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ram cage being removed from a 2018 mac mini

Apple Multi-Purpose EMC/EMI Shielding

I’ve always been impressed with Apple’s approach to reducing problems caused by EMC/EMI. Making top of the line technology in a compact case means minimising risk and maximising performance.

Let’s look at an example of well considered EMC design and why it is so useful.

 

Even the EMI shielding solutions are stylish

Because their products are charged at top dollar prices, they can afford to (or can’t afford NOT to) put in features like this.

The RAM on the new Mac Mini (thanks to iFixit for the great photos) has its own removable cage, secured to a PCB level counterpart with screws and, no doubt, a decent fit along the edges. What’s interesting is that this shielding system will have multiple functions.

Let’s discuss these below.

ram cage being removed from a 2018 mac mini

Image from iFixit

 

Why is the screening can so important?

Primarily, it will be used to reduce the EMC radiated emissions from the product. The Apple products I’ve had in my anechoic chamber have all been very quiet and this is why I hold Apple in some regard for their EMC design.

Apple will no doubt have tested their design with multiple RAM vendors to satisfy themselves that the design meets the requirements of international EMC standards.

However, were the user to install some non-Apple verified memory modules then the risk of emissions could increase. One can well imagine that Apple will have considered this in their EMC Risk Assessment.

The secondary benefit is more subtle. Take a look at this image.

inside shot of mac mini case with component analysis

Original image courtesy of iFixit, markup by author

The memory modules and their screening can are highlighted in red. Next to it, highlighted in green, is a smaller board level shielding and a UFL antenna connector. (There are another two connectors out of sight underneath the case)

That’s right, Apple have put the most noisy part of the system (RAM) right next to one of the most noise-sensitive (Wi-Fi). What?

 

Noisy Neighbours.

This is not an uncommon problem, especially when trying to compress so much functionality into such a small space.

The Mac Mini is only 165mm square (that’s 6.5″ if you are watching in black and white). The case includes an integrated mains power supply making proximity between electromagnetically incompatible systems unavoidable.

Modern RAM speeds are fast and the Mac mini is no exception. Everymac lists the latest Core i7 model with a DDR4 memory speed of 2.66GHz. That’s uncomfortably close to the Wi-Fi operating band of 2.4 to 2.5GHz.

The interference spectra of a DRAM interface fundamental frequency is generally quite wide band.

If you turn on any form of Spread Spectrum Clocking (SSC) to reduce the peak energy then it can spread over tens or hundreds of MHz. Either way, that puts the edges of the memory fundamental in band for the 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac interface on the Mac mini.

The harmonic emissions of the memory are also prevalent and it’s easy for these to fall in-band of a wireless interface like Wi-Fi. For instance the second harmonic of 2.66GHz is at 5.32GHz in the channel 64/68 region for 5GHz Wi-Fi. Big problems.

 

Improve Performance? The Can Can.

The effect of in band interference on a Wi-Fi interface can be subtle.

At it’s most gentle, there’s a reduction in both performance and range. The modulation, coding type and channel width of the Wi-Fi sets the robustness of the interface to interference.

At the other end of the scale, whole channels can be blocked out entirely.

This intra-system, or platform level interference is pernicious and can be difficult to isolate and track down. Low noise floor spectrum real-time analysers are extremely useful tools here.

Ultimately, segregating the noise source from the receiver, is the only real solution. This can be achieved by physically separating the aggressor and victim (not possible here) or by shielding.

For some companies, the fallout in performance of a couple of Wi-Fi channels is no big deal.

If you are Apple however, then you can’t afford to have dissatisfied customers complaining about poor Wi-Fi speeds. As always, the EMC budget has to be congruent with the product budget and the desired performance.

 

The Last Line Of Defence

Check out the textured surface between the mounting holes for the lid (blue highlight on the above photo). That will be an EMI seal to ensure good contact between lid and case. Not only a nice touch but an important one.

The Wi-Fi antenna is mounted on the outside of the shield so this circular lid actually screens the antenna further from the noisy internal circuitry of the mini.

Well done Apple. I’d love to see your Wi-Fi range testing results… please?

 

 

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.

radiated emissions plot

RS-232 to USB Converters – EMC Problems Part Two

A while ago, I wrote about EMC immunity problems with USB to serial converters and how it was easy to fix with a small 100pF capacitor to ground on the TXD and RXD lines for a bit of filtering. Well, now I’ve found the opposite problem of EMC radiated emissions failures caused by these periodically problematic products.

In this case it appears to be harmonics of the 48MHz internal clock of a SiLabs CP2102 being conducted out of the converter on the TXD and RXD pins.

These little boards are generally used as development tools in a laboratory setting but there’s nothing to stop this IC or module being integrated into a product where these problems would manifest themselves.

The below plot shows the radiated emissionsbefore (light blue) and after (red). This module was connected to it’s host by 10cm unshielded wires, not an unreasonable application by any means.

radiated emissions plot

And what was the fix? Yep, you guessed it, some 0603 100pF capacitors on the output pins to ground. I bet that would help with immunity too! 😉

IoT EMC Radiated Emissions Investigations

A customer requested some support with one of their products, an IoT bridge device that takes various sensors and provides telemetry back to a central server using a GSM module. Some of the radio pre-compliance spurious emissions testing had suggested there might be some issues at certain frequencies.

After a couple of hours of radiated emissions measurements in the anechoic chamber and some bench work with some near field probes, I’d developed a pretty good idea of what was going on in terms of where the emissions were coming from and what their radiating mechanisms were.

Interestingly, there was a common theme to all of these emissions…

These features are common to a wide range of similar devices so some notes and a simple drawing (oddly I find sketching like this a good way to relax!) are presented in the hope it will give you some ideas about where your radiated emissions might be coming from.

The sketch shows a keypad board, a CPU board and a battery pack. Some other information is missing to permit a simpler drawing. All of these boards below sandwich together nicely into a plastic case which was the starting point for the investigation.

The problem frequencies identified were a 300MHz narrowband spike and a 250MHz broadband hump. Usually when I see broadband I think “power supply noise” and narrowband I think “digital noise”.

IoT module - emc radiated emissions analysis

Let’s take a wander around the device.

Capacitive plate near field probing around (A) showed higher than background levels of 300MHz noise around the front panel button board. Since this was a “dumb” board, the noise was probably coming from the main CPU board. The noise emanating from the cable (B) was not appreciably higher but when approaching the CPU/memory the noise increased, the clock line between the memory device and CPU being the highest.

Two possibilities were that there was crosstalk on the PCB at (C) or perhaps inside the CPU itself but without getting into more complex analysis the exact cause is not known. Apart from the power lines, there was no extra HF filtering on the data lines, just a series resistor on the I/O lines of the CPU. The addition of a small capacitor (e.g. 47pF, either 0402 or an array) on each line to circuit ground forms an RC filter to roll off any unwanted HF emissions like this. I generally advocate making provision for such devices on the PCB but not fitting them unless required – better to provision for and not need than to require a PCB re-spin later in the development cycle.

Moving the near field probe around the bottom of the case where the battery lives (D) showed the broad 250MHz hump present on the battery. Unplugging the battery pack made the emissions drop by 10dBuV/m and measuring with a high bandwidth passive probe showed broadband noise present on the outputs of the battery charger (E) from the switching converter. Some low-ohm ferrite beads in series with the battery terminals will help keep this noise on board and prevent common mode emissions from the battery and cables (F).

Lastly, the antenna was unplugged and some other broadband noise was found on the cable (G) at 360MHz, this time from the main 5V DC/DC converter on the main PCB.

 

Conclusion

So what is the common theme? All the radiation problems stem from cables connected to the main PCB. As soon as you add a cable to a system you are creating a conductor with a poorly controlled return path or “antenna” as they are sometimes known in the EMC department!

Treat any cable or connector leaving your PCB as an EMC hazard. You have less control over the HF return paths in the cable environment than you do on the PCB. Apply appropriate HF filtering to the lines on the cable and remember that even a shielded cable can cause problems.

Sometimes, like the antenna cable, there’s not a lot you can do about it other than practice good design partitioning to keep noisy sources away from the cable and to apply a ferrite core around the cable if it becomes a problem during testing.

 

I hope you found this useful and that it has given you some pointers for looking at your own designs with a new perspective.

 

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

 

Unit 3 Compliance anechoic chamber

Recent Work: Medical Laboratory Equipment EMC Testing and more

It has been an good couple of weeks here at Unit 3 Compliance with some very interesting products to work on.

Firstly, I received confirmation from a previous customer that their product has passed the required EMC certification testing at their accredited laboratory with the modifications that we incorporated during our problem resolution work. This is excellent news for all concerned!

Then things started off with some radiated emissions EMC testing and fault finding on quite a complex and clever piece of medical laboratory equipment with multiple interconnected boards, display, motors and servos. A few problems were identified and feedback given to the customer about potential improvements.

Noisy DC motors were again the theme in some more radiated emissions testing, requiring additional suppression on the motor terminals, made all the more challenging by the tight mechanical constraints of the product. Differential mode suppression on the terminals using ferrite beads to reduce the brush noise is the most effective solution but without a well defined RF return path to the brushes any noise reduction will ultimately be a compromise. More testing is being performed with some small filter PCBs mounted right on the motor terminals.

Lastly, our screened room test facility is almost completed and is being used for some mains and DC port conducted emissions testing with buck converter switching noise providing a challenge.

“Problems worthy of attack prove their worth by fighting back!” 

Unit 3 Compliance anechoic chamber

Radiated emissions fault finding and pre-compliance in the Unit 3 Compliance fully anechoic chamber

 

radiated emissions plot showing improvements made to customers product

Brushed DC Motor – EMC Radiated Emissions Problems and Improvements

I’ve been working with a customer whose product had significant broadband radiated emissions throughout the spectrum, helping them with fault finding and improving their EMC performance. Partial information from their certifying test lab appeared to show a regular harmonic series suggesting noise from a digital clock of some kind. However, near field probing with a spectrum analyser on the bench disproved this theory and identified the brushed DC motor as the cause. It is believed that a combination of the certifying test lab only performing one frequency sweep, the long cycle time of the EUT and the random arcing noise from the DC motor brushes caused a series of regular peaks to appear distributed throughout the spectrum.

In reality, both spectrum analyser measurements and the radiated emissions plot shown below show a wide range of broadband noise once the graph had multiple sweeps through the spectrum to enable it to become fully populated.

Working closely with the customer, we selected an alternate motor from the same manufacturer part with suppression capacitors built in to decouple the brush noise at the source; always the most efficient way of solving an EMC problem is to knock it on the head where is is being generated. Putting the EUT in the anechoic chamber showed that this provided a significant improvement, especially at higher frequencies but there remained an hump at around 150MHz to 300MHz.

We followed up with testing various ferrite cores around the DC motor power leads to further reduce the noise being conducted down the lead, leading to the selection of a small ferrite core with two turns around the motor DC supply leads.

Below can be seen the scan data showing before any modifications (blue) and after changing the motor and adding the ferrite core (green). Testing also revealed what appeared to be a satisfied customer 😉

radiated emissions plot showing improvements made to customers product