Setting up an ESD-safe workstation is often
more challenging than it first appears. There are many methods of controlling
ElectroStatic Discharge (ESD), and typically, it requires a combination of
these to curb all static problems. Unfortunately, there is no single method
that will fill all requirements.
Wrist straps and work surface mats are probably the most familiar to everyone, draining charges from operators as well as from the product being worked on. But what if the static charge in question is on an insulator? Electronic products, by nature, will normally consist of conductors and insulators. Insulators at the workstation can be found on the product itself, tools being used, tapes for masking, even circuit boards. A static charge on an insulator cannot be drained by grounding, as you could with a conductive material.
To effectively remove charges from insulators, we need to make the surrounding air more conductive. We have all seen a balloon cling to a wall because of a static charge, and we know that, after a period of time, it will drop. That is because the air is somewhat conductive and the charge eventually drains off. The problem with this concept is that it takes too long. The more conductive the air is, the faster the charge will be neutralized.
The method most frequently used to increase
the conductivity of the air is ionization.
Ionizers are useful in preventing
electrostatic charge generation, ElectroStatic Discharge, ElectroStatic
Attraction, as well as preventing equipment latch-up. Per ANSI/ESD S20.20
section 184.108.40.206. Protected Areas Requirement states: “Ionization or other
charge mitigating techniques shall be used at the workstation to neutralize
electrostatic fields on all process essential insulators if the electrostatic
field is considered a threat.”
do Ionizers work?
Most ESD workstations will have some
insulators (e.g. product plastic housing) or isolated conductors (e.g. PCB
board components not in contact with ESD worksurface) that cannot be removed or
replaced. These should be controlled using ionization.
Ionizers create great numbers of positively
and negatively charged ions. Fans help the ions flow over the work area. If
there is a static charge present on an item in the work area, it will be
reduced and neutralized by attracting opposite polarity charges from the air.
Ionization can neutralize static charges on
an insulator in a matter of seconds, thereby reducing their potential to cause
The charged ions created by an ionizer
neutralize charges on process
neutralize charges on non-
neutralize isolated conductors
does Ionization fit into an ESD Control Program?
Ionization is just one component of your
ESD Control Program. Before utilizing ionization, you should follow the
fundamental principles of ESD Control:
Ground all conductors
(including people) using conventional grounding methods (e.g. wrist straps or
Remove all insulators, e.g.
coffee cups, food wrappers etc.
“Air ionization is not a replacement for
grounding methods. It is one component of a complete static control program.
Ionizers are used when it is not possible to properly ground everything and as
backup to other static control methods. In clean rooms, air ionization may be
one of the few methods of static control available.” (ESD Handbook ESD TR20.20
Ionization, section 220.127.116.11 Introduction and Purpose / General Information)
Ionizers can be critical to
reduce induction charging caused by process necessary insulators
Ionizers can be critical in
eliminating charges on isolated conductors like devices on PCBs
Ionization can reduce
ElectroStatic Attraction (ESA) and charged particles clinging and contaminating
It is recommended to use ionizers with feedback mechanisms, so you’re notified if the offset voltage is out of balance.
Ionizers should be pieces of equipment that
have serial numbers and are included in the company’s maintenance and
calibration schedules. This is particularly critical to ensure that the offset
voltage or balance is within acceptable limits. Otherwise, instead of
neutralizing charges the out of balance ionizer will charge insulators and
isolated conductors. The user, depending on the value and function of their
products, must determine the appropriate frequency of maintenance and
The best way to keep electrostatic
sensitive devices (ESDs) from damage is to ground all conductive objects and
remove insulators. This is not always possible because some insulators are
“process-essential” and are necessary to build or assemble the finished product.
The only way to control charges on these necessary non-conductive items is the
use of ionization systems. Applications include:
eliminating charges on process
neutralizing workstations where
ESDS are handled,
removing charged particulates
to create a static free work area.
When talking about ESD Classifications a little while ago, we identified a “class 0” item as withstanding discharges of less than 250 volts.
The introduction of ANSI/ESD S20.20 states: “This standard covers the requirements necessary to design, establish, implement and maintain an Electrostatic Discharge (ESD) Control Program for activities that manufacture, process, assemble, install, package, label, service, test, inspect or otherwise handle electrical or electronic parts, assemblies and equipment susceptible to damage by electrostatic discharges greater than or equal to 100 volts Human Body Model (HBM) and 200 volts Charged Device Model (CDM).”
So how do you handle items that are susceptible to voltages of less than 100V? That’s what we’re going to answer in today’s blog post.
Years ago, it was common for devices to be vulnerable to voltages greater than 100 V. As the need for smaller and faster devices increased, so did their sensitivity to ElectroStatic Discharges as circuit-protection schemes were removed to stay ahead of the market. These new extremely sensitive components are now susceptible to discharges nearing 0 V. This causes problems for companies handling these devices: while their ESD program may be in compliance with the ESD Standard, extremely sensitive devices require tighter ESD Control to protect them from ESD failures.
What is a “Class 0” device?
Before moving any further, we need to qualify the term “class 0”. As stated above, the HBM Model refers to any item with a failure voltage of less than 250 V as a “class 0” component. However, in recent times, the term has been used more and more to describe ultra-sensitive devices with failure voltages of less than 100 V. Whilst the following tips and tricks work on any “class 0” item, they are specifically designed to protect extremely sensitive items that withstand discharges of less than 100 V.
Before Updating Your ESD Program
“Class 0” refers to a wide range of items and there are a few things you should remember before making any changes to your existing ESD program:
Verify what ESD Model your company/engineers/customers etc. are referring to. As we have learnt in the past, there are different ESD models (HBM, CDM, MM) as well as individual classifications for each model. A lot of people get confused when it comes to citing ESD classifications. There is only one “class 0” which refers to the human body model (HBM) but it’s always best to check.
Check the specific withstand voltage an individual part is susceptible to. “Class 0” refers to all items that withstand discharges of less than 250 V. However, there is a big difference between a failure voltage of 240 V or 50 V. You need to have detailed ESD sensitivity information available before being able to make decisions on how to improve your existing ESD control program. This step is part of creating a compliance verification plan.
A part’s ESD classification is only of importance until it is ‘merged’ into an assembly. So, the ESD classification of a device only refers to the stand-alone component. Once it goes into another construction, the classification of the whole assembly is likely to change.
Tips for handling “Class 0” Items
Below are 6 tips that will help your company to upgrade your ESD control program so you can effectively and efficiently handle ultra-sensitive items without risking ESD damage.
One thing to note: The best approach to stay ahead of the game is taking proactive actions. It is critical to figure out how to protect your components from ESD damage before you receive them. If actions are taken after components are received, the components are susceptible to receiving ESD damage.
1. Improve Grounding
Inside an EPA, all conductors (including people) are grounded. Now you’re probably thinking: “But I’ve already grounded my operators and worksurfaces. What else is there left to do?”. Firstly, well done for properly grounding the ‘objects’ in your EPA. The next step is to adjust and improve your current program to allow for even better protection. Here are some suggestions:
Decrease the wrist strap and ESD footwear upper limit. The ESD Association has test data showing charge on a person is less as the path-to-ground resistance is less.
Reduce the required limit for Point-to-Point resistance of 1 x 109 per the ESD Standard to 106 to 108 ohms (see #5). The reason for this reduction is simple: 1 x 109 is too high as it still produces thousands of volts of in electrostatic charges. However, the resistance cannot be too small either as this can lead to a sudden ‘hard discharge’ potentially damaging ESD sensitive components.
Improve grounding of carts, shelves and equipment to Ground
Minimize isolated conductors like devices on PCBs
2. Minimize Charge Generation
The best form of control is to minimize charge generation. First, you should always use shielding packing products like bags or containers (especially when outside an EPA) as these protect from generating charges in the first place. For more information on choosing the correct type of ESD Packaging, we recommend reading this post.
The next step is to eliminate charges once they are generated – this can be achieved through grounding and ionization. We’ll cover ionization in #3 and #4. We’ve already talked about improved grounding in #1. However, for ultra-sensitive components, we also recommend the following:
Personnel: Use low-charging floor finish
Surfaces: Use low-charging topical antistatic treatments
Both types of ESD products create a low tribocharging coating which allows charges to drain off when grounded. The antistatic properties will reduce triboelectric voltage to under 200 volts.
3. Remove Insulators
When talking about conductors and insulators, we explained that insulators cannot be grounded and can damage nearby sensitive devices with a sudden uncontrolled discharge. It is therefore critical to eliminate ALL insulators that are not required in your EPA: plastic cups, non-ESD brushes, tapes etc. How? Here are a couple of options:
Replace regular production supplies and fixtures with dissipative, low charging versions, e.g. ESD dissipative brushes, ESD dispensers, ESD tape, ESD Chairs etc.
If an insulator is absolutely necessary for production and cannot be removed from the EPA, you could consider a topical treatment which will reduce triboelectric charges.
Is this not an option, then move on to tip #4.
4. Use Ionization
First, ionization is not a cure-all. We’ve learnt that ionizers neutralize charges on an insulator.
However, that does not mean that you can just have any insulator in your EPA because the ionizer will “just fix it”. No, in this instance, prevention is generally a better option than the cure. So, your priority should ALWAYS be to remove non-process essential insulators from your EPA – see tip #3. If this is not possible – then ionization becomes essential.
Ionizers can be critical to reduce induction charging caused by process necessary insulators
Ionizers can be critical in eliminating charges on isolated conductors like devices on PCBs
Offset voltage (balance) and discharge times are critical considerations depending on the actual application
Ionization can reduce ElectroStatic Attraction (ESA) and charged particles clinging and contaminating products.
It is recommended to use ionizers with feedback mechanisms, so you’re notified if the offset voltage is out of balance.
5. Increase ESD Training and Awareness
ESD Training is a requirement of every ESD Program. When handling ultra-sensitive devices, it is even more important to remind everyone what pre-cautions are necessary to avoid damage. Regular ‘refreshers’ are a must and it is recommended to verify the effectiveness of the training program, e.g. through tests. So, who, when and what should be taught?
ESD training needs to be provided to everyone who handles ESD sensitive devices – that includes managers, supervisors, subcontractors, visitors, cleaners and even temporary personnel.
Training must be given at the beginning of employment (BEFORE getting anywhere near a sensitive products) and in regular intervals thereafter.
Training should be conducted on proper compliance verification procedures and on the proper use of equipment used for verification.
6. Create an enhanced Compliance Verification Plan
We talked in a previous post about compliance verification, what it is and how to create a plan that complies with the ESD standard. So, if you already followed our steps and have a plan in place, here are a few tips to improve your compliance verification plan:
Use a computer data collection system for wrist straps and foot grounders testing
Increase the test frequency of personnel grounding devices from once per day to every time the operator enters the EPA
Use continuous monitors where operators are grounded via wrist straps. Consider computer based monitor data collection system, e.g. SMP. This should include continuous monitoring of the mat Ground.
Use Ground continuous monitors, e.g. Ground Master. At a large facility, the most frequent reoccurring violation is the ESD mat ground cord either becoming disconnected from the mat or grounding point. As Ground continuous monitors will only test the fact that the mat is grounded, it is still imperative that the Resistance to Ground of the mat is regularly tested. Remember that the use of improper mat cleaners can raise the mat surface resistance above the upper recommended level of <109
Test ionizers more frequently or consider self-monitoring ionizers. Computer based data collection systems are a good alternative, too.
Increase the use of a static field meter and nano coulomb testing to verify that automated processes (like auto insertion, tape and reel, etc.) are not generating charges above acceptable limits.
“Class 0” items require additional measures of ESD protection due to their sensitivity to ESD damage. The best way to protect these ultra-sensitive components is to increase ESD protective redundancies and periodic verifications to all ESD Control technical elements.
To decrease the probability of ESD damage while handling ultra-sensitive items, additional precautions are required. This includes additional and/or more stringent technical requirements for ESD control products, increasing redundancies, and more frequent periodic verifications or audits.
Additionally, ESD control process systems should be evaluated as to their performance as a system. It is important to understand how the technical elements in use perform relative to the sensitivity of the devices being handled. Thus, tailoring the process to handle the more sensitive parts. For example: If the footwear/flooring allows a person’s body voltage to reach 80 volts and a 50 withstand voltage item gets introduced into the process, you must either allow only handling via wrist straps or would have to find a way to modify the footwear/flooring performance to get peak voltages below the 50 volt threshold.
Remember: The ESD Standard gives recommendations that will always be behind current/future developments. As soon as a Standard is published, technology will have progressed. In order to protect your devices and company reputation for reliable devices – it is recommended your company take responsibility to implement methods/procedures that exceed the recommendations of the ESD Standard to fit your sensitive component requirements.
We have learned in a previous post that within an ESD Protected Area (EPA) all surfaces, objects, people and ESD Sensitive Devices (ESDs) are kept at the same electrical potential. We achieve this by using only ‘groundable’ materials.
But what do you do if an item in your EPA is essential to assembly and it cannot be grounded? Don’t sweat, not all hope is lost! Let us explain a couple of options which will allow you to use the non-groundable item in question.
Conductors and Insulators
In ESD Control, we differentiate items as conductors and insulators.
Materials that easily transfer electrons are called conductors. Examples of conductors are metals, carbon and the human body’s sweat layer.
Insulators are materials that do not easily transfer electrons are non-conductors by definition. Some well-known insulators are common plastics, polystyrene foam, and glass.
Both, conductors and insulators, may become charged with static electricity and discharge.
Electrostatic charges can effectively be removed from conductive or dissipative conductors by grounding them. A non-conductive insulator will hold the electron charge and cannot be grounded and “conduct” the charge away.
Conductors and Insulators in an EPA
The first two fundamental principles of ESD Control are:
Ground all conductors (including people).
Remove all insulators.
To ground all conductors per the first ESD Control principal, all surfaces, products and people are electrically bonded to ground. Bonding means linking or connecting, usually through a resistance of between 1 and 10 megohms.
Wrist straps and worksurface mats are some of the most common devices used to remove static charges:
Wrist straps drain charges from operators and a properly grounded mat will provide path-to-ground for exposed ESD susceptible devices.
Movable items (such as containers and tools) are bonded by standing on a bonded surface or being held by a bonded person.
If the static charge in question is on something that cannot be grounded, i.e. an insulator, then #2 of our ESD Control principles will kick in and insulators must be removed. Per the ESD Standard ANSI/ESD S20.20, “All nonessential insulators such as coffee cups, food wrappers and personal items shall be removed from the EPA.” [ANSI/ESD S20.20 clause 8.3.1 Insulators]
The ESD Standard differentiates between these two options:
If the field measured on the insulator is greater than 2000 volts/inch, keep it at a minimum distance of 12 inches from the ESDs or
If the field measured on the insulator is greater than 125 volts/inch, keep it at a minimum distance of 1 inch from the ESDs.
Well, nothing in life is black and white. It would be easy if we were always able to follow the above ESD Control ‘rules’ but there are situations where said insulator is an item used at the workstation, e.g. hand tools. They are “process-essential” insulators – you cannot remove them from the EPA or the job won’t get done.
How do you ‘remove’ these vital insulators without actually ‘removing’ them from your EPA?
Here are four ways to reduce the ESD risk of these insulators:
Keep all insulators a minimum of 1 inch or 12 inches from ESDs at all times per recommendation of the ESD Standard.
This reduces the chance of insulators coming in contact with ESDs during workstation processes and assembly.
Replace regular insulative items with an ESD protective version.
There are numerous tools and accessories available that are ESD safe – from document handling to cups & dispensers, soldering tools, brushes and waste bins. They are either conductive or dissipative and replace the standard insulative varieties that are generally used at a workbench.
Periodically apply Topical Antistat on non-ESD surfaces. After Topical Antistat has been applied and the surface dries, an antistatic and protective static dissipative coating is left behind. The static dissipative coating will allow charges to drain off when grounded. The antistatic properties will reduce triboelectric voltage to under 200 volts. It therefore gives non-ESD surfaces electrical properties until the hard coat is worn away.
Neutralization with Ionization If these three options are not feasible for your application, the insulator is termed “process-essential” and therefore neutralization using an ionizer becomes a necessary part of your ESD control program. This allows for control of charged particles that can cause ESD events which we will cover next.
Most ESD workstations will have some insulators or isolated conductors that cannot be removed or replaced. These should be addressed with ionization.
Examples of some common process essential insulators are a PC board substrate, insulative test fixtures and product plastic housings.
An example of isolated conductors are conductive traces or components loaded on a PC board that is not in contact with the ESD worksurface.
An ionizer creates great numbers of positively and negatively charged ions. Fans help the ions flow over the work area. Ionization can neutralize static charges on an insulator in a matter of seconds, thereby reducing their potential to cause ESD damage.
The charged ions created by an ionizer will:
neutralize charges on process required insulators,
neutralize charges on non- essential insulators,
neutralize isolated conductors and
minimize triboelectric charging.
For more information on ionizers and how to choose the right type of ionizer for your application, read this post.
The best way to keep electrostatic sensitive devices (ESDs) from damage is to ground all conductive objects and remove insulators. This is not always possible because some insulators are “process-essential” and are necessary to build or assemble the ESDs.
Insulators, by definition, are non-conductors and therefore cannot be grounded, but they can be controlled to minimize potential ESD damage.
Insulators can be controlled by doing the following within an EPA:
Keep insulators a minimum distance from ESDS at all times (1 or 12 inch minimum distance depending on field voltage measurements of the insulator per ESD Standard recommendation)
Replace regular insulative items with ESD protective versions
Periodically apply a coat of Topical Antistat
Neutralize charges for “process-essential” insulators with ionization
With these steps added to your ESD control process, all surfaces, objects, people and ESD Sensitive Devices (ESDs) are kept at the same electrical potential in an ESD Protected Area (EPA) to reduce the risk of ESD events and ESD damage.
Last time we learned the difference between conductors & insulators. We went on to explain what ionizers are and when you need them in your EPA. Haven’t had a chance to read that post yet? Catch-up here!
All up to speed now? Right, let’s move on: as promised, today we’ll be looking at the different types of ionizers available.
What is an Ionizer? But first a quick recap of what an ionizer is: An ionizer produces positively and negatively charged ions that are moved to the controlled area with fan driven airflow. Ionization can neutralize static charges on an insulator in a matter of seconds, thereby reducing their potential to cause ESD damage.
Types of Ionizers Electrical ionizers generate air ions by a process known as corona discharge. A high voltage is applied to one or more sharp points and quantities of air ions are created. Fans or blowers may be incorporated in the ionizer to assist the movement of the ions and enhance performance.
AC Ionizers AC ionizers use a transformer to multiply the AC power line voltage. AC stands for “Alternating Current” which means that the power cycles from positive to negative sixty times per second. The AC ionizer therefore produces both positive and negative ions from the same points or emitters. The drawback with this approach is that many ions recombine because the cycle frequency is too fast. For this reason, most AC ionizers rely on fans or blowers to be effective.
Pulsed DC Ionizers Pulsed DC ionizers utilize separate power supplies to generate positive and negative voltages and usually each power supply has its own dedicated emitters. The power supply alternates between positive and negative, but usually at a lower frequency than AC units. In this way, ion recombination is reduced and performance is increased. Airflow may then be reduced for operator comfort without sacrificing much performance. With pulsed DC, it is important to cycle at least two or three times per second to prevent harmful voltage swings on the object being protected.
Steady-state DC Ionizers Steady-state DC ionizers also employ separate power supplies and emitters, but instead of alternating positive and negative, both supplies are on all the time as the name implies. As would be expected, there is some degree of recombination, however, the ion density is still greater because of continuous operation of both supplies. The offset or balance voltage at the output will normally be more consistent than pulse units.
There are also nuclear types of ionizers which are non-electric. They are more frequently used in flammable or explosive environments for applications other than electronics.
This type of configuration will typically have multiple emitters just below ceiling height and will rely on some amount of air movement for moving the ions down to bench level. It used to be considered as the most effective way to protect large areas against ESD hazards. However, these days localized workstation ionization is recommended:
Product sensitivity has become much greater and long decay times of room ionization cannot be tolerated.
With room ionization, often only a fraction of the ionized area may be ESD sensitive. Localized ionizers bring protection to the areas where it’s needed and performance is often 10 times faster than the ceiling height system.
Localized ionization moves with the workstation (or to a new workstation) making it much more flexible with changing production line layouts.
+ Effective for large areas
– Long decay times
– Cannot easily be moved once set-up
Workstation Ionizers These come in many shapes and sizes. Probably the best-known type is the benchtop ionizer which is about the size of an iPad mini and about 4 inch deep. They’ve been around for many years and are to this day still in high demand. Over the years, smaller and lighter units were developed. As workstation space is incredibly valuable, many users prefer the smaller units. Some benchtop ionizers can even be suspended above the bench using a flexible mounting arm. Whatever style is chosen, care should be taken to assure that items normally on the bench would not obstruct the flow of ionized air.
A real benefit of benchtop ionizers is the fact that they can easily be moved between workstations. So, if you only have a small EPA with a few users and shared workload, you can save money by moving one ionizer between different benches.
– Potential obstruction of air flow
Overhead Ionizers Overhead ionization was established to solve the problem of items on a workbench blocking the flow of ionized air. Overhead Ionizers have a unique hanging capability and are suspended about 17 to 24 inch above the bench – either by hanging from chains or by using mounting brackets attached to a shelf or bench.
Using this method of ionization makes it very unlikely for items to block the flow of ionized air to the item being protected. In addition, the downward airflow is more consistent over the entire bench. To ensure that adequate air is delivered an overhead ionizer with 2 to 4 fans should be used. Overhead ionization is ideal for areas where bench space is limited.
+ Large & consistent air flow coverage
+ Don’t take up valuable workspace
+ Items unlikely to block air flow
Forced Air Ionizers Most companies address ElectroStatic Attraction, visual imperfections and contamination issues by dislodging charged dust and debris with compressed air ionizers. They use compressed air or nitrogen to neutralise static charges in localized areas – they are a quick “point-and-shoot” option. They are either hand-held or may be mounted in a fixed location.
The main advantage of this type is that the user has the benefit of a strong air blast (20 to 100 P.S.I.) to help dislodge contamination, while the ionization in the air stream eliminates the static attraction of the particles at the same time. Hand-held air nozzle types will usually have a trigger or push-button to activate the air and ion flow, while the stationary-mounted type is frequently remote controlled with a foot pedal, photo sensor or some other switch closure.
+ “Point-and-shoot” operation
– Use valuable workstation space
+ Strong air blast
Summary SCS Ionizers meet ANSI/ESD S20.20 tested per ANSI/ESD STM3.1 and ESD TR53. What type of ionizer you choose depends on a lot of different factors. There is no right or wrong – just different options.
A few things you should consider before making any decisions:
Type of operation Depending on the work your operators are doing, one type/configuration of ionizer may have more benefits then another. For example, if your workspace is limited, an overhead ionizer might be the answer. On the other hand, if there is an issue with debris & dust in your operation, then a compressed air ionizer would be better suited.
Features required Does your ionizer need to be made of stainless steel? Does it need to use zero-volt technology? Do you need a cost-effective ionizer with built-in emitter point cleaners? Do activities need to be monitored and recorded with some sort of software? Make a list of what is an absolute must and where you can compromise – see next point.
Available budget Even though this one is the last one in this list, it by no means is the least important factor. Quite contrary, it’s generally one of the main considerations when investing in an ionizer. However, it kind of goes hand in hand with the previous 2 points. So, you may have to make compromises, e.g. on the features, depending on what monies are available…
Need help choosing? Check out our Ionizer Selection Chart!
Alternatively, why not request an EOS/ESD Assessment? It’s a great way to have an extra set of eyes look at your ESD control plan!
Conclusion Ionization is one of the best methods of removing charges from insulators and as a result plays an important role in controlling ESD. Remember though: an ionizer is a secondary form of defense and does not eliminate the need for standard ESD control devices such as wrist straps, heel grounders and worksurface mats. It is only one element in an effective ESD program.
Also, ionizers require periodic cleaning of emitter pins and the offset voltage must be kept in balance. Otherwise, instead of neutralizing charges, if it is producing primarily positive or negative ions, the ionizer will place an electrostatic charge on items that are not grounded.