Basic tools such as DMMs and oscilloscopes may be the only test gear needed for small printed circuit board repairs, but it pays to know when automated systems would be a better choice.
Alan Lowne | Saelig Co. Inc.
PCBs are more complicated to repair today than even a few years ago. Manufacturing mistakes and in-service component failures have become a fact of life. Circuit boards will be manufactured with errors, parts will be soldered incorrectly, and components will fail. While soldering and component changes may be enough for simple fixes, some repairs may require a more sophisticated approach to find fault causes. The repair of PCB assemblies can seem intimidating, but a methodical approach can help find and fix problems quickly.
It is wise to refrain from to powering up a damaged PCB at first. If, for instance, a simple blown fuse is the problem, the reason for the issue must be determined rather than just replacing the fuse (with a bigger one!) Short circuits or overloads usually leave tell-tale signs.
If the PCB has been conformally coated to keep out moisture and dust, the coating must be removed (at least at a few critical test points) before for fault diagnosis can begin. Conformal coatings can be removed by solvents, peeling, or blasting, but a
new technique is being developed whereby the coating can be pierced with sharp test pins.
Before commencing the repair, assemble any circuit-relevant diagrams and the appropriate test equipment, such as a DMM, solder/desolder hand tools, an oscilloscope, etc. – and preferably on a static-free bench. Another helpful “tool” is the user report of how the failure happened or what fault was observed. The most versatile tool is the multimeter, but depending on the complexity of the PCB, an LCR meter, oscilloscope, power supply, and logic analyzer may also be needed to investigate the operation of the circuit. RF circuits may need more sophisticated tools such as a spectrum analyzer to check frequencies and signal levels.
Troubleshooting is also much easier if a known-good board is available so that visual and signal comparisons can be made. Lack of a comparative board or documentation makes the challenge more daunting.
Check for loose connectors or components in sockets, which can often get dislodged in shipping. Look for burned or damaged parts, or solder bridges causing a short-circuit of signal or power lines. This is where a high-power digital microscope is extremely useful! Visual inspection is an essential first step in troubleshooting. Components or parts such as transformers, power output transistors, resistors, and capacitors that show a burn mark can be detected easily by observation. Apparent burns and brown stains (and a terrible smell) can identify the overheated components. But why did they overheat? A poor solder joint or bridge is another common item found during a visual inspection. Good solder joints always look smooth, bright, and evenly flowed. A dull surface can suggest a defective joint. Are there any solder bridges between tracks? Reversed or incorrect components?
Short circuits also can be difficult to troubleshoot. A board test may indicate that a short exists, but often the location of the short is elusive. Technicians can spend a long, frustrating time trying to locate a single short, particularly an interlayer short. Briefly powering up the board when observed under a thermal (IR) camera can show a location that heats up more than the surrounding components. Power the rail voltage with something less than the 3.3V or 5.0V required and limit the power supply current too. Start with low volts/amps and bring both up slowly. PCBs may have limited life through the poor design of excessive component heating.
A quick way to find a short fault is to compare the thermal images of a known “good board” with the device under test. Significant temperature differences highlight the fault location. Using this approach, entire complex boards can be inspected in a non-contact manner. Common defects such as power-to-ground shorts and bad components, can quickly be found with this method. A changing or different color representation of the image may indicate overheating in a solder joint, circuit trace, or show a portion of the board that is malfunctioning Visually inspect capacitors. If leaks, cracks, bulges or other signs of deterioration are evident, replace it. Capacitors have a limited life and are often the cause of a malfunction.
Look for broken leads on the components. Some devices have tiny leads that can easily break off at the circuit board. IC legs can become bent during assembly. Look for cracks on the circuit board, leading to broken circuit traces or broken components.
You can laboriously test every resistor, capacitor, diode, transistor, inductor, MOSFET, LED, and discrete active component with a multimeter or LCR meter, but this is not an efficient way to do debugging.
If the board can be powered up, a digital multimeter can check rail voltages at ICs, outputs of voltage regulators, and obvious signals such as clocks and I/O communications. An oscilloscope can be used to verify voltage waveforms of a powered board. To check for the presence of a WiFi signal output, even a cellphone can come in handy.
Leaky capacitors can be found using the resistance setting of the DMM. Set the meter to read in the high ohms range and touch the meter leads to the corresponding leads on the capacitor, red to positive and black to negative. The meter should start at zero and then move slowly toward infinity. The ramp will be slow with large capacitance values. Note: A good capacitor stores an electrical charge and may remain energized after power is removed. Before taking a measurement of electrolytics, disconnect the power and carefully discharge the capacitor by connecting a resistor across the leads. With the meter in the ohms setting, there will be some constant current sent out from positive to negative leads. An open cap will show open, a shorted one will show close to zero ohms.
A check of HMI interface items such as touch panels and switches may reveal functional issues caused by connection or component problems.
It takes some understanding of the circuit to interpret the results of signal probing with a DMM or oscilloscope. DC voltage tests start with probes referenced to ground. When checking an IC, start by testing the voltage supply pin.
Touching low-voltage parts of the circuit can change the impedance of the circuit which can alter the behavior of the system. Used in conjunction with a scope, this technique can help identify locations that need additional capacitance to remove unwanted oscillations, for instance.
Most ICs can be identified by their markings and many can be operationally tested against their published specifications using scopes and logic analyzers. Comparing the behavior of an IC to a known-good one is a quick way to identify anomalous behavior.
Intermittent failures are the most challenging and time-consuming aspect of the troubleshooting process. Common irregular faults can be caused by component overheating or degradation, poor soldering, and loose connections. Long memory in a scope can be helpful for zooming in to a signal record for finding rare events. Applying freezer spray in the right location can sometimes aggravate and identify intermittent issues.
If the board can’t be powered up safely, then power-off testing such as V/I and Signature testing can take place.
Power-off V/I testing
V/I testing (also known as analog signature analysis) is a technique which is excellent for fault finding on PCBs and is ideal when diagrams and documentation are minimal. Analog signature analysis was brought into wide use by the Huntron Tracker series of instruments. It can be used to perform powered-off troubleshooting of electronic components in PCB assemblies. It could be considered a vital diagnostic tool for PCB repair tasks because it is suitable for ‘dead’ boards which cannot safely be powered up.
Applying a current-limited ac signal across two points on a circuit causes vertical deflection of the scope trace, while the applied voltage produces a horizontal deflection. This forms a characteristic V/I signature that can show if a component is good, bad or marginal. It is important to focus on differences between curves for good and suspect boards rather than analyzing the meaning of the curves in great detail. The majority of nodes on a PCB will contain parallel and series combinations of components, making exact analysis difficult. The majority of faults on failed boards are major failures such as short or open circuits, which are easy to detect with the V-I technique without complex analysis.
The voltage across the DUT is plotted on the horizontal axis against the current through it on the vertical axis. The stimulus waveform is usually a sine wave. From Ohm’s law, (Z = V/I) the resulting characteristic represents the impedance of the DUT. The impedance of components such as capacitors and inductors varies with frequency, so they require a variable-frequency stimulus.
Most applications use comparative analog V-I testing, so it’s unnecessary to understand the displayed characteristic. Comparisons of the curves for a known good board and a suspect board can often identify faults with a minimum of knowledge. Different devices in different configurations produce different signatures, depending on the current flow through the device as the applied voltage changes. A short circuit, for example, would generate a vertical line because the current flow for any applied voltage would be theoretically infinite, whereas an open circuit would generate a horizontal line because the current is always zero irrespective of the applied voltage.
A pure resistor would give a diagonal line with a slope proportional to the resistance, because the current is proportional to the applied voltage. The higher the resistance value, the closer the line gets to the horizontal (open circuit). The source impedance of the V-I tester should be selected so the slope of the line, for a good resistor, is as close as possible to 45°. A difference in the slope of the curve when comparing a good and suspect board would indicate a difference in the resistor values on the two boards.
More complex curves describe frequency dependent components such as capacitors and inductors. Ditto for nonlinear devices such as diode and transistor junctions. Capacitors with relatively low values have flattened, horizontal, elliptical signatures. Capacitors with relatively high values have flattened, vertical, elliptical signatures. The optimal signature is a nearly perfect circle which can be obtained by selecting the appropriate test frequency and source impedance. Typically, the higher the capacitance, the lower the test impedance and frequency. A leaky capacitor would give a sloping curve due to the effective resistance in parallel with the capacitor.
Automated testing equipment (ATE)
In situations where faulty PCBs come in a steady stream, universal automated test systems have replaced individual test instruments. PC-based in-circuit testers perform both a powered, in-circuit logical test of digital and many analog ICs, as well as V-I signature analysis of the chips, using a variety of test clips. The Diagnosys PinPoint System is one such system that contains libraries of digital chip pinouts to assist technicians in troubleshooting and can determine wiring patterns of the circuits. ATEs can check for digital functionality of ICs and also provide a signature analysis of both active and passive components. Unknown chips can be identified by their Boolean output.
Some ATEs can be extremely expensive and may come with a steep learning curve, meaning that after purchase they sit idle in a storeroom. ATEs can perform automated or computerized test procedures on a device under test, including functional testing of ICs, analog and digital components, complete boards, etc. These products vary in complexity depending on the different levels of test capabilities needed for various board needs.
Computer-based automated test procedures can run reliably and consistently with test results captured automatically, with high accuracy, at high test speeds, and with extreme flexibility. Typical ATEs include: In-circuit testers, performing device level tests on components mounted circuit boards; Functional testers, used to test full functionality of boards and modules via edge connectors; Boundary scan testers for products that are JTAG-compliant such as BGA, FPGA, CPLDs, or even complete boards with a JTAG connector.
Another example of an ATE PCB repair system is the ABI Electronics System 8 – a board-test system that uses a selection of CD-drive-size modules to create a customized PC-driven PCB test station. Built in a PC case or 19-in rackmount, System 8 is a mix-and-match set of test instruments to suit most testing and fault-finding needs.
Comparing results from a known good board with automated-sequence fault-finding procedures, fault diagnosis becomes possible by minimally trained staff. The System 8 software can be configured to guide less well-trained users step-by-step through a test procedure, with custom-annotated picture images, instructions, and attached datasheets to give quick Pass/Fail results. This is much faster and more economical than using traditional oscilloscopes, meters and other bench test methods. System 8 modules include:
Board Fault Locator: 64 test channels for multiple test methods for fault diagnosis and functional testing of digital ICs (in-circuit/out-of-circuit), IC connections status, and voltage acquisition, V-I curve testing of components on unpowered boards.
Analog IC Tester: for in-circuit functional testing of analog ICs and discrete components (no programming or circuit diagrams needed). Fully configurable V-I Tester for detection of faults on unpowered boards.
Multiple Instrument Station: includes eight high specification test and measurement instruments in one module (frequency counter, digital storage oscilloscope, function generator, digital floating multimeter, auxiliary PSU, and universal I/O).
Advanced Test Module: offers powerful test combinations for flexible, comprehensive fault diagnosis, including functional, connections, voltage, thermal and V-I signature tests.
Advanced Matrix Scanner: 64 channels for fast data acquisition to test high-pin-count devices as well as complete PCBs; sweep signal frequency to observe device under test response over a frequency range.
Triple Output Variable Power Supply: provides required supply voltages to the unit under test.
ATE applications include: PCB testing and troubleshooting, digital/analog IC test, digital/analog V-I test, visual short identification with audible/visual indication of probe distance to short, live board comparison, manufacturing defects analysis, power-on/power-off testing, QA reporting, embedded real-time control, calculation and logging, component and board testing, digital and analog functional tests, automated test sequences, etc.
The choice of the troubleshooting method depends on the complexity of the circuit and the knowledge and experience of the person who performs the troubleshooting. The methodical use of relevant test tools will help the engineers and technicians to identify the cause of failure quickly and accurately and subsequently increase the productivity of PCB repair.
When it comes to circuit boards, it is often more cost-effective to repair than replace. Businesses have begun to realize this and have started incorporating ATEs into their support and development infrastructure.