So You Want To Be An EMC Engineer?

 

“Abandon hope all ye who enter here”

– Sign above the door on any EMC lab.

 

I’ve been asked a couple of times for career advice in relation to EMC. How do I get into EMC in the first place? How do I progress, perhaps moving from testing to design? Where should I take my career?

I’m generally sceptical about people who offer career advice. Much advice tends to be parochial “do this and you will succeed”. It is based entirely on what the person giving the advice thinks you should do (even if they never did it themselves.

Everyone’s upbringing and experience is so different there is no “one size fits all” approach to any career.

I can only share what I have done.

Maybe it will help.

 

Pre-Flight Check # 1: Make sure you are in the right career

Too many people are guided into careers like doctor, lawyer, engineer that might not be the best fit for them.

Make sure that engineering is right for you.

If you aren’t sure (and that’s OK) then writers like Tim Urban (career advice featuring the Yearning Octopus and your mum in disguise – long read but worthwhile) or James Altucher have lots of thought provoking advice for you.

 

Pre-Flight Check # 2: Be honest about your reasons for wanting to get into EMC

Why are you wanting to get into the world of EMC?

Wanting something impressive on your CV? Think it might be a good way to get to that promotion you’ve been after? Probably will, but if these are your only reasons then you might be frustrated by the learning curve associated with the field.

One good answer is “it sounds really interesting.” If these are your thoughts then you are not wrong. I think it is one of the most fascinating fields of electronics.

In my case I was cheesed off with working in project management where I was spending less time with my soldering iron and more time in bullshit meetings. An opportunity for an EMC engineer came up in the organisation I worked for and without even thinking about it too deeply I said “I’ll do it”.

Best snap decision ever!

 

Pre-Flight Check # 3: You don’t have to be mad ^H^H^H enthusiastic to work here but it helps.

Whenever I solve an EMC problem I will generally do a little dance. It really floats my boat.

I’m lucky because I get to do what I love and people pay me. Most days I feel like I’ve won the lottery just for doing my day job.

If you don’t love the work (and it can be difficult) then its an excercise in frustration.

Try and follow what makes you want to dance in the middle of the lab. This is a fantastic lens for discovering what it is you are meant to be doing with your career.

 

General Skills: EMC is a Holistic Discipline

I spent the first 7 years of my electronics career working on…

  • power supply design
  • microcontroller coding
  • thermal CFD simulation and design
  • basic mechanical design
  • high speed digital design and test
  • system level architecture
  • cost sensitive design
  • project management

…before I became an EMC engineer. Before even realising I wanted to be an EMC engineer.

I still regularly use ALL these skills in my job as an EMC engineer.

Product design decisions made impact EMC performance.

EMC decisions impact product performance (and cost).

The two co-exist and cannot be separated.

Understanding the compromises of product design, the interaction between competing aspects, is incredibly useful.

 

Go to the place least crowded / Leverage your existing skills

It might be that your team/employer/company has no EMC engineer. Take on that responsibility. This is what I ended up doing and now, 13 years later, I still love what I do.

Perhaps you have an EMC engineer colleague. Arrange to sit on their shoulder and talk to them. Ask lots of questions. Find out what area they don’t have time to work on or what problems they have. Work on that.

You are a member of an EMC team. Again, what areas do the team struggle with? What area consistently causes problems? No one is an expert on the finer points of widget calibration and the effects of temperature. Become that expert.

Find a niche (rhymes with quiche dammit) and fill it. You get to progress and inevitably find something else interesting to work on.

 

Learn to automate

One of my favourite articles is Don’t Learn To Code, Learn To Automate.

EMC is no different to any other job, there will be repetitive tasks to perform.

Automating tests frees you up to work on other things and makes your work more consistent. Plus it gives you an opportunity to make a cup of tea whilst running a test. Maybe even a biscuit.

Automation doesn’t always go to plan or work out to be time efficient so pick your targets carefully.

 

Get good at fixing EMC problems

Another fundamental truth of EMC is that There Will Be Problems.

Problems present a (usually) unique learning opportunity. Every problem I’ve solved has either taught me something or reinforced some piece of existing learning.

Spend a time in the test lab experimenting and getting an understanding of what works and what does not work.

All experiments are useful. Failed experiments or inconclusive data can help you refine your thinking.

 

Understand how HF current flows

In my opinion, this is the key to understanding EMC.

I recorded a presentation which might help your understanding but others have written about it before me and better (Henry Ott for instance).

Once you can visualise this you can understand the WHY behind so much of EMC.

 

Cultivate a Tolerance for Frustration

I would describe being an EMC engineer as alternately frustrating and elating.

You get better at dealing with the frustration of a problem and at solving it quicker.

Sometimes the scope of a problem is outside of your remit of available tools or skills to fix. Learn what you can and try and figure out a way forward.

 

Study Widely

Attend courses, webinars, lectures, presentations. Eventually some of it will sink in.

Sometimes you aren’t ready to grasp a piece of knowledge because you don’t have the existing framework for it to the idea to fit into.

Be wary of accepting everything at face value. Specific examples are sometimes presented without context or as globally applicable.

 

The learning never stops

I’m still trying to wrap my head around the intricacies of Power Distribution Network design, LabView coding for test automation and how antennas really work.

 

Share knowledge

Give a presentation to your colleagues about an EMC topic.

Explaining something complex to others in a simple fashion is the best marker as to how well you understand it.

I always spend lots of time on any talk I’m giving to try and make it as simple to understand as possible whilst still being useful.

 

Professional Accreditation

You may have the option of working towards accredited engineer status like the Chartered Engineer path through the IET here in the UK for example.

There are also the independent iNarte certifications which are particularly relevant for our field of work.

Some industry sectors or larger corporation might prefer you to have these qualifications. It certainly shows that you have achieved a certain level of competence and have been vetted to a certain extent by a 3rd party.

Find out what is expected or in your industry sector

I have no strong feelings either way on these professional qualifications. I investigated both whilst I was establishing Unit 3 Compliance and decided that I didn’t have the time to commit to them whilst I was setting up the business.

For me, there’s always something more impactful that I can be doing for my business than getting a piece of paper that might only make a small difference to one or two customers. I want to make a big difference for all my customers.

 

Fin.

Thanks for reading this far. If you have any ideas for what else could be included then drop me a mail.

That’s it from me. All the best on your journey.

.James

 

 

 

Simple RF Current Transformer for EMC / EMI Investigation

This post contains some background info related to the video I posted on YouTube on how to make a simple RF current transformer, a great tool for debugging EMC / EMI issues such as radiated emissions from cables, or tracing conducted RF immunity noise paths.

RF current transformers (or probes) are commercially available products from places like Fischer CC or Solar Electronics and they work really well, have specified bandwidth and power handling characteristics, built in shielding, robust case, etc.

They also cost a few hundred £$€ each which, if you are on a budget like most people, represents a significant investment for a individual or small laboratory. However, this one can be built very cheaply; most labs will have a development kit with some clip on ferrite cores, if not the core I used only costs £5 from RS.

DIY Current Probe

I’m a big fan of making my own test adaptors and equipment as its a great way to really understand how things work and the compromises in any design. As such I decided to share how I go about making this kind of really useful tool.

It’s primary use is for A-B comparison work; measuring the current, performing a modification and then measuring the current to see the improvement.

It is to be stressed that my version is a crude but effective piece of equipment and does not replace a well designed commercial product. There’s a time and a place to invest in quality equipment and one should use engineering judgement on when that is. For instance, measuring the RF current accurately is definitely a job for a properly designed and characterised device.

If you want to explore RF current transformers in more detail then there is plenty of info on Google, but these links are useful places to start.

Some of the design compromises involved in this low cost approach include:

Core Losses / Insertion Loss

The ferrite material in these cores is specifically designed to be lossy at the frequencies of interest, which will result in a lower reading than a higher bandwidth core and a reduction in the amount of noise on the cable downstream from the noise source. This can in some cases mask the effect you are trying to measure. The commercially available products use low loss, high bandwidth ferrite cores.

A high insertion loss also makes these parts more unsuitable for injecting noise into circuits for immunity testing. they can be calibrated for this task using a simple test setup (to be covered later)

Secondary Turns

Number of secondary turns controls sensitivity but the more you add, the inter-winding capacitance increases, decreasing the bandwidth of the tool. I generally use 5 or 6 turns to start with but I do have a 20 turn part made with micro coax on a solid core which also helps to deal with…

Capacitive pickup

From the cable under test to the secondary winding. Normally a split shield (so that it doesn’t appear as a shorted turn) is built in to commercial products. Guess what, that’s easy to do on this with a spot of copper tape or foil.

Not as Robust

Although a well designed product, the plastic hinges and clips on the cores are not designed for repeated opening and closing. The Wurth Elektronik system of a special key to open and close the core is much more robust at the expense of having to keep a few keys to hand for when they inevitably go missing. However these parts are so cheap and quick to make that a broken clip on core is no real obstacle.

Future Videos

I’ll be following this video with some hints and tips on how to use these devices effectively for finding radiated emissions problems and for looking at conducted RF immunity issues. Stay tuned.

Video and Construction Errata

The sharp eyed of you will have spotted that I originally assembled the BNC connector on the core so that it covered the key-way to open the clamp. I rectified this but didn’t film the change.

Also, you can wrap the wire round the core without removing it from the housing but that means you don’t have a nice flat surface to affix the BNC connector to. It does make it easier to close the clamp however so make your choice.

LED Lights, the “Bulb Ban” and EMC / Radio Interference

I’ve just published a new article on LinkedIn titled LED Lights, the “Bulb Ban” and Resultant EMC / RFI Issues where I look at potential EMC effects from increased adoption of LED bulbs following recent EU legislation.

If you check it out I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. Please hit comment on the LinkedIn post.

Use of an LCD back panel as an image plane to reduce radiated emissions

EMC Radiated Emissions Fault Finding Case Study

I’m really happy to have one of my blog articles featured on Interference Technology.

Problem solving and fault finding EMC problems, especially radiated emissions, is one of my specialities and oddly enough is one of the facets of my job that I enjoy the most. After a successful exercise in helping a customer out with their product, getting the chance to write about it and share it with you is a real bonus.

Fixing radiated emissions is at it’s most challenging when the scope for modification to the unit are limited by the fact there are significant stock of PCBs or components that would require scrapping and redesign. Finding a way to use the existing stock was key in this example as the customer had significant time and money invested into the project. Thankfully I was able to help them out.

Head on over to Interference Technology and have a read through – I even put pictures in! Hopefully it will give you an idea of how I work and the sort of EMC issues that I can help you solve.

Case Study: Poor PC Board Layout Causes Radiated Emissions

 

Case Study: AC Mains Input EMC and Safety Troubleshooting

Many of the customers I deal with are technically savvy and extremely good at designing innovative and clever devices. I’m always learning something new every time I get a different product through the door. Unfortunately it isn’t practical or possible to be good at everything and EMC expertise, especially when it comes to fault finding and problem solving, can be hard to come by. This is where I come in.

I’ve been helping a good customer on a product that they’ve been working with that had some EMC troubles on a prototype design. It had originally been taken to a different test lab where they had performed a mains conducted emissions measurement showing a clear failure at low frequencies. There were a couple of other hard copy scans supplied where a capacitor value had been adjusted to try and improve the emissions but with no effect.

In need of some expertise, they got in touch.

Mains Conducted Emissions Testing

I received the product and quickly set it up in our screened room to perform some EN 55014-1 conducted emissions measurements. Below you can see the first scan result, showing a failure of up to 10dB on the Quasi Peak detector. There’s clearly some room for improvement so let’s analyse the problem and see what we can do.

mains conducted emissions - before

Our starting point for the improvement work

Lower frequency mains conducted emissions are not uncommon and are usually caused by differential mode voltage noise. This is generated by current flowing through the impedance presented by the primary side bulk decoupling and switching circuit. The switching frequencies of the power supply controller are usually in the 30 kHz to 250 kHz range putting it (and it’s harmonics) right in this lower frequency (sub 1MHz) range for this test.

Improving differential mode noise can be done in a number of ways. Removing the noise at source is the approach I advocate, in this case this can be achieved by reducing the impedance of the rectified mains bulk decoupling capacitor. A review of the BOM showed that the units had been built with some general purpose electrolytic capacitors with a relatively high impedance. So the first thing that I did was to swap out these parts for ones from the Nichicon PW series of low impedance electrolytic capacitors.

after fitting low impedance bulk decoupling

Changing the electrolytics to a low impedance variety

The result: a big improvement on the QP measurements, bringing some of them down by around 10dB. The improvement on the Average detector readings was less pronounced, especially around 550 kHz where only a 3dB improvement was registered. It is likely that the HF impedance of the decoupling capacitor is still a problem. One option is to apply a suitably rated high frequency decoupling capacitor in parallel with the bulk decoupling capacitor. The other option is to improve the filtering on the AC mains input to prevent the noise from escaping back down the line.

Filtering for differential mode noise can be provided in several ways. The most common method is to make an LC filter from the leakage inductance of a common mode choke paired with a Class X safety capacitor between Live and Neutral. The leakage inductance is in the tens of micro-Henries whereas the common mode inductance is often a couple of magnitudes larger up in the tens of milli-Henries. Simplistically (there are other effects to consider) a 10uH leakage inductance paired with a 470nF capacitor will roll off frequencies above 100 kHz. Well, let’s try that!

now with added class X cap

Now with an additional 470nF Class X capacitor soldered across the mains input terminals

Performance is improved by around 5dB across a wide range of frequencies; indeed the improvement can be seen up to 15 MHz. This leaves a margin of around 2dB to the average limit line which is perhaps a bit close for comfort and I would generally recommend looking at a little more filtering to bring this down a bit further to allow for variations in production and tolerance of components. Options for further improvements could include a second Class X capacitor to form a pi filter but because of the low impedance of the differential mode noise this approach might not be as effective. Adding some inductance to form an LC filter with the bulk decoupling capacitor is another approach.

However this proved the case to the customer for a PCB redesign to make space for the larger bulk decoupling capacitors and at least one Class X capacitor.

Surge and Safety

Following on from this work, at the customers request, I carried out a full suite of EMC tests on the product to EN 55014-1 (emissions) and 55014-2 (immunity). One thing that I noticed was the sound of an electrical breakdown during the application of a differential mode surge test. Taking off the outer casing, I managed to catch the below arc on camera during a 1kV surge event.

Arcing caught on camera

Snap, crackle and pop.

The arc appeared around the resistor; desoldering and removing it from the PCB showed a couple of points where there was arcing between the resistor body and the trace running underneath it.

Arcind damage to the PCb to surface

Arcing evidence on the PCB

This problem has occurred because the resistor R1 is in series with the Live phase and the trace underneath is connected to the Neutral phase. When mounted flush to the PCB normally, the resistor has only its outer insulation between live and neutral. Reviewing the relevant electrical safety standard for the product requires a minimum clearance (air gap) for basic and functional insulation is 1.5mm. This can be achieved by standing the resistor up on spacers to keep it away from the PCB but then it starts to approach VDR1 and Q4 meaning a considered manufacturing approach is required. This was another incentive for redesigning the PCB.

The take-away lesson from this finding is to consider the Z axis / third dimension when reviewing a PCB as it can be easy to see things purely in two dimensions!

I hope you found this case study useful and that it has given you some tools with which you can improve your designs.

If you need some EMC fault finding expertise then get in touch: I’d be happy to help and I love a good challenge!