to-air heat exchanger with heat pipes that would fit inside an enclosure. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

Using analytical modeling, ATS engineers calculated the system pressure drop from the heat pipe to the fin block to the flow turn and also the thermal performance of the fins in ducted flow to determine the proper amount of fins to avoid over pressurizing the fans, while at the same time meeting the thermal resistance demands of the system. It was calculated that a maximum of 14 fins per inch could be used, while the overall size was well within the client’s requirements.

Challenge: To design an air-to-air heat exchanger that could handle high power demands of more than 400W and specific requirements on thermal resistance (0.046°C/W).

Chips/Components: Electronics junction box that requires internal air cooling.

Analysis: ATS engineers conducted analysis of the pressure drop across the system from the heat pipe to the fin block to the flow turn section, as well as analyzing the thermal performance of the entire heat exchanger. This analysis included calculating the ducted flow, heat transfer coefficient, and the fin and heat pipe resistance of the exchanger. The analysis also explored the difference between designs with copper and with aluminum fins.

Design Data: The data showed that thermal resistance and pressure drop of the CFD model were within 16% of the analytical model. The thermal performance of the heat exchanger with heat pipes was 0.044°C/W, meeting the client’s requirements.

Solution: The ATS design was optimized for four heat pipes and a suggestion was made to enhance the heat exchanger by using copper fins, rather than aluminum, because of a higher fin efficiency and lower thermal resistance.

Net Result: The customer was supplied with a production design of a heat exchanger block with heat pipes that could fit into the enclosure and provide the necessary forced convection cooling to maintain the proper temperature for the system. ATS also supplied the heat exchangers from the prototype stage to production.

For more information about Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc. thermal management consulting and design services, visit www.qats.com or contact ATS at 781.769.2800 or ats-hq@qats.com.