Tools & Components

Spark-It! ESD Test Kit
It's a Shocking World! Make sure your exhibits can handle it.

(Note that while TechnoFrolics work is primarily in connection with museum and trade
show exhibits, the below applies equally well to any electronic equipment, including
within factory automation, research, medical, and other such environments.)

The Problem/Symptom

TechnoFrolics Spark Tester caseYour interactive electronic exhibit, PC/Mac/uController/PLC, intermittently stops working.  Sometimes it is fine for days - even weeks; other times it hangs twice an hour.

It worked reliably during development, but once deployed and in daily use, it is flaky.  And the problem is sufficiently sporadic that debugging is near impossible – particularly if the exhibit is located far from its original developer.

Additionally, it is unclear if the problem is software, hardware, or a combination.

Could Visitor-Generated Static Discharges be the Cause?

The software developer thinks the problem stems from faulty hardware, as their application runs for weeks without incident on their in-house equipment.  The hardware provider thinks it is a software issue, as other exhibits using near identical hardware are running fine.  The client & users don't care, but are distressed.

It could indeed be an intermittent software and/or hardware bug, but there is also a good chance it is the result of visitor static discharges – particularly if the (overly) static-sensitive, ubiquitous, USB protocol is involved.

To highlight the problem severity:  Many commercial I/O devices glitch, or stop functioning altogether until reset, if a static discharge is applied to an electrically unconnected metal plate 10” away.

As a developer of high-reliability interactive exhibits for museums and trade events, we are painfully aware of these issues. 

The Solution

Vigorously test exhibits for static-sensitivity before they are deployed in the field.  Doing this provides the opportunity both to identify and correct/ameliorate hardware problems, and build in software re-initialization routines to recover from occasional glitches if and when they do occur.

We have found that once a static discharge issue is determined as the cause, something as simple as adding a properly designed $15 USB PCI bus card can increase static robustness by an order of magnitude when compared to the use of motherboard USB ports.

And when ruggedizing hardware helps, but is not sufficient, often small changes in the code - something as simple as reinitializing an I/O port when spurious characters are received - can turn what was a painfully unreliable exhibit into one that runs essentially 100% trouble free.

What the Testing Kit Includes

  • TechnoFrolics Spark Tester caseA TechnoFrolics-modified battery-operated piezo-electric sparker.
  • Grounding cables ranging from ultra-low resistance  woven metal strap, to alligator-clip-terminated inline-resistor cables spanning 1Ω to 1 Mega Ω.
  • NEMA 5-15 plug & cable with alligator clip termination to conveniently access earth GND.
  • Users manual, including step-by-step testing directions, informative case studies, and experiences with specific commercial components, including part numbers and sources where relevant and available.
  • Two sizes of aluminum plate, with insulating rubber feet, to test for exhibit sensitivity to spark-generated EMI pulses.
  • Static-rugged PCI bus USB card, in order to separate USB I/O device issues from sub-optimal Motherboard USB ports.
  • Misc. connecting hardware.
  • Handy carrying case.

Why Should You Acquire It?

Because fixing just one static-related problem during or after install (and having just one is lucky...), will typically cost an order of magnitude more than fixing that same issue in the shop – and cost many times the price of the kit. Additionally, the cost of addressing such problems after install is measured not only in direct monetary outlay – but also in terms of relationships with clients and partners.

USB Devices and Static Discharge

When using any USB device, it is essential that the host USB port, as well as the device itself, be static-resistant. The user manual includes recommendations for USB controllers that we have tested in-house and found reliable for desktop and laptop systems using the following protocols: PCI bus, PCMCIA, and ExpressCard.

Price

The kit is $285 plus S&H.  (Within the continental USA, Ground shipping and handling has a fixed cost of $18.)