2017 Rocky Mountain Invitational Solder-Off

OK, it’s not a thing. But if it were, it might look like this.

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Greetings, tech-heads!

There’s been something of a low-level trash-talk phenom going on around here regarding who amongst a small, insignificant group of us is the best at hand soldering. But that’s all it ever was, and we were prepared to let sleeping dogs lie…until Drew Fustini stoked the fires by independently giving a few of us SMD Challenge kits from Makersbox. Eyes started getting shifty at each other, conversations gradually turned to drawing lines in the sand, and with an ultimate “arright, that’s it!” the date was set. On December 6, 2017, a date that will live just one day prior to another date that will live in infamy, four people stepped up to see how they measured up.

The Contestants:

  • Shawn Hymel
  • Mary West
  • Nick Poole
  • Pete Dokter (me!)

The Venue: SparkFun Classroom, live on SparkFun’s Facebook channel

Looking over the kit before the comp…1206 — cake, 0805 — cake, 0603 — still cake, 0402 — meh, I’ve done it before, 0201 — uh…hmm. Wait, are there components under that tape? I’ve been jipped out of my 0201 parts! How can I possibly…oh, they are there. Oh, boy. That’s gonna…wow, those are tiny.

In spite of that, I’m thinking I’ve got the inside track going into this because I’ve got so many years of tech experience behind me. In fact, the only “real” competition is probably going to come from Mary, who also has a bunch of tech experience. She wears glasses, so her eyes might be worse than mine. But she’s also a bunch younger, so her hands might not shake as much.

Nick and Shawn? Whatever. You guys are going to feel some pain.

At the start of the competition, my hands are predictably shaky and sweaty. But I blast my way through this thing, swapping the positions of the 0805 resistor and LED. The polarity on the LED is still right, so it still lights. But I’ve got the parts swapped, and that’s probably illegal. Ah, well.

By about 23 minutes into it, I’ve got all but the 0201 parts on the board, and everything thus far is functional. Some observer pipes up, “Looks like Dokter’s ahead,” so I’m thinking I’m about to bring this thing home. Until…

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Within the next 15 seconds, I manage to lose both of my 0201 LEDs. We were working on a white table, and those little suckers are white like a grain of salt. And they’re just gone. I run my hand over the table top looking for junk stuck to it, but it’s no use. At just over 24 minutes, I call done. Or as done as I’m going to get.

A minute and a half later, Mary makes the same call. Parts gone, this is as done as she’s going to get.

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At this point, I’m expecting to hear the same from Shawn and/or Nick, but that was not to be the case. These guys haven’t lost parts, and they’re still trying to pin those 0201s. Wow, kudos to you guys!

At right around 46 minutes, Shawn announces that he’s got his 0201 functioning. It’s all over!

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Here are some thoughts from the other competitors:

“It was weird but a nice break from my desk of circuit design and analysis. Of course Shawn won — he took an extra 25 minutes and hacked the board to make it work. So I guess he won extra hard???” — Mary

“BLASTED DIODES! I had this one in the bag but I was betrayed by my own pride when I refused to look up the polarity of the LED markings. Hand soldering 0201? Totally possible. Hot air 0201 rework? Tall order. Too tall for me. I think I would smash this challenge if it included some tight-pitch TQFP devices…love to drag solder.” — Nick

“The 25 extra minutes to solder an 0201 was TOTALLY WORTH IT. Testing polarity and even picking up the component were lessons in frustration. Because the component body of the 0201 LED completely covered the pads, my trick was to scrape away some of the solder mask so I could rest the iron’s tip on the traces to transfer enough heat to reflow the solder. Not exactly a robust soldering technique, but it worked.” — Shawn

Shawn cheated!!! Nah, not really. In fact, I’m disappointed in myself for not doing that, as I have done such before when repairing burned traces or just rerouting signals (yep, I sure have burned some traces). But I never actually got to that point since I was apparently so eager to get rid of my 0201s. You win this round, Shawn.

Thanks Shawn, Mary and Nick for being brave enough to do this at all, let alone live. That was a little nerve-racking. But more importantly, thanks to Drew Fustini for proving the kits and the motivation. Lastly, a shout-out to our production crew. We four might have been the faces in this competition, but we all know who the real masters of hand soldering are in this place.

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Comments 14 comments

  • No closeup pictures of the results? I’m dying to see what a hand soldered SMD 201 part looks like! Don’t laugh, but 1206s are just fine with me.

  • whew I thought it was challenging when I went through NASA soldering certification back in 1980 at Martin Marietta…

    • Was the chisel tip as big as your thumb? I remember using one of those.

      • Nah, we had reasonable tips with Weller temp controlled irons, but back then, “Surface Mount” just wasn’t happening yet. At that time, “state of the art” in manual soldering meant getting the right amount of solder on the joint and assuring that you had a good mechanical as well as electrical connection. When you looked at the number of solder joints on a Saturn V going to the moon, excessive solder could add many pounds to the weight of the vehicle, so it really mattered!

  • I’m fine with the lack of eye safety, but I’m offended by the use of ‘jipped’!!

    It is ‘gypped’; learn to spell!

    • Oh, good. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to walk away from this post without being offended by something…;)

  • I’ve learned the hard way that using a vice when soldering SMT parts is suicide. I tape my board to the desk with masking tape, inside of an aluminum tray (pie tin) that is also taped to the desk. That way parts that get dropped have some chance of being found, as they have less distance to fall! I also use either close up glasses with ‘coke bottle’ lenses to see (can focus down to about 1.5-2" with those!), or a binocular microscope. The latter requires some careful pre-placement of the solder and soldering iron before I can put my eyes to the eyepieces!

    I’ve soldered ‘04 parts, but have never tried '02’s. Don’t even want to think about those!

    • I found that soldering on a vice, for the most part, was fine. I ran into trouble when I tried to pick up the 0201 part and place it on the PCB. It kept flying out of the tweezers!

  • “But more importantly, thanks to Drew Fustini for proving the kits and the motivation.” Thanks for proving the kits????

    I think you mean providing… :)
    BTW That was cool, you guys should have more competitions like this!

  • This is an ongoing problem with SPARKFUN, not the first time safety glasses not worn. In fact at MAKERFAIRE San Mateo a couple of years back I got blown off when I pointed out to the staff at soldering class that students were not wearing safety glasses. Not good! You are setting an example for a lot of young people and new to electronics people. Safety First

    • Well, I’ve already conceded your point, but I can’t speak to you getting “blown off” at MFSM with regard to pointing out lax safety glasses enforcement. We haven’t done that event in some time, but my recollection is of pushing safety glasses more and more. These days we don’t do events without them ever, so I’m not so sure it’s as pervasive of an issue as you might suggest. But I do apologize for that event, in any case. That should not have happened.

      With regard to everyone in the comp not wearing proper safety glasses… well, we’re all working professionals and we all made our respective calls as to how to approach the work. And I didn’t question them, so I suppose that falls to me. I take the blame.

  • REALLY? no safety glasses? not an example that makes me happy. But then I spend a notable part of my day here at the college making SURE that safety glasses are used in our labs. You only get one pair per life

    • Man, I tried to tell them…

      Seriously, though, I wear glasses already, so I end up rarely thinking about additional eye protection. But yeah, these guys should probably be wearing something. I’m surprised we didn’t catch that.

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