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ESD: Electrostatic Discharge or an Engineer’s Shocking Discovery

I tend to think of ESD as the silent killer. It is all around, and if you don't take the proper precautions, it can destroy your design or at least hinder it enough to cause failure later. ESD issues cost companies millions of dollars each year. In spite of that, I think that many engineers (design, manufacturing, and quality) sometimes underestimate or just don't understand the need for proper precautions. As a result, proper action is put off.

It reminds me of a minor issue I had a few years back. I had a simple analog circuit that I used in many applications I had designed. It contained a couple of quad op-amps, a transmitter and receiver, and a bunch of caps and resistors. It was a very simple circuit, and not a lot could go wrong. The design seemed pretty solid and was very similar to a version that had been used for years.

One day, I had some calls from the quality department that a few systems were returned where the circuit was not functioning. Now, this board was used by the thousands, so having two or three failures didn't raise any red flags — until the next week, when we had a couple of processor board failures. Again, this board was used by the thousands, and we had only a couple of returns from quality. Even though the issue seemed small, I was still curious about what was going on, so I started investigating. Experience shows that issues like these can become huge and spread like wildfire overnight.

In my investigation, I put these boards on the bench and checked the power supply and signal voltage levels. Everything seemed OK — except that, on the small analog sensor board (the one with the op-amps), the op-amps were not functioning.

Moving over to the microprocessor board, I found that one of the transistors was not working correctly. On another board, the processor just seemed to be acting silly. In the back of my mind, I was thinking about tracking these components back through the contract manufacturer (CM) to where it had purchased parts. Then, maybe I'd check date codes, lot codes, production codes, etc., but I decided to keep the investigation local for the time being.

I discovered that both of the failed circuits were assembled on the same production line at our CM. Again, these boards were assembled on a couple of other lines, but the failed boards came from a common assembly line. I went to the area on the line where they were assembled. As it happened, the boards were assembled by the same operator in the same area. By this time, my mind was racing 100 mph. These totally different circuits failed within one week's time on the exact same production line, in the exact same area, by the exact same operator.

Now the investigation got a little deeper. I watched the operator assemble these boards into the enclosures. Everything seemed OK. The operator did not seem to be doing anything out of the ordinary, but then I noticed something that made my brain explode. Could this be the issue?

The operator was standing on an ordinary piece of plush carpet. When I asked why, the operator said it was comfortable and kept his feet from hurting. I quickly ran to the areas on the other production lines where these boards were being assembled. I saw no carpet at those lines. I went back to the suspect production line and asked the operator how long he had been using the carpet. He said he had been using it just a couple of weeks. Uh-oh, it all seemed to hit home.

Let's recap. These circuits had no history of issues. Similar designs had been used in the past. Both of the circuits were assembled on multiple lines. The failures came from the exact same line, the exact same area, and the exact same operator. I had tested the bad boards, and even though they were not working properly (or at all), I saw no obvious issues or damage. What was apparently the only issue in this equation? It was the small piece of plush carpet. How could that piece of carpet be the problem? The only answer I had was ESD. For one thing, my company had invested in little ESD mitigation equipment. In fact, it took pretty much no measures against it.

My conclusion was the circuits were getting damaged by an electrostatic charge building up as the operator scuffed across the carpet. At some point, when the operator was handling the boards, they got zapped with ESD. It wasn't long afterward that we implemented all the proper ESD floor and bench mats, wrist straps, and ground wires. And we trained everyone in proper PCB handling.

Perhaps I could have beefed up my circuit, but if that op-amp or processor were being touched directly and zapped, there was almost nothing I could have done to protect the design. I had many useful discussions with my management and the quality engineers about why spending the few thousand dollars to implement these ESD precautions could very well save us a lot of money in the future. Returns would be reduced. Design engineering time to try and figure out why good circuits failed would be minimized.

I wonder how many other engineers out there have had similar experiences with their designs or manufacturing facilities? Is ESD often underestimated? What's been your experience?

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10 comments on “ESD: Electrostatic Discharge or an Engineer’s Shocking Discovery

  1. RedDerek
    September 25, 2013

    I would have also checked to see if the operator was using a wrist strap as well. But the carpet, if not ESD type, would be a major no-no.

    When I had my office/lab built, the entire floor is ESD tile and grounded to the metal frame of the building. I feel comfortable to walk around in socks – thus keeping me fairly grounded. Only challenge is peeling off the sticky floor mat layer at the entry door. I get some neat tingles through my feet and know I am being grounded!

  2. Brad_Albing
    September 26, 2013

    @RedDerek – you need to sweat more so that your feet+sock apendages are more conductive – then no static charge could ever build up.

  3. Brad_Albing
    September 26, 2013

    @Jason – I had similar experiences at a job where lots of JFETs were used. Every no and then, we'd get a batch of units that had ESD damage to the FETs. It was apparently due to either the assembly people not wearing their wrist straps (for grounding) or a batch of FETs with slightly lower than normal gate-to-source breakdown voltage. we were never entirely sure which….

  4. Vishal Prajapati
    September 27, 2013

    I have also faced similar situations. We were working on the Water dispensing system which is connected to central server for technical and physical parameter monitoring. We were using MAX232 IC for communication with GPRS Modem. The systems were built in house, checked properly and sent to field. It was working fine but failures started soon after few weeks. It was the assambly operator's problem that they were not using ESB wrist belts. I pointed that out before the production started. But I being a new joinee in the company was ignored. Later it was implemented. Lesson learnt hard way…!

  5. Brad_Albing
    September 27, 2013

    @VP – yes, the “Junior Engineers” are sometimes ignored since the other engineers and managers figure they don't know anything. But it's their loss really.

  6. Vishal Prajapati
    September 28, 2013

    What should an engineer be? Humble because he think he knows everything or arrogant because he thinks he knows everything?

  7. vbiancomano
    September 28, 2013

    @Vishal—Ideally, the engineer is humble because he realizes he doesn't know everything, yet he is confident (not arrogant) in his ability to learn and get the job done. With experience, he learns that he is always going to run into a few colleagues and superiors who have little respect for him, and that no matter what he achieves in future, their opinions won't likely change. At that point, he'll understand that sometimes a superior might be able to temporarily block his progress as an engineer, but over the years and in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter what those people think—it's of little consequence. It's what you think. It comes down to this: You only live once, so hold your head up high.

  8. Brad_Albing
    September 29, 2013

    @Vince – excellent advice – could not have said it better myself. Thanks.

  9. Vishal Prajapati
    September 30, 2013

    What a great thoughts. Really inspiring. I love your way of explaination for non technical things. Thank you very much sir. I will keep it in mind.

  10. SunitaT
    October 29, 2013

    ESD can reason a range of damaging effects of status in industry including fuel vapor, gas and petroleum dust explosions, in addition to damage of solid state electronics mechanisms such as integrated circuits. This could suffer permanent loss when exposed to high voltages.

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