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ESD from Witchcraft to Science

Arthur C. Clarke formulated three laws (1) which can be adapted for electrostatics and ESD use:

  1. When an expert states that something is possible, they will often be right. If they state that something is impossible, they are quite possibly wrong.
  2. To discover the limits of the possible we only need to venture a little way past the usual.
  3. Any technology with which we are not familiar is indistinguishable from magic.

Experience has convinced me that the first and second are valid. I learned long ago the hard way not to say (at least in front of a client) that something is impossible. My conversations with some unfortunate industry practitioners who have been instructed to sort out their company ESD program tells me that for many people the third is true also.

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VSWR and its Effects on Power Amplifiers

Voltage Standing Wave Ratio results from an impedance mismatch between a source (an amplifier) and a load (test application). This mismatch can influence the performance of the source.

In psychology, the “conscious competence” learning model has been devised which relates to stages in the progress of learning (2). These can be summarized as

Stage 1: Unconscious incompetence – The learner does not understand or know how to do something and may not see the need to do it. To progress, they must recognize their own incompetence and the value of the new skill before moving on to the next stage.

Stage 2: Conscious incompetence – The learner does not understand or know how to do something but they recognize the need and value of it. Making mistakes can be an essential part of the learning process.

Stage 3: Conscious competence – The learner is now a practitioner who knows how to do something but this requires heavy conscious involvement.

Stage 4: Unconscious competence. The practitioner’s skill has become “second nature”. It may even be performed while executing another task. They may be able to teach it to others.

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It is easy to see how this model reflects the growth in understanding of ESD control and our ability to develop effective ESD control programs in the electronics industry. In the late 1970s ESD was a new issue scarcely recognized or believed by most in the industry (Stage 1).

Over the next decade or so various individuals and organizations worked to demonstrate ESD risks and understand them, learning to specify ESD control programs and make ESD control equipment and materials, and writing the first Standards relating to ESD control (Stage 2).

Mistakes were made and these led to learning and development of the field. Conferences and knowledge sharing via the ESD Association and Symposium and other routes, led to much wider dissemination of knowledge and practice of ESD control techniques. There gradually arose many individuals and organizations at Stage 3.

The number increased over subsequent decades. We can now attend tutorials given by expert practitioners and even get Certification as a means of recognition of our competence.

Yet, in my practice as a consultant I still come across individuals and organizations who are at Stages 1 and 2. Those at Stage 1 often believe ESD is not a real issue for them. Many feel being forced to adopt what may be perceived as unnecessary or over the top ESD control measures because their customers require them to do so. Often, they will state that they don’t get ESD failures. Whether or not this is correct is open to discussion, but if asked whether they analyze failures for ESD damage they usually reply that they don’t. If they do have ESD failures, they would not know about them.

ESD control investment made by those at Stages 1 and 2 is often regarded by them as money wasted. Ironically, they may be right, because their ESD control measures applied with insufficient understanding may be ineffective. As an example, grounding personnel is an essential ESD control measure in manual handling of ESDS. One organization had a serviceable ESD control floor that represented a serious investment. Personnel can be effectively grounded through a footwear and flooring system, but both ESD control footwear and flooring that work together as a system are necessary for effectiveness. They had decided not to issue their personnel with ESD control footwear as it was regarded as expensive and unnecessary. In fact, I was hardly able to find any equipment that was grounded through the floor – this expensive potentially very useful facility was completely wasted.

None of us, I believe, are fully in Stage 4 in ESD control. Those at the forefront move fluidly between Stages 2, 3 and 4 as new manufacturing and ESD control technologies emerge, and we detect and evaluate new risks and propose new solutions. ESD control standards continue to evolve as we better understand ESDS sensitivity and ESD threats, and how to control them. The most sensitive ESDS and novel processes often may need recognition of unusual ESD risks and non-standard control measures. ESD will continue to surprise us regularly with issues that seem to be “impossible”, either in how they happen or how they may be controlled. Examples are the challenge of preventing charging and damage to flat panel displays which are essentially made of easily charged insulating materials, or how to measure electrostatic properties of minute features of some modern ESD protective packaging.

ESD control will move increasingly from the realms of magic to applied science, as more of us move into Stage 3 learning. We should now know how every piece of ESD control equipment we use works as part of the ESD control program, why we selected it and how we will detect when it fails. Investment in knowledge and understanding may be among the best ESD control strategy we can make. We wouldn’t try to control our finances by magic, so why would we attempt to use it in our ESD control program?

References and Further Reading


Dr Jeremy Smallwood BSc CEng MIET CPhys FInstP spent seven years as an electronics designer in the early 1980’s before returning to Southampton University to do a PhD researching measurement of electrostatic discharge (ESD) ignition of pyrotechnic materials. In 1998 he started Electrostatic Solutions Ltd, specialising in training, consultancy, test and R&D for the electronics industry, electrostatic hazards avoidance, and electrostatic materials and applications development.

Jeremy was presented with the 2010 ESD Association Industry Pioneer Recognition Award. In April 2017, he was awarded the European Working Party on Static Electricity in Industry (EFCE) International Fellow Award for “notable contributions to the advancement of the field of industrial electrostatics as a researcher and a teacher”.

Jeremy has over 60 publications in the fields of electrostatics, measurements, ESD ignition hazards and ESD prevention and is a regular speaker at international conferences and workshops. He works in British Standards and IEC panels on handling of electrostatic sensitive devices and control of undesirable static electricity. Between 2000 and 2012 he was Chairman of EC TC 101 (Electrostatics) responsible for world standards in electrostatics.


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