ESD Design Guidelines: for electronic circuits

In order to ensure circuits are able to withstand ESD in normal operation and improve withstand during manufacture and repair, etc. , it is necessary to follow some design guidelines.


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Although utilising an ESD protected area is the right approach for any operation where electronic components and assemblies are handled, it is still necessary to ensure that they are as robust as possible as a result of their design.

Implementing design guidelines for ESD protection is essential for any circuits that interface to the outside world.

It often occurs that equipment will have connectors for external interfaces - these are prone to the effects of static as the equipment may often be used in environments that are not static protected. It is essential that these are protected. Also if equipment is designed in a robust manner it is less likely to fail.

ESD protection requirement

With electronics devices used in today's electronics equipment being susceptible to electrostatic discharge, it is necessary to employ ESD design guidelines that ensure that devices used will be protected against its effects. The ESD design guidelines and the protection used is of particular importance where any connections are on the periphery of the equipment and may be accessed via the user.

When accessing external ports, users will not take any precautions against ESD, if they even understand about it. Therefore it is necessary to provide full protection for any external ports that may exist.

Electronics devices manufactured today are often required to survive a discharge of 8kV contact discharge (i.e. where the 8 kV is discharged directly onto the pin via a metallic contact) or a 15 kV air discharge (where the 15 kV point is close to the pin and discharges across an air gap). While this is the aim, not all devices will survive this and in many cases the discharge may be greater than this. It is therefore wise to add additional protection.

ESD design methods

The key to the ESD design guidelines for protecting the devices on any external Input / Output (I / O) lines, is to prevent the voltage rising above a level that will damage the interface device. This may be achieved using a circuit that clamps the maximum voltages to just outside the maximum operating extremes. Typically this may be just above the rail voltage and just below the zero volt line.

A typical circuit that can be used for clamping voltages employs reverse biased diodes from the input line to the voltage rail and to ground. This ESD protection circuit must ensure that the voltage excursions on the input line are limited. The diodes must also have a low level of residual current, and the capacitance must be low to ensure that the frequency response / data rate and other input parameters are not impaired.

Diodes used for ESD protection
Diodes used on the circuit input for protection

The operation of the circuit is very simple in that the diodes, D1 and D2 are reverse biased under normal operating conditions. However if a pulse occurs that raises the input voltage above the rail voltage the top diode, D1, will conduct. Similarly if the voltage falls below the ground voltage, the other diode, D2, will conduct. Using ordinary signal diodes, the maximum voltage excursions that might expected on the input line in the first analysis may be +0.5V above the rail and -0.5V below ground. However this is not always the case as seen below.

The typical response curve for an electrostatic discharge is defined by IEC61000-4-5 and it simulates a typical electrostatic discharge curve. The waveform has a rise time of about 1 ns and the current level peaks at 30A. To suppress these voltages, very effective clamping circuits are required and ESD design guidelines need to specify acceptable components and performance limits.

IEC 61000-4-2 pulse waveform used for ESD simulation
IEC 61000-4-2 pulse waveform used for ESD simulation

To provide an approximation to the clamping voltage of a diode the clamping voltage can be approximated as follows:

V c l a m p   =   V c o n d u c t i o n   +   ( R d y n a m i c     x     c u r r e n t )

It can be seen that the clamping voltage is related to both the conduction or breakdown voltage (dependent upon the type of diode used) and also the dynamic resistance of the diode. With the very high instantaneous currents exhibited by electrostatic discharges, even very low values of inductance will mean the dynamic resistance is high enough to mean that excessive voltages will appear on the interface lines. Even with DC clamp voltages of around 5V and fast switching diodes, voltages appearing on the device terminals from an electrostatic discharge may exceed 100V. The clamp circuit will have limited the discharge but not to the extent anticipated. In many cases this will be sufficient because of the short duration of the pulses, and the circuits may survive

It is therefore necessary to optimise the circuit to provide the required level of protection.

ESD PCB design

Apart from correctly designing the circuit itself for ESD suppression, the printed circuit board PCB design and layout is also very important. Effort invested in ensuring the PCB design meets the requirements for ESD suppression will save costly debugging later and will also improve the overall reliability of the final equipment as ESD problems will manifest themselves less.

There are a few basic design guidelines for ensuring that any printed circuit board, PCB design is able to reduce problems from ESD to the minimum:

  • Remove circuit loops:   Loops in a line can give rise to unwanted current arising from induction. While this will degrade the performance from general unwanted pickup, it is also important for ESD protection because unwanted current spikes (and hence voltages) can be induced into any loops. Care should be taken to ensure that no loops exist.
  • Utilise ground plane layers in the printed circuit board :   One way of reducing ground loops is to use a ground plane within the printed circuit board. This will enable any signals to be grounded effectively as well as reducing the possibility of ground loops.
  • Reduce line lengths:   Any wire will act as an antenna. With the very short rise times exhibited by ESD pulses, any antenna has the capability of receiving high voltage spikes. By reducing line lengths, the level of radiated energy that is received will be reduced, and the resulting spikes from electrostatic discharges will be lower.
  • Reduce parasitic inductance around protection circuits:   Many electronics circuits will incorporate ESD protection circuits. These can only be effective if the levels of parasitic inductance are low. Parasitic inductance arising from the PCB design can be reduced by keeping line lengths in this area particularly short, and also increasing the track width.
  • Avoid running sensitive tracks near the extremity of the PCB:   As levels of pickup from static discharges are likely to be greater closer to the extremities of the board, it is wise to keep any sensitive lines away from these areas. Input and output lines will often need to reach the PCB edge at some stage, but they can be routed away from the edge as soon as possible where applicable.

Ensuring that an electronic assembly is protected against the effects of ESD is essential for any item where there are external connections that can be made. By protecting a unit in this way it will also enable it to be put forwards for certification and marking, e.g. CE marking, that may be needed for it to be sold on the open market. To enable a product to be resilient to ESD, the requirements must be implemented at the earliest stages of the design. Modifications required at a late stage in the design will be difficult and expensive to implement.



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