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Alert Tech SMT technician working in a designated anti-electrostatic discharge area

What is Electrostatic Discharge and How Does It Impact Electronics?

| Ask an Engineer

Electrostatic discharge (ESD) is happening around us all the time in our daily life. It’s an essential scientific process for the functioning of our world but can also cause challenges — from an uncomfortable zap to a dangerous high-voltage shock.

ESD presents a unique challenge for the electronics industry, as the flow of static electricity can severely damage sensitive components. In extreme cases, a lack of proper handling technique or care can result in combustion and health hazards. For these reasons, it’s critical to have experienced technicians and engineers trained to work on ESD-sensitive (ESDS) devices.

So, let’s take a look at what ESD is, potential everyday hazards, how it impacts electronics and ways to keep ESDS devices safe.  

What Exactly is Electrostatic Discharge?

ESD is the rapid flow of current from one electrically charged object to another. This phenomenon, called an ESD event, happens when two objects with opposite charges come into contact — or even close proximity — with each other. A spark of electricity passes between the objects as the electrons from the negatively charged object jump to the positively charged object to create a balanced, or neutral, state.

Can Electrostatic Discharge Be Harmful?

The short answer is yes. Let’s explore two common scenarios where ESD can present dangerously high-voltage discharge. Have you ever been warned against standing below a tree during a lightning storm? Or, have you noticed signs at a gas station warning you not to re-enter your vehicle while fueling up? In both examples, a charge imbalance between objects can create a potentially harmful — even deadly — static discharge event.

During an electrical storm, the imbalance of storm clouds to the ground creates lighting in an effort to balance the atmosphere. The discharge will find the closest path to the ground, which is typically a tall tree. Stand too close to the tree, and you may be part of the lightning’s “path” to the ground.

In the second scenario, static can build up on our bodies as we slide off the car seat. In extreme cases, the buildup could potentially be enough to ignite the fumes emitting from the gas tank as you fill-up. This could result in a fire large enough to consume your vehicle, those nearby or even the entire gas station.

How Does Electrostatic Discharge Impact Electronics?

In the electronics industry, an ESD event can cause major damage to any ESDS electronic components, sub-assemblies or devices. The damage can range from complete failure to latent failure of an ESDS component, depending on the severity of the event. Furthermore, latent failures are more costly since the failures occur once the damage component has been installed or in use. Typically, the smaller an ESDS component or device is, the more sensitive it is to ESD, making it critical to take proper care when handling printed circuit boards and electrical components.

How Do You Protect Against Electrostatic Discharge Damage for Electronics?

At Alert Tech SMT, we store our devices in special ESD containers that create a static barrier. Much like the body of an airplane that protects its passengers from lightning storms, these containers help prevent damage to sensitive components and devices. We take special precautions when removing an ESDS device from the barrier to ensure that anyone handling the device has a neutral charge on their body. To achieve this, the assembler wears a wrist strap that is grounded to the earth and works in a specially designated ESD protected area. Once the device is installed into a larger system, the probability of damage from ESD is greatly reduced.

The Alert Tech SMT team is committed to producing the highest quality assemblies. We actively review our internal protocols to ensure we are always in compliance with the most up-to-date industry standards and compliance. If you’re ready to work with a contract manufacturer that prioritizes service and quality, contact our team today.