ESD Measuring Device Helps Support Aerospace Firms

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Christopher Nickels, ESD manager at L3 Harris, used to describe his efforts to control electrostatic discharge (ESD) within his organization as “chasing ghosts.” Jack Elston, founder and CEO of Black Swift Technologies, was perpetually frustrated that his highly mobile UAV assembly workers were not using ESD grounding wrist straps. Now, both have found help from a new technology: wearable ESD monitoring.

Nickels is using a wearable, wireless ESD measuring device from Iona Tech, primarily during ESD trainings, to help engineers and technicians gain more intuition into ESD events and prevent them from happening in the first place. This technology helps to convey and visualize the realities of electrostatic discharge to his employees, he said. As adoption grows, he envisions a wider use of the system as a constant ESD monitor for mobile personnel.

Elston’s company, which manufactures and operates unmanned aerial systems out of Boulder, Colorado, has been utilizing our wearable technology since its beta test campaign. “You can have a few of the StatIQ Bands around your shop and people can grab and walk with them,” he said. “It’s a much different workflow than being tied to a desk and having to put on and take off something every time you need to leave.”

Black Swift Technologies’ Jack Elston.Black Swift Technologies’ Jack Elston.
Black Swift Technologies’ Jack Elston

While L3 Harris is a large organization, smaller groups can benefit from this wearable as well.

In small-scale, electronics-based organizations and manufacturing sites, the ESD budget does not allow for conductive flooring, environmental control systems or existing monitoring solutions. While a workbench may contain some dissipative mats and off-the-shelf wrist straps, the engineer is generally not stationary. Having to move continually between workstations throughout the day, they are unlikely to take off and replace their stationary, tethered ESD strap every single time.

A system that shows the status of all products within an organization that the band can monitor is under development and set to launch late this year. This new feature will unlock Nickels’s vision and provide him and other ESD managers with actionable data on the body voltage of every technician in contact with ESD-vulnerable assets.

Why did we develop the wearable?

For more than 60 years, electrostatic discharge has been a constant challenge in electronics manufacturing. These days, in the United States alone, $1 billion is spent each year on preventing electrostatic discharge.

The solution to this problem lies in greater visibility into electrostatic discharge. And it is high time we combat the issue with technological innovation that keeps pace with the advances of the underlying electronics.

ESD complex and intangible

In electronics manufacturing, electrostatic discharge can damage sensitive circuits, compromising product quality and reliability.

L3 Harris’s Christopher Nickels.L3 Harris’s Christopher Nickels.
L3 Harris’s Christopher Nickels

Electrostatic discharge is extremely complex and intangible, making it very difficult to prevent, detect and quantify. Where humans can feel an electric shock at only 2,000 V, CMOS circuits can be damaged at as low as 100 V. So it is possible to damage circuits and never know it happened.

To further complicate matters, damage can come in two forms: catastrophic or latent.

Catastrophic damage refers to situations where a device is shocked and fails immediately thereafter. This damage is more intuitive and easier to quantify, as it exhibits a clear cause-and-effect relationship.

Latent damage, on the other hand, refers to the situation where a device is shocked, passes quality control testing and then fails much later in its lifecycle.

So far, the most comprehensive study done into the impact of electrostatic discharge occurred many years ago. However, it is still relevant because technology to address the problem has not advanced since.

The study showed that up to 30% of units that failed during the manufacturing process did so from ESD damage. Extrapolate this to all electronics manufacturing losses worldwide, plus the added cost of products that fail under operation, and the immensity of the ESD problem becomes glaringly obvious.

Still, the ESD problem is often brushed aside. That is likely because existing solutions don’t work for the majority of customers—and because it is very difficult to measure and therefore quantify the problem.

Why many current fixes fail

For such a complex and universal challenge, the existing fixes are rather underwhelming.

The most standard solution is the ESD wrist strap: a grounded bracelet that provides a discharge path for the wearer. These are effective to a point but are severely limited by the lack of mobility, where a wearer needs to be physically tethered to ground (GND) for them to work.

Additionally, these straps provide no feedback about grounding and the buildup of charge, leaving wearers in the dark about the occurrence of ESD events. Here, the single technological improvement in the last 50 years has been “continuous wrist strap monitors,” which simply detect whether the strap is being worn.

Other solutions like ESD mats, flooring and shoes are limited in the same way. They are cumbersome. They limit mobility. They are prone to failure. And they lack any meaningful feedback. Continuous monitors do not exist for these solutions, so it may be months before a fault or issue is detected.

Worse yet, even with these countermeasures in place, there is no guarantee that ESD events will be avoided. Truly comprehensive ESD prevention necessitates an ESD auditor to visit and inspect a facility. These professionals are hard to find.

Visibility will help

The fundamental reason why electrostatic discharge is so hard to manage is because it’s so hard to see. To solve the ESD problem, we need more visibility into ESD events.

The StatIQ Band.The StatIQ Band.
The StatIQ Band

Iona Tech is addressing this need by developing solutions that monitor ESD events in real time. Our device tracks and alerts wearers to ESD events as they happen. The device lets users know their current body voltage for prevention and notifies them of rapid changes in their body voltage (i.e., ESD events) for detection.

Our wearable lets users say, “An event happened”—a new insight for the industry. By understanding the nature of ESD events and the exact voltage data that precede them, we can truly move toward preventing this challenge.

With our ESD-monitoring band, workers can freely move around the workplace and be alerted if and when they are in danger of damaging electronics. If an ESD event to a circuit does occur, they are alerted and can know that a product is compromised.