What Is ESD and How Does It Affect PCBs?

While electronic components and assemblies such as printed circuit boards (PCB) have radically changed how we design devices and the heights of capability they can reach, all are still at the whim of volatile electric charges which can easily lead to damage and destruction if ample protection is not in place. For PCBs in particular, the most common cause of failures is electrostatic discharge (ESD), that of which can cause permanent and irreparable damage to system components even when conditions are light. In this blog, we will discuss ESD and its effects in more detail, as well as how one can implement protection for their various electronic components and integrated circuits.

When discussing electrostatic discharge, one is referring to the sudden and rapid flow of electric current between two electronic components when they are in contact, causing an electrical short or dielectric breakdown. ESD can be understood as a sort of “mini strike of lightning,” typically resulting from two nonconductive items with differing charges coming in close contact to one another. This is a result of the “dielectric” between the two components failing, leading to a breakdown over the air. Electrostatic discharge may occur in a number of diverse settings, examples ranging from high-static voltages sourcing from feet moving across carpeted floor to machines generating a charge as internal plastic components rub up against one another.

For printed circuit boards, the threat of ESD damage comes at varying points in the lifetime of an assembly. Even during the production and testing phase, printed circuit boards may sustain ESD damage through improper handling, such as if a worker handles the circuit board while not wearing electrostatic discharge protection or if compressed air is not properly used when removing dust. In addition to such instances, ESD damage may also source from synthetic materials that are placed near equipment, accidental charges as a result of cable connections and disconnections, and more. The accumulation of static charges is often slow and unnoticeable, sometimes making it more difficult to avoid the potential of damage.

When ESD damage ensues, one will not always know that damage has occurred as effects will not always immediately show. In some instances, ESD damage may simply reduce the amount of life of capacitors or other components, leading to a quicker failure down the line. Aside from causing damage to various internal electronic components, ESD can also affect humans who interact with such equipment, potentially leading to shocks or even fire outbreaks if combustible materials are present and ignited by a spark.

As ESD damage can occur while unnoticed and has the potential of causing harm and irreparable damage, it is crucial that one implements as much protection as they can. In the design stage, manufacturers should properly utilize materials that are known for being very ESD tolerant, and workers should always wear electrostatic wrist straps and other equipment that reduces static electricity. Additionally, things like surge protection diodes, isolation pads, protection devices, and other such equipment can be used to prevent PCB failure. Alongside such methods, proper cleaning, correct placement of sensitive components, carpet static treatment, and more can all benefit the safety of electronics and PCBs.

On the consumer or user side, there are other ways in which circuit boards can be protected. For example, touching a conductive material that is not isolated from the ground prior to handling sensitive equipment can allow for any build up of static electricity to discharge, ensuring that it does not release into the board itself. Additionally, following proper handling procedures that are upheld during manufacturing and testing are also critical to avoid damage. By following proper handling procedures, keeping hazards in mind, and procuring the right protective elements, one can steadily rely on their printed circuit boards and other electronic components with ease.

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