Beyond Design: Displacement Current—The Key to Electromagnetic Energy Propagation

Rick_Hartley_headshot.jpgThe propagation of electromagnetic energy can be controlled in several ways depending on the medium the energy is traveling in. However, electromagnetic waves do not require a medium to propagate. This means that electromagnetic waves can travel not only through liquids, solids, and air, but also through the vacuum of space. What’s more, they do not require electron current flow for the transfer of energy.

Electromagnetic energy can be guided in the following ways:

  1. Direct Current: Conductors guide the energy flow.
  2. Alternating Current: Conductors, coplanar and substrate integrated waveguides at high frequencies control the energy.
  3. Radio and Microwave Frequencies: Waveguides and antennae guide the energy.
  4. Light Frequency: Optical fiber channels, lenses/mirrors, and gravitational lensing control the energy path.

Continuing on from my previous column, “Forget What You Were Taught,” let’s take a closer look at how electromagnetic energy propagates at different frequencies1.


A waveguide is a form of transmission line used to connect microwave transmitters and receivers to their antennas. They are metal tubes made of high-quality copper and brass. A waveguide can have a rectangular, circular, or elliptical cross-section. The rectangular section is most used for relatively short connections. Figure 1 depicts a plot in QWED software of the electric and magnetic field distribution along a rectangular waveguide. A transverse electromagnetic wave travels perpendicular to both the electric and magnetic fields.


Electric and magnetic fields, which are used for the transport of energy, are equal to zero on the metal surface of the waveguide. Therefore, these fields are confined to the waveguide’s internal space, which minimizes losses. Without the physical constraint of a waveguide, wave intensities decrease according to the inverse square law as they expand uniformly in all directions. Waveguides act like conduits for high frequency displacement currents. All transmission lines function as conduits of electromagnetic energy when transporting pulses or high frequency waves.

Wireless Power
Most of us have Qi wireless chargers for our smart devices—who could live without them? The big advantage to using these chargers is that you do not have to constantly plug in cables to charge your phone. No wires—no current—but 15W of power.


BarryO_Feb23_Fig3_cap.jpgQi wireless charging uses resonant inductive coupling between the sender (the charging station) and the receiver (the mobile device) as in Figure 2. Figure 3 shows the Qi receiver coil in an iPhone 12. The two coils act as a transformer when a compatible device is placed on a charging station.

A transformer works by electromagnetic induction (or mutual inductance). This occurs when two electrically isolated coils are in close proximity, such that one’s BarryO_Feb23_Fig4_cap.jpgmagnetic field couples to the other. When an alternating current is applied to the primary coil, a fluctuating magnetic field is generated, which causes electromotive force in the secondary coil. This varying electric field creates displacement current in the secondary winding. Adding an iron core to the transformer improves the efficiency by directing the electromagnetic field so that it couples directly into the secondary winding rather than radiating. Just as waveguides and traces guide electromagnetic energy, so does the core.

Transformers completely isolate the primary from the secondary. Transformers transfer the electric energy into magnetic energy (primary windings) and then back to electric energy (secondary winding). The transformer’s core captures >90% of the magnetic energy and delivers it to the secondary windings.

AC Coupling of High-speed Serial Links
A capacitor is typically placed in series with both differential signals of high-speed SERDES serial links to remove common mode voltage differences between ICs or different technologies (Figure 5). Any capacitor placed in series with the signal path tends to pass the high-frequency AC portions of the signal, while simultaneously blocking the low-frequency DC portions. These capacitors are essential to a variety of high-speed interfaces. And, as the next generation of designs target data rates of 56Gbps and above, it becomes increasingly important to characterize channel transitions accurately to ensure a high confidence of success.

However, capacitors block electron flow. A capacitor in a circuit causes equal and opposite charges to appear on the plates, charging the capacitor and increasing the electric field between the plates. No actual charge is transported between its plates. Nonetheless, a magnetic field exists between the plates as though a current were present. One explanation is that displacement current flows in the dielectric and this current produces the magnetic field in the region between the plates.

This idea was conceived by James Clerk Maxwell in his 1861 paper “On Physical Lines of Force, Part III” in connection with the displacement of electric particles in a dielectric medium. Maxwell added displacement current to the electric current term in Ampère’s Circuital Law. In his 1865 paper “A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field,” Maxwell used this amended version of Ampère’s Circuital Law to derive the electromagnetic wave equation. This derivation integrates electricity, magnetism, and optics into one single unified theory. The displacement current term is now seen as a crucial addition that completed Maxwell’s equations and is necessary to explain many phenomena, most particularly the existence of electromagnetic waves.

Maxwell described light as a propagating wave of electric and magnetic fields. More generally, he predicted the existence of electromagnetic radiation—coupled electric and magnetic fields traveling as waves at the speed of light.

Displacement current plays a vital role in the propagation of electromagnetic radiation, such as light and radio waves, through empty space. A traveling, varying magnetic field is associated with a periodically changing electric field that may be conceived in terms of a displacement current. Maxwell’s insight on displacement current, therefore, made it possible to understand electromagnetic waves as being propagated through space completely detached from electric currents in conductors.

The displacement current density term, appearing in Maxwell’s equations, is the quantity ∂D/∂[TA1] t that is defined in terms of the rate of change of D, the electric displacement field. Displacement current density has the same units as electric current density, and it is a source of the magnetic field just as the actual current is. However, it is not an electric current of moving charges, but rather a time-varying electric field. This implies that a changing electric field creates a magnetic field, even with no charged particles in motion. In physical materials (as opposed to vacuum), there is also a contribution from the slight motion of charges bound in atoms, called dielectric polarization.

Displacement current explains how electromagnetic energy propagates but is really just a fudge. Scientists have a creative way of accounting for what they do not comprehend: They add a constant. For instance, astrophysicists cannot explain why the universe is expanding when it logically should be contracting due to the attraction of gravity. They then created “dark energy” to account for the force of expansion. Displacement current is just another “unexplained phenomenon” that accounts for current. Few theories in physics have caused as much confusion and misunderstanding as that of displacement current.

There are two types of current:

  1. Conduction current is the net flow of charges at DC. This is what we traditionally think of as current flow.
  2. Displacement current is the rate of change of the electric displacement field. It is not electron current flow but rather a time-varying electric field that creates a magnetic field along a transmission line mimicking current flow.

Transmission Lines
Dan Beeker stated that: “Field energy moving through a space is the current flow in a transmission line. The magic here is the displacement current flowing through the dielectric at the wave-front, along the transmission line. Fields do all the work. Current flow is a measure of moving field energy through a space. Current flow occurs in the space between the conductors that bound the dielectric2.”

Ralph Morrison summed it up beautifully: “Light energy can be directed by lenses; radar energy can be directed by waveguides and the energy at power frequencies can be directed by copper conductors. Thus, we direct energy flow at different frequencies by using different materials. We have learned how to control where we want the field energy to go.

“The Laws of Physics apply to everything in the universe. If we accept the concept that electromagnetic fields carry energy in space, it must be true at all frequencies in all media. That is the law. If it is true for light, it must also be true for high-speed transmission lines, 60 Hz power, and at DC3.”

Key Points

  • The propagation of electromagnetic energy can be controlled in a number of ways depending on the medium the energy is traveling in.
  • The propagation of electromagnetic energy does not require electron current flow for the transfer of energy.
  • Waveguides act like conduits for high frequency displacement currents.
  • Transformers transfer the electric energy into magnetic energy (primary windings) and then back to electric energy (secondary winding).
  • Capacitors block electron flow. However, displacement current flows in the dielectric and this current produces the magnetic field in the region between the plates.
  • The displacement current term is now seen as a crucial addition that completed Maxwell’s equations and is necessary to explain many phenomena, most particularly the existence of electromagnetic waves.
  • Displacement current plays a vital role in the propagation of electromagnetic radiation.
  • A traveling, varying magnetic field is associated with a periodically changing electric field that may be conceived in terms of a displacement current.
  • Electromagnetic waves are propagated through space completely detached from electric currents in conductors.
  • Displacement current is not an electric current of moving charges, but rather a time-varying electric field.
  • There are two types of current: Conduction current and displacement current.
  • Field energy moving through a space is the current flow in a transmission line. The magic here is the displacement current flowing through the dielectric at the wave-front, along the transmission line.
  • The laws of physics apply to everything in the universe.


  1. Beyond Design: Forget What You Were Taught,” by Barry Olney, PCBDesign007 Magazine, Nov. 2022.
  2. “Electromagnetic Fields for Normal Folks,” presentation by Dan Beeker at AltiumLive 2017, Oct. 3, 2017.
  3. “Laws of Physics,” by Ralph Morrison, reprinted in Printed Circuit Design & Fab Circuits Assembly Magazine, April 2021.


  1. “How Does a Transformer Work: 9 Answers You Should Know,” by Sneha Panda,, 2023.
  2. “Waveguide,”, Dec. 5, 2022.
  3. “Displacement current,”, Nov. 4, 2022.
  4. “Short-Slot Waveguide Hybrid,”, 2008.
  5. “Basics of waveguide theory,” by Christian Wolff,

Rick Hartley is the principal engineer at R Hartley Enterprises and has been in the industry for over 50 years. He is one of the primary consultants for PCB manufacturing and design companies. Rick has also conducted classes worldwide on EMI, signal integrity, and various other electrical topics for the last 30 years.

This column originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Design007 Magazine.



Beyond Design: Displacement Current—The Key to Electromagnetic Energy Propagation


The propagation of electromagnetic energy can be controlled in a number of ways depending on the medium the energy is traveling in. However, electromagnetic waves do not require a medium to propagate. This means that electromagnetic waves can travel not only through liquids, solids, and air, but also through the vacuum of space. What’s more, they do not require electron current flow for the transfer of energy.

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Beyond Design: The Eye Diagram


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Beyond Design: Forget What You Were Taught


Ralph Morrison was a physicist who promoted the belief that electromagnetic energy flows in spaces, not the traces. That energy does not flow in the copper traces of a PCB, but rather the energy follows the traces acting as a waveguide and propagates through the dielectric material. This explains many electromagnetic (EM) effects such as radiation from outer microstrip layers and from stripline fringing fields, how components can be magnetically coupled, and why crosstalk is created by overlapping EM fields. But it also raises a few questions.

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Beyond Design: Routing Strategies to Minimize Radiation


Electromagnetic (EM) energy propagates through the dielectric materials of a multilayer PCB guided by the signal traces between the planes, for inner stripline layers, but it acts slightly differently on the outer microstrip layers. Microstrip layers generally have a solid ground reference plane on one side but allow radiation from the boundless surface into the air. A well-thought-out routing strategy can avoid up to 10 dB of radiation from the substrate. Embedding signals between the planes reduces these emissions, and susceptibility to radiation, as well as providing electrostatic discharge protection. So, not only can one prevent noise from being radiated but also reduce the possibility of being affected by an external source.

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Beyond Design: Utilizing a Field Solver for Stackup Planning


In a previous column, I deliberated on why the 2D field solver is an essential tool for all high-speed PCB designers. But like all tools, one needs to know how best to apply its unique features to enhance your design process. Obviously, calculating transmission line impedance, in its various forms, is the prime function but field solvers can also provide additional information to ensure good design practice way before the layout begins.

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Beyond Design: PCB Design Strategies to Reduce Costs


There are numerous ways to improve the PCB design and production processes and thereby reduce costs, from fundamental improvements involving a standard form factor and reducing the board size and complexity to technology choices and simulation to reduce iterations. A good starting point would be the IPC standards which were developed by the electronics industry to enhance manufacturability, testability, and assembly. Anyone new to PCB development should initially begin with these standards and then fine-tune them to capture the essence of their design style.

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Beyond Design: 2D Field Solver–An Essential Tool for High-speed PCB Design


A field solver is the engine behind signal and power integrity analysis. You never see it but it performs all the magic of simulation. In its elementary form, the field solver can employ Maxwell’s equations to calculate the parasitic elements of a solution space. This method is referred to as 2D extraction and is used to analyze and synthesize a stackup to achieve a target single-ended or differential impedance. The velocity of propagation can also be extracted to perform signal integrity analysis. A field solver can be used as a stand-alone tool or as part of a simulation environment. In this month’s column, I will take a look at 2D field solvers.

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Beyond Design: Copper Pours in High-speed Design


The most common question I get asked by PCB designers is, "Do you need copper ground pours on digital multilayer PCBs?" The short answer is, "It depends." Unfortunately, the myth of copper pours is fueled by reference designs that seem to persistently use this old RF design technique. Copper pours are sometimes used incorrectly simply to fill in the unused space on a board. However, in some cases ground pours may be an advantage. In this month’s column, I will look at where and where not to use ground pours.

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Beyond Design: Reflecting on Reflections


When a transmission line is perfectly matched to the driver and load, the signals propagating electromagnetic (EM) energy are totally absorbed by the load. This is the perfect scenario that all electronics designers strive for. However, this is rarely the case and reflections do occur whenever the impedance of the transmission line changes along its length. This can be caused by unmatched drivers/loads, layer transitions, different dielectric materials, stubs, vias, connectors and IC packages. By understanding the causes of these reflections and eliminating the source of the mismatch, a design can be engineered to perform reliably.

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Beyond Design: Designing for the SAP Fabrication Process


PCB designers are continually challenged with demands for reduced product size. However, form factor-driven design pressures have been relieved, in part, by the increased use of high-density interconnects (HDIs), which enable more functionality per unit area than conventional PCBs. Leveraging finer lines, thinner materials, and laser-drilled vias, HDIs have played a crucial role in device miniaturization. However, the traditional PCB subtractive etch processing becomes very difficult for feature sizes below 3 mil trace/space. This forces PCB designs to become more complex as electronics packages shrink—adding extra routing layers, and microvia layers, and increasing the number of lamination cycles required, all of which impact yield, reliability, and thus cost.

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Beyond Design: The Coupling Coup


Coupling on a multilayer PCB may be a good or bad thing. On one hand, close coupling of signal traces to reference planes and differential pair signals is the best way to prevent common mode radiation and to mitigate electromagnetic (EM) emission. But on the other hand, close coupling of unrelated signal traces can bring us grief with unintentional crosstalk caused by overlapping EM fields. In this month’s column, I will look at where close coupling should be used and where it should be avoided.

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Beyond Design: PCB Design Challenges—Change is Good


In 2022, PCB designers are faced with two big challenges: demands for increased performance and a condensed product footprint. So, what’s new? Columnist Barry Olney recalls back some 50-odd years ago the challenges for the electronics professional were much the same. "I had just become comfortable with valves and next we had diodes, transistors, and LEDs." This column chronicles these and other changes.

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Beyond Design: The Impact of Filled Vias on Thermal and Signal Integrity


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Beyond Design: PDN Trends and Challenges


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Beyond Design: Fly-over Technology—When It All Gets Too Fast


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Beyond Design: Switchbacks in Tuned Routing


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Beyond Design: High-Speed Serial Link PCB Design


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Beyond Design: Dampening Plane Resonance with Termination


Today’s high-speed multilayer PCBs have multiple planes. The ground planes are used for shielding and to provide return current continuity. Whereas, closely coupled power/ground plane pairs provide low inductance power to the ICs and reduce the AC impedance and plane resonance of the Power Distribution Network (PDN).

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Beyond Design: Stackup Configurations to Mitigate Crosstalk


Crosstalk is three dimensional and is dependent on the signal trace separation, the trace to plane(s) separation, parallel segment length, the transmission line load, and the technology employed. But, crosstalk also varies depending on the physical stackup configuration. In this month’s column, Barry Olney delves into the properties of microstrip and stripline crosstalk and how to mitigate the concern.

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Beyond Design: Stackup Planning—Three Decades of Innovation


Stackup planning involves careful selection of materials and transmission line parameters to avoid impedance discontinuities, signal coupling, unintentional return paths, high AC impedance and excessive electromagnetic emissions. Materials used for the fabrication of multilayer PCBs, absorb high frequencies and reduce edge rates thus putting the materials selection process under tighter scrutiny. Ensuring that your board’s stackup and impedances are correctly configured is a good basis for stable product performance.

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Beyond Design: Simulation Slashes Iterations


The majority of high-speed digital designs take at least two iterations to develop into a working product. However, multilayer boards can be designed to work right the first time with little additional effort. Barry Olney explains how design re-spins will continue to happen until designers make regular use of simulation software.

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Beyond Design: Routing Strategies for High-Speed PCB Design


As the typical PCB design becomes more complex, so do the techniques and strategies required—not only to complete the design but also to create a functioning product that performs to specification. Barry Olney describes why PCB designers need to understand the underlying high-speed issues of the design based on simulation and then translate these into corresponding design constraints.

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Beyond Design: Fringing Fields


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Beyond Design: Stackup Planning, Part 6—Impedance Variables


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Beyond Design: The Wavelength of Electromagnetic Energy


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Beyond Design: Alternative Series Termination Techniques


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Beyond Design: Split Planes–Reprise


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Beyond Design: The Impact of Signal Rise Time on Bandwidth


The term bandwidth was first used years ago in the RF world to represent the range of frequencies in a signal. In digital electronics, we also use the term to describe the signal spectrum since square waves are made up of numerous sine waves (harmonics) of the fundamental frequency. Barry Olney looks at the relationship between signal rise time and the bandwidth of a digital signal.

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Beyond Design: Predicting and Measuring Impedance


To control the impedance of high-speed signal interconnects, one first needs to predict the impedance of a specific multilayer stackup configuration. Barry Olney describes how a precision field solver is arguably the most accurate way to calculate the single-ended, edge-coupled, and broadside-coupled differential impedance.

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Beyond Design: Transmission Line Termination


Whenever a signal meets an impedance variation along a transmission line, there will be a reflection, which can seriously impact signal integrity. By understanding the causes of these reflections and eliminating the source of the mismatch, a design can be engineered with reliable performance. Barry Olney looks at how to effectively terminate transmission lines.

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Beyond Design: My 100th Column


Believe it or not, this is my 100th “Beyond Design” column. To wrap it up, I look back over the past 99 columns and reflect on what I believe to be the most enlightening for high-speed PCB designers, counting down in reverse order of preference.

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Beyond Design: The Curse of the Golden Board


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Beyond Design: Stackup Planning, Part 5


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Beyond Design: The Key to Product Reliability


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Beyond Design: High-speed PCB Design Constraints


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Beyond Design: Fast and Accurate Transmission Line Modeling


The ability to simulate complex PCB design has become a critical factor in the success of a project. Today’s high-speed processors and SERDES interfaces coupled with sometimes unrealistic time-to-market requirements are pushing design teams toward more nimble development processes. However, there is no point in completing a design on time if it does not work!

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Beyond Design: The Proximity Effect


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Beyond Design: Not All PCB Substrates Are Created Equal


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10 Fundamental Rules of High-Speed PCB Design, Part 5


The final part of the 10 fundamental rules of high-speed PCB design focuses on board-level simulation encompassing signal integrity, crosstalk, and electromagnetic compliancy. Typically, a high-speed digital design takes three iterations to develop a working product. However, today, the product life cycle is very short, and therefore, time to market is of the essence. The cost per iteration should not only include engineering time but also consider the cost of delaying the products market launch.

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Beyond Design: 10 Fundamental Rules of High-speed PCB Design, Part 4


Part 4 of the 10 fundamental rules of high-speed PCB design deals with the routing of critical signals and return path discontinuities. Needless to say, matched delay and length, differential pairs, and other critical signals should be routed first with the precision they require before less important low-speed and static signals are completed. Maintaining this priority is imperative.

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Beyond Design: 10 Fundamental Rules of High-speed PCB Design, Part 3


Planes are essential in today’s high-speed multilayer PCBs. Unfortunately, the number of power supplies required is increasing dramatically with IC complexity. Now, accounting for them all has become a real challenge. The high number of supplies generally leads to higher layer count substrates. In the past, we used to have more signal routing layers than planes; the opposite is now the case when the majority of stackup layers are reserved for power distribution. Although this increases the cost, it may be a godsend because it provides segregation of critical signals to avoid crosstalk and reduces radiation.

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10 Fundamental Rules of High-speed PCB Design, Pt. 2


In last month’s column, I introduced the 10 fundamental rules of high-speed PCB design. The first rule was to establish design constraints before commencing the design. This prime strategy sets constraints upfront based on pre-layout analyses or recommendations and guidelines and is integral to the design flow to maintain the established requirements. This month, I will elaborate on the importance of controlling the impedance and floor planning the placement based on connectivity.

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Beyond Design: It’s a Material World


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Beyond Design: Crosstalk Margins


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10 Fundamental Rules of High-Speed PCB Design, Pt. 1


Over the years, I have focused on high-speed design, signal and power integrity, and EMC design techniques in a plethora of published technical articles—all of which have key points to consider and present a tremendous amount of information to absorb. In my next few columns, I will elaborate on ten of the most important considerations to embrace to achieve successful high-speed PCB designs that perform reliably to expectations.

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DDR3/4 Fly-by Topology Termination and Routing


DDR3/4 fly-by topology is similar to daisy chain or multi-drop topology, but it includes very short stubs to each memory device in the chain to reduce the reflections. The advantage of fly-by topology is that it supports higher-frequency operation and improves signal integrity and timing on heavily loaded signals. If you are employing high-frequency DDR4, then the bandwidth of the channel needs to be as high as possible. However, with today’s extremely fast edge rates, the sequencing of the stubs and the end termination, and the associate load, can make a measurable difference in signal quality. In this month’s column I will look at how best to route DDR3/4 fly-by topology.

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Beyond Design: Common Symptoms of Common-Mode Radiation


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Beyond Design: A Review of HyperLynx DRC


There is an old saying, “You get what you pay for.” Does this mean that you should not expect too much from free software? After all, free software usually comes at a price: the results might be inaccurate, the software might be time-consuming to set up and use, and the tool might overlook issues that require a revision to mitigate. But HyperLynx DRC is the exception to the rule.

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Beyond Design: AC/DC is Not Just a Rock Band


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The Target Impedance Approach to PDN Design


Before you worry (or not) about post-layout PDN DC drop analysis, you first need to design an effective PDN pre-layout. Smart designers prevent problems before they arise, while others waste time and resources trying to fix the mess that they inadvertently created due to their lack of due diligence. Engineers and PCB designers need to visualize and understand how and where the currents flow.

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Beyond Design: When Do Traces Become Transmission Lines?


At low frequencies, traces and components on a PCB behave simply as lossless lumped elements—as taught in Circuit Theory 101. But as the frequency increases, the copper trace and adjacent dielectric(s) become a transmission line, the skin effect forces current into the outer regions of the conductor and frequency dependant losses impact on the quality of the signal. The PCB trace now behaves as a distributed system with parasitic inductance and capacitance characterized by delay and scattered reflections. The behavior we are now concerned about occurs in the frequency domain rather than the familiar time domain. This is the real world of high-speed design.

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Beyond Design: Plane Cavity Resonance


Plane pairs in multilayer PCBs are essentially unterminated transmission lines—just not the usual traces or cables we may be accustomed to. They also provide a very low-impedance path, which means that they can present logic devices with a stable reference voltage at high frequencies. But as with signal traces, if the transmission line is mismatched or unterminated, there will be standing waves: ringing. The bigger the mismatch, the bigger the standing waves and the more the impedance will be location dependent.

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Beyond Design: When Legacy Products No Longer Perform


As IC die sizes continue to compact due to demand for smaller and faster technology, and as switching speeds continue to improve, rise and fall times are creeping down into the sub-nanosecond realm, a territory previously reserved for microwave engineers. It is a common quandary that established products that have worked flawlessly for years suddenly stop performing reliably, due to a new batch of ICs that is used in the latest production run.

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Beyond Design: Transmission Line Losses


In an ideal world, the entire signal waveform would uniformly decrease in amplitude, over distance, and the rise time would remain constant. This reduction in amplitude could easily be compensated for by applying gain (cranking up the volume) at the receiver. However, as signals propagate along a lossy transmission line, the amplitude of the high-frequency components is reduced, in magnitude, whereas the low-frequency components are unaffected. This selective attenuation of high-frequency components is the root cause of ISI and collapse of the signal eye.

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Beyond Design: FPGA PCB Design Challenges


The primary issue is generating optimal FPGA pin assignments that do not add vias and signal layers to a PCB stackup or increase the time required to integrate the FPGA with the PCB. Engineers generally do not consider FPGA pin assignments that expedite the PCB layout. Hundreds of logical signals need to be mapped to the physical pin-out of the device, and they must also harmonize with the routing requirements whilst maintaining the electrical integrity of the design.

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Beyond Design: The Dark Side–Return of the Signal


I guess we all think of a copper plane as a thick, solid plate of copper that can basically handle any amount of current we sink into it. It also serves to make the circuit layout easier, allowing the PCB designer to ground anything, anywhere without having to run multiple tracks. That may well be the case with DC or very low-frequency analog circuits, but certainly not in the case of high-speed design.

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Beyond Design: Return Path Discontinuities


PCB designers generally take great care to ensure that critical signals are routed exactly to length from the driver to the receiving device pins, but take little care of the return current path of the signal. Current flow is a “round trip” and the critical issue is delay, not length. If it takes one signal longer for the return current to get back to the driver—around a gap in the plane for instance—then there will be skew between the critical timing signals. Return path discontinuities (RPDs) can create large loop areas that increase series inductance, degrade signal integrity and increase crosstalk and electromagnetic radiation.

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Beyond Design: Microstrip Coplanar Waveguides


The classic coplanar waveguide (CPW) is formed by a microstrip conductor strip separated from a pair of ground planes pours, all on the same layer, affixed to a dielectric medium. In the ideal case, the thickness of the dielectric is infinite. But in practice, it is thick enough so that electromagnetic fields die out before they get out of the substrate. CPWs have been used for many years in RF and microwave design as they reduce radiation loss, at extremely high frequencies, compared to traditional microstrip. And now, as edge rates continue to rise, they are coming back into vogue. This month, I will look at how conformal field theory can be used to model the electromagnetic effects of microstrip coplanar waveguides.

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New Functionality Improves Designer’s Productivity


I originally came up with the concept of an online impedance calculator way back in 1994 when I was working on the PCB layout and design for a new generation of SPARC 20 servers. We basically reformatted a Sun SPARC 20 pizza box motherboard to fit into a 5.25-inch drive slot.

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Beyond Design: PDN–Decoupling Capacitor Placement


The impact of lower core voltages and faster edge rates has pushed the frequency content of typical digital signals into the gigahertz range. Consequently, the performance of decoupling capacitors, that are required to complement the power distribution network (PDN) and curb signal induced fluctuations, must also be extended up into this range. However, rudimentary design rules, adequate for frequencies below 100MHz, may not be suitable for today's high-speed digital circuits. The symptoms of an inadequate PDN design are increased power supply noise, crosstalk and electromagnetic radiation leading to poor performance and possibly intermittent operation.

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Beyond Design: Uncommon Sense


When common sense fails, tap into your uncommon sense. Basically, common sense teaches us that the way it has always been done is the right way, and that’s just how things are. Following common sense is usually the safe way to go. But the people who are really making a difference in the world are usually the people who try something new. Tapping into our uncommon sense allows us to take a look at things we often take for granted.

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Beyond Design: Rock Steady Design


How do we ensure that our high-speed digital design performs to expectations, is stable given all possible diverse environments, and is reliable over the product’s projected life cycle? For the perfect transfer of energy and to benefit from the highest possible bandwidth, the impedance of the driver must match the impedance of the transmission line and be constant along its entire length.

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The Rise of the Independent Engineer


With the changing demographics, the old-timers in our industry—the master PCB designers—are about to retire and hand over the exacting job of PCB design to the Gen-X and Ys. These generations, shaped by technology, will tackle the most demanding designs without possessing the experience that we veterans benefit from. And to top it off, these up-and-coming designers will be degreed engineers who have to cope with both design and layout tasks as the specialized PCB designer’s positions are phased out.

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The Case for Artificial Intelligence in EDA Tools


There has been a lot of activity in the field of artificial intelligence recently, with such developments as voice recognition, unmanned autonomous vehicles and data mining to list a few. But how could AI possibly influence the PCB design process? This month, Barry Olney will take a look at the endless possibilities.

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Beyond Design: The Need for Speed—Strategies for Design Efficiency


Years of experience with one EDA tool obviously develops efficiency, whether the tool be high-end feature-packed or basic entry-level. And one becomes accustomed to the intricacies of all the good and bad features of their PCB design tool. However, there comes a time, with the fast development pace of technology, that one should really consider a change for the better to incorporate the latest methodologies. This month, I will look at productivity issues that impede the PCB design process.

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Beyond Design: Plane Crazy, Part 1


A high-speed digital power distribution network (PDN) must provide a low inductance, low impedance path between all ICs on the PCB that need to communicate. In order to reduce the inductance, we must also minimize the loop area enclosed by the current flow. Obviously, the most practical way to achieve this is to use power and ground planes in a multilayer stackup. In this two-part column, I will look at the alternatives to planes, why planes are used for high-speed design, and the best combination for your application.

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Why Autorouters Don’t Work: The Mindset!


Ask any group of PCB designers what they think of autorouters and the majority will say that they do not use them because they do not work. I have been battling this mindset for over 20 years now and it still persists today, even with the dramatic advances in routing technology. This way of thinking generally comes from those designers who use the entry-level tools that have limited routing capability. But even the most primitive autorouter may have some useful features. It’s all about changing that mindset of the designer and having a crack at it.

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Beyond Design: Stackup Planning, Part 4


In the final part of the Stackup Planning series, I will look at 10-plus layer counts. The methodology I have set out in previous columns can be used to construct higher layer-count boards. In general, these boards contain more planes and therefore the issues associated with split power planes can usually be avoided. Also, 10-plus layers require very thin dielectrics, in order to reduce the total board thickness. This naturally provides tight coupling between adjacent signal and plane layers reducing crosstalk and electromagnetic emissions.

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Beyond Design: Stackup Planning, Part 3


Following on from the first Stackup Planning columns, this month we will look at higher layer-count stackups. The four- and six-layer configurations are not the best choice for high-speed design. In particular, each signal layer should be adjacent to, and closely coupled to, an uninterrupted reference plane, which creates a clear return path and eliminates broadside crosstalk. As the layer count increases, these rules become easier to implement but decisions regarding return current paths become more challenging.

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Beyond Design: Stackup Planning, Part 2


In Part 1 of the Stackup Planner series, Barry Olney looked at how the stackup is built, the materials used in construction and the lamination process. And he set out some basic rules to follow for high-speed design. It is important keep return paths, crosstalk and EMI in mind during the design process. Part 2 follows on from this with definitions of basic stackups starting with four and six layers. Of course, this methodology can be used for higher layer-count boards—36, 72 layers and beyond.

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Beyond Design: Stackup Planning, Part 1


The PCB substrate that physically supports the components, links them together via high-speed interconnects and also distributes high-current power to the ICs is the most critical component of the electronics assembly. The PCB is so fundamental that we often forget that it is a component and, like all components, it must be selected based on specifications in order to achieve the best possible performance of the product. Stackup planning involves careful selection of materials and transmission line parameters to avoid impedance discontinuities, unintentional signal coupling and excessive electromagnetic emissions. Barry Olney explains.

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Controlled Impedance Design


Controlled impedance—it’s all about transmission lines. For perfect transfer of energy, the impedance of the driver must match the transmission line. A good transmission line is one that has constant impedance along the entire length of the line, so that there are no mismatches resulting in reflections. But unfortunately, drivers do not have the exact impedance to match the line (typically 10–35 ohms) so terminations are used to balance the impedance, match the line and minimize reflections.

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Beyond Design: Learning the Curve


Currently, power integrity is just entering the mainstream market phase of the technology adoption life cycle. The early market is dominated by innovators and visionaries who will pay top dollar for new technology, allowing complex and expensive competitive tools to thrive. However, the mainstream market waits for the technology to be proven before jumping in. Power distribution network (PDN) planning was previously overlooked during the design process, but it is now becoming an essential part of PCB design. But what about the learning curve? The mainstream market demands out-of-the-box, ready-to-use tools.

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Split Planes in Multilayer PCBs


Creating split planes or isolated islands in the copper planes of multilayer PCBs at first seems like a good idea. Today’s high-speed processors and FPGAs require more than six or seven different high-current power sources. And keeping sensitive analog circuitry isolated from those nasty, fast, digital switching signals seems like a priority in designing a noise-free environment for your product. Or is it?

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Effects of Surface Roughness on High-Speed PCBs


At frequencies below 1GHz, the effect of copper surface roughness on dielectric loss is negligible. However, as frequency increases, the skin effect drives the current into the surface of the copper, dramatically increasing loss. When the copper surface is rough, the effective conductor length extends as current follows along the contours of the surface up and down with the topography of the copper surface.

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Signal Integrity, Part 2


In Part 1 of his signal integrity series, Columnist Barry Olney examined how advanced IC fabrication techniques have created havoc with signal quality, and radiated emissions. Part 2 covers the effects of crosstalk, timing, and skew on signal quality.

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Signal Integrity, Part 1 of 3


As system performance increases, the PCB designer’s challenges become more complex. The impact of lower core voltages, high frequencies, and faster edge rates has forced us into the high-speed digital domain. But in reality, these issues can be overcome by experience and good design techniques. If you don’t currently have the experience, then listen-up.

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Material Selection for Digital Design


In his latest column, Barry Olney looks at what types of materials are commonly used for digital design, and how to select an adequate material to minimize costs. He advises, "Of course, selecting the best possible material will not hurt, but it may blow out the costs."

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Beyond Design: Concurrent Design


Concurrent design is the practice of developing products in which the different stages run simultaneously rather than consecutively. It decreases product development time and also time-to-market, leading to improved productivity and reduced costs. The practice is a relatively new process strategy and although the initial implementation can be challenging, the competitive advantage means it is beneficial in the long term.

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Surface Finishes for High-Speed PCBs


PCB surface finishes vary in type, price, availability, shelf life, assembly process, and reliability. While each treatment has its own merits, electroless nickel immersion gold (ENIG) finish has traditionally been the best fine pitch (flat) surface and lead-free option for SMT boards over recent years. But, unfortunately, nickel is a poor conductor with only one third the conductivity of copper.

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Beyond Design: Transmission Line - From Barbed Wire to High-speed Interconnect


Contrary to common belief, the transmission line does not carry the signal itself but rather guides electromagnetic energy from one point to another. It is the movement of the electromagnetic field or energy, not voltage or current that transfers the signal. The voltage and current exist in the conductor, but only as a consequence of the field being present as it moves past.

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Mythbusting: There are No One-way Trips!


One of the greatest myths in PCB design is that we only have to route signal traces from pin-to-pin to make a complete connection. And, that ensuring these traces have matched delay is the only timing issue we need to consider. However, current is not a one way trip--it must complete the circuit back to the source to provide the round-trip current loop.

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Matched Length Does Not Always Equal Matched Delay


In previous columns, Columnist Barry Olney has discussed matched length routing and how matched length does not necessarily mean matched delay. But, all design rules, specified by chip manufacturers regarding high-speed routing, specify matched length--not matched delay. In this month's column he takes a look at the actual differences between the two.

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Beat the Traffic Jam - Effective Routing of Multiple Loads


In a previous column, Barry Olney discussed various termination strategies and concluded that a series terminator is best for high-speed transmission lines. But, what if there are a number of loads--how should these transmission lines be routed? For perfect transfer of energy and to eliminate reflections, the impedance of the source must equal the impedance of the trace(s) to the load.

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PDN Planning and Capacitor Selection, Part 2


In Part 1 of this column, Barry Olney looked closely at how to choose the right capacitor to lower the AC impedance of the power distribution network (PDN) at a particular frequency. This month he continues from there looking at the one-capacitor-value-per-decade and optimized value approaches.

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Beyond Design: Entanglement - The Holy Grail of High-Speed Design


While high-speed SERDES serial communications seems to currently be at the cutting edge of technology, maybe it will shortly become an antiquated low-speed solution--even speed-of-light fiber optics may become obsolete. This month, Columnist Barry Olney looks at how quantum physics is transforming our world and how it could affect PCB design.

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Beyond Design: Impedance Matching: Terminations


The impedance of the trace is extremely important, as any mismatch along the transmission path will result in a reduction in signal quality and possibly the radiation of noise. Mismatched impedance causes signals to reflect back and forth along the lines, which causes ringing at the load.

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Material Selection for SERDES Design


Many challenges face the engineer and PCB designer working with new technologies. For SERDES--high-speed serial links--loss, in the transmission lines, is a major cause of signal integrity issues. Reducing that loss, in its many forms, is not just a matter of reducing jitter, bit error rate (BER) or inter-symbol interference (ISI).

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Beyond Design: Practical Signal Integrity


"If you are a digital designer, you will eventually have SI problems whether you like it or not. But all is not lost. If you learn to work with these issues, then you will soon become proficient with high-speed design," says columnist Barry Olney.

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Beyond Design: Design for Profit


Design for profit (DFP) is gaining more recognition as it becomes clear that the cost reduction of printed circuit assemblies cannot be controlled by manufacturing engineers alone. The PCB designer now plays a critical role in cost reduction, says columnist Barry Olney.

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Beyond Design: Skewed Again


Differential skew has become a performance limiting issue for high-speed SERDES links. The operation of such links involves significant amounts of signal processing to recover clocks, reduce the effects of high-frequency losses, reduce inter symbol interference, and improve signal-to-noise ratio.

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Beyond Design: Losing a Bit of Memory


No matter what type of memory used in a design, the clock should always have the longest delay. This ensures that the other signals have time to settle before the clock arrives at the device and samples the bus.

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Beyond Design: Electromagnetic Fields, Part 2


In his last column, Barry Olney discussed how magnetic fields revolve around the earth and how these fields are also present in a multilayer board. Part 2 of "Electromagnetic Fields" will look at how the phenomena influence transmission lines and how they can be applied in a BEM field solver.

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Beyond Design: Electromagnetic Fields, Part 1


Our whole world literally revolves around electromagnetic fields. Columnist Barry Olney says much insight into high-speed PCB design can be gained by understanding the behavior of transmission lines and the influence of their associated electromagnetic fields.

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Beyond Design: Postmortem Simulation


Developing the practice of performing a post-mortem analysis on every project facilitates a culture of continuous improvement. This embedded culture of ongoing, positive change is the best way to ensure long-term success according to Barry Olney.

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Beyond Design: Mixed Digital-Analog Technologies


The key to a successful mixed digital-analog design is functional partitioning, understanding the current return path, routing control and management, and using a common ground plane. Barry Olney takes us into the mix this week.

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Beyond Design: Pre-Layout Simulation


Pre-layout simulation allows a designer to identify and eliminate signal integrity, crosstalk and EMC issues early in the design process. This is the most cost-effective way to design a board. Barry Olney explains why in this case, sooner is better than later.

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Beyond Design: Power Distribution Network Planning


The power distribution network (PDN) of a multilayer PCB should distribute low noise and stable power to ICs over the entire board area. Ideally, the AC impedance, between power and ground, should be zero, up to the maximum operating frequency for reliable performance.

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Intro to Board-Level Simulation and the PCB Design Process


Board-level simulation reduces costs by identifying potential problems at the conceptual stage, so that they can easily be avoided, and then catching any further issues during the design process, eliminating the potentially disastrous final-stage changes. By Barry Olney.

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Board-Level Simulation and the Design Process: Plan B - Post-Layout Simulation


Post-layout simulation covers batch mode simulation, which automatically scans nets on an entire PCB, flagging signal integrity, crosstalk and EMC hot spots. While post-layout simulation can be used for disaster recovery, ideally this process is completed during the design process. Barry Olney explains.

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Beyond Design: A New Slant on Matched-Length Routing


This month, Barry Olney discusses the traditional serpentine routing for matched length signals and looks at a potentially desirable alternative, the octagonal spiral pattern, that can be especially useful if real estate is at a premium.

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Beyond Design: Controlling the Beast


In this column, we will tackle the "microstripum crosstalkus radiarta," an insidious little creature more commonly known as microstrip crosstalk radiation. Thriving on the outer layers of PCBs, crosstalk, like fleas on a dog, can't be eliminated completely or forever; the key is learning how to minimize and control it.

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Beyond Design: Embedded Signal Routing


Is radiation actually attenuated when high-speed signals are routed embedded between the planes? There are specific constraints and factors to consider when assessing just how much attenuation we actually get from embedding the high-speed signals between the planes. Barry Olney breaks it all down.

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Beyond Design: The Dumping Ground


By definition, a ground plane in a PCB is a layer of copper that appears to most signals as an infinite ground potential. This month, we discuss best practices for selecting reference planes and routing pairs for high-speed designs on multilayer boards.

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Beyond Design: Controlling Emissions and Improving EMC


Unintended noise can be a formidable enemy, and it is best to totally eliminate, control or attenuate the emissions at the source. Controlling the impedance of the substrate and terminating the transmission line to match the impedance of the respective source and load significantly reduces radiated noise, virtually eliminating the noise at the source.

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PCB Design Techniques for DDR, DDR2 & DDR3, Part 2


This second and final part in a series examining PCB design techniques will look at a comparison of DDR2 and DDR3, DDR3 design guidelines, pre-layout analysis, critical placement, design rules, and post-layout analysis.

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