A friend brought over a broken toy (well, an Argent GPS tracker) with a peculiar problem: everything worked, but after a few minutes the front-panel LEDs would get intermittent. The LEDs are hand-soldered to the board with leads that extend maybe 7 mm from the surface.
After a bit of poking around, I stuck the gadget under the microscope, at which point the problems became obvious.
See that distinct line where the solder meniscus ends at the lead? Yup, that’s the teltale sign of a cold solder joint. The lead never got hot enough to bond properly with the solder, so the failure extends all the way down through the board. The only electrical contact is at a random point where the flux layer is thin enough to pass current; as the joint heats up, that point Goes Away.
Worse, do you see (click on the pix for bigger images) the small discontinuity about 1/3 of the way down the solder cone? My buddy Eks alerted me to that failure: that’s where the solder joint fractures from repeated heat stress.
Here’s the quick sketch he drew on the canonical back-of-the-envelope. I added the red oval as a replacement for his emphatic gestures; with any luck, you’ll never forget it, either.
In this case the LED is anchored in a front-panel hole and the lead is mechanically locked to the board. As the lead heats & cools, it expands & contracts (duh) at a slightly different rate than the solder. After a while, the solder cracks; it’s much less ductile than copper.
I’m not convinced that’s what happened here, as the LED leads have a bend in the middle that should relieve the stress, but it’s at exactly the spot where he sketched the failure he’s found in many, many gadgets. Power transistors standing above boards with their backs screwed to heatsinks seem particularly prone to this failure, as they have short leads stressed by the differential expansion between copper and aluminum.
Here’s another LED lead from the same gadget. A random out-of-focus fiber enters from the right and exits around to the left rear, but you can clearly see the bad joint at the top of the solder cone and the fracture line just below the fiber.
A touch of the soldering iron generally solves the problem, although you might want to suck the old solder out so the new solder can re-flux the joint.
This doesn’t happen only to hand-soldered joints. The USB header fell right off an Arduino Pro board while I was debugging something else. I had to re-heat the joints and the header separately, add flux, and then solder ‘em together. Notice the bubbles in the solder layer? That header just never got up to the proper temperature. The current version of that board uses a through-hole header, which is more rugged than this surface-mount equivalent.
And a TinyTrak3+ board had few cold joints, too, where the leads just didn’t bond at all.
In both of those cases, the vendors did a quick check and didn’t find similar problems with their stock, so the boards I got seem like random failures on the soldering line.
Now, if I’d never made a cold solder joint in my life, I’d be in a position to get all snooty. That’s just not the case: it happens to everybody, once in a while, and you just learn to live with it.