Using Cans for EMI Shielding on Your PCB

Created: May 5, 2017
Updated: December 8, 2020
Enough clearance from the components
Make sure your can has enough clearance from the components it’s shielding.
Preventing electromagnetic interference is critical for proper functioning of your PCB design. In addition to good design practices, can shields can also be used to isolate sensitive components. 

Did you ever play Operation? The game where you had to fish little pieces out of an awkward looking body without touching the edges of the slot. When you hit an edge, your failure was broadcasted to everyone as a horrible buzzer went off. 

Since then, in every engineering and IT job I’ve held, I’ve been the designated “surgeon” in “PCB Operation” (Operation for electrical engineers). However, in this game, there is no buzzer, just dead components if they are incorrectly removed from a module, board, or out of tight casings. 

Being able to fish out our fallen components was a particularly valuable ability for one prototype product. We were losing about a third of our boards in field installations when a particularly ESD (electrostatic discharge) sensitive component was accidentally touched. With tiny fingers, you could slide the Printed Board into the casing while only holding the edges, but normal sized hands were hopeless and always mashed into the components. We were working to reduce EMI (electromagnetic interference) in the next version and put a can over these components. This also happened to also protect the board from inadvertent fingers.

ESD shields are not the same as PCB EMI shielding, so we were very lucky to get two birds with one stone when we added protective shielding to our board. To protect your Printed Boards, it’s important to understand how a can electronic shielding when you’re planning board level shielding and certification testing.

What is a can?

EMI can shields or other EMI shielding may also be called cans, cages, covers, or lids, depending on where you look for parts. They are basically metal boxes that attach to your Printed Circuit Board to enclose part of the circuitry on the surface.

RF can shields metal enclosures

RF can shields are metal enclosures that help provide board level shielding

The metal used depends on your application and the price you’re willing to pay. I recommend talking directly to a manufacturer to be sure you’ll get the right material for your product. The usual options are:

  • Steel: Tin or zinc plated steel, stainless steel
  • Aluminum: Usually tin-plated aluminum
  • Brass
  • Copper alloys: Copper beryllium is especially
  • Nickel
  • Silver
  • Tin plated plastic

The metal enclosure of the can keeps Electromagnetic Interference and EMI radiation from entering or leaving the covered region. Many can shields have a grid of holes in the metal that helps with thermal management, while still providing the shielding effect of a conductive cover over your components.

An ideal shield would completely encapsulate your components. Unfortunately, that leaves no options for inputs and outputs or power and grounding, so a can will still have some electromagnetic leakage. If necessary, you can supplement the can with additional shielding, like EMI gaskets, mesh, and films.

When should I use EMI Shielding?

When you’re designing a PCB, you should first design your board to minimize emissions like EMI radiation with good design practices like short traces, proper grounding, and component placement. Using shields should never take precedence over good board design for EMI management, but they are a great next step.

EMI shielding is particularly appropriate when you need to isolate components from EMI radiation that might occur elsewhere on the PCB. They are most often used over the RF output, input, and amplifier stages since these are the sections of a most likely to be affected by/cause Electromagnetic Interference.

Electromagnetic compatibility sensitive components can also have electromagnetic shielding to prevent interference. Finally, you might want to shield high-speed components like oscillators to prevent them from creating interference across the board.

How do I incorporate it into my design?

When you’ve identified the components or subassemblies that can most benefit from can EMI shielding, you can calculate the shield size you need. This can be tricky because most manufacturers give you external dimensions, even though you need to know internal clearance to fit around your components. I speak from experience when I say that height is especially critical and easily overlooked.

 laptop being repaired

Make sure your can has enough clearance for the components it’s shielding.

To attach the can to the board, you add solder pads around the necessary components on your Printed Circuit Board and ground them appropriately. There are also clips or frames that hold the can onto the Circuit Board. If you are in an early version of the design, I recommend a removable option. It makes rework under the can much easier. The shield or clips can be attached during automated fabrication processes by soldering the shield to surface mount pads.

You can have custom shields made, if necessary. It’s more expensive, but if you have a non-standard area that you need to be shielded and don’t want to waste board space, it’s worth it. Also, be aware if you have traces on the surface of the board that the can would contact. You should have recesses cut into the edge of the can to prevent shorting on the board. I know someone who got around that by always using clips, but I worried that large mashing fingers might push the edge of the can into contact with the trace anyway.

While you can’t protect your Printed Boards from every accident that comes along, you can certainly shield your boards from themselves (and hopefully some probing fingers). I really like having modular RF designs that you can reuse in future products, and minimize your non-recurring design effort. Altium Designer® is a tool that makes this much easier. It can also save you from my sizing mistakes by using built-in 3D clearance checking to make sure the cans are the right height for your components. To start protecting your Printed Circuit Boards, reach out to an Altium Designer specialist today!

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