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Q&A

Is ESD overhyped?

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I have seen many engineers talk about ESD protection but I had never seen its effects myself. I made many small DIY projects and I have used bare hands to touch ICs and their pins,but nothing got destroyed(I mean ICs functioned well). Is it really that serious? Please tell and also its mitigating measures. I experimented with a mosfet just now by rubbing my fingers on its terminals. It is an n-channel mosfet called IRF510,and its datasheet is here . I observed that mosfet is working well by checking with a multimeter in diode mode i.e drain is connected to common of multimeter and source to positive one.

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Yes, damage due to ESD (electro-static discharge) is real. Just because you haven't seen it isn't much evidence of anything. Some obvious possibilities why you haven't observed the problem are:

  1. You failed to create a proper ESD event.
  2. You didn't measure the results properly.
  3. The built-in ESD protection of whatever you were subjecting ESD to worked, and kept the device from getting damaged.
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Real life example. The machine shop of the company where I work has HAAS VF2 milling centers. At 3.5 tons, you'd figure a big enough to warrant some care and respect.

The favored method of data transfer is USB stick.

On a winter day, the cnc programmer picks up enough static on the short walk from his desk to the machine, that it would discharge upon inserting the USB stick. In the older of the machines (mid 2000's generation), this discharge would sometimes reset the whole thing, as if you flipped the power switch. Ruining whatever was being cut, which could be multiple parts in the setup, and if a skinny drill or tap was engaged at that moment, the sudden stop could break that.

That is the kind of thing the EU's stricter ESD requirements are meant to prevent.

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+3
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ESD is a very real concern on mass-produced goods with an expectation of quality and durability (i.e. those items for end-user consumption with warranty). So real in fact that there are numerous international standards dealing with it, including:

  • IEC 61000-4-2
  • ISO 10605-2008

Design houses will mandate ESD protection on all sensitive ports if these standards are to be met, and during product qualification an ESD simulator (or "gun") capable of producing kilovolts of discharge will be used to test every exposed surface on the product to ensure nothing gets fried if someone shuffles their feet or rolls across the floor in their office chair (while wearing a stylish Cashmere sweater) and grabs your product by something other than its handle.

There will be extensive ESD controls in the production facility as well - workers will wear ESD gowns or smocks, ESD shoes or heel straps, and will use ESD wrist straps when working with product. Trays carrying product (and parts) will be static-dissipative. In extreme circumstances, humidification will be fully controlled.

ESD is really about probabilities. Will one incidental handling with no ESD controls cause an incident? Maybe. Will thousands of incidental handlings without ESD controls cause your product quality and yield to plummet? Most definitely.

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General comments (1 comment)
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In addition to permanent damage, which is what you are concerned about, incorrect behavior is also possible. One design I sort of inherited had a major ESD problem. It was long ago and I don't remember the exact details, but there was an input (maybe a reset input or an interrupt for a microprocessor) that was either floating or impropertly terminated. Developers with early access to prototypes reported that it would sometimes reboot when they set it on a carpet and walked around it.

This type of problem can be fixed with a strong pullup or a a few capacitors.

In my experience, the problems that you encounter with production designs in ESD testing (which may not be the same as ESD in the field) usually don't involve permanent damage to silicon. Usually it is incorrect behavior caused by a state transition on an input.

So ESD is not a myth. But maybe the problem is not what you imagine. Also, industry processes are in place to eliminate ESD damage. This includes ESD protection on individual parts and even individual transistors like your IRF510. So it may be that the reason you think it is a myth is because those processes and design details are effective at preventing permanent damage from ESD.

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Just to let you know: if one day you have to use the LM337 negative voltage regulator, protect everything with TVS or Zeners. This is the most failing component I've ever seen (and I'm not the only one who thinks so, see youtube). I suspect strongly it is very sensitive to ESD. In my last application, after having replaced the LM337 for the 66th time, I protected it heavily and it finally stoped to fry.

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