ESD Guns, Transients And Testing…Oh My!

Sometimes a shock to the system is a good thing.

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With the pervasiveness of power management techniques like clock gating and power gating, transient power is on the rise, accompanied by the requirement to closely examine a system for such phenomenon as electrostatic discharge.

I was interested to recently learn more about ESD testing, some of which is done with software tools, but much is still done in the lab with prototypes of the end devices and ESD guns. Yes, guns.

An ESD testing gun. (Source: ESDguns.com)

There is even an entire website dedicated to renting and selling these testing tools, ranging in price up to tens of thousands of dollars.

According to the site, it provides, “ESD Simulation Guns for IEC 61000-4-2, ISO 10605 and other standards to simulate electrostatic discharge phenomena. Pre-certify, troubleshoot or perform any other verification of your product having an ESD gun readily available. With a wide range of simulators up to 30kV, as well as Discharge Networks to meet military and automotive standards – learn, acquire and receive the best support with this common EMC test.”

Dr. Zhen Mu, a senior principal product engineer in the Custom IC & PCB Group at Cadence explained these techniques are essential today so that our devices don’t blow up in our hands.

“IC designers or the board level or the system level designers are all are required to prevent this type of thing because we are constantly plugging devices into our computers,” she said. Essentially, when the circuit is completed but there is bad current coming through, this is when damage can occur.

“If you want to design your system that will not be affected by this type of ESD effect, you have to make sure that before the product goes out of the customer for use that it passed certain tests to make sure it works,” Mu noted. One commonly used standard is one mentioned above, IEC 61000-4-2.

While today this is all in the real world, hardware realm, someday there may be ESD gun models robust enough to be included in ESD simulation tools. Until then, and in this specific case, a gun can be a very useful tool in the testing arsenal of electronic systems today. Just don’t shock your lab colleagues with it.