LED & Diode Markation Guidelines for PCBs

Have you ever had an LED or other diode placed backwards? PCB assemblers work hard to place every component from the largest, highest pin-count logic chip down to the smallest passive components and micro wafer-scale BGAs correctly every single time. A key element of that accuracy is our understanding of your board and the component markings.

If you use surface mount diodes or LEDs, you probably understand the challenges involved in correctly and consistently indicating diode polarity. LEDs are usually cathode negative, while zeners and uni-directional TVS diodes can be cathode positive. Barrier diodes can be either orientation. It all depends on whether the diode is a rectifier, an LED, a uni-directional TVS, part of a daisy-chain and a host of other considerations.

When you start looking at the CAD libraries, you not only have all the differences from that manufacturer, you may also have different markation schemes from each CAD package developer and from each library builder.

Guidelines for diode polarity mark silk-screening — the diode symbol, “K” for cathode or “A” for anode. To ensure the best accuracy, we recommend extra care in marking diodes to remove any ambiguity.

The preferred method is to place the diode schematic symbol in the silkscreen. You may also place a “K” for cathode adjacent to the cathode. “K” is used because “C” could imply that the spot wants a capacitor. An “A” adjacent to the anode on the board works too, though it’s less common. If you are producing a board without silkscreen, put the mark in the copper layer or submit a clear assembly drawing with the other board files.

Relying on +, – or _ are not definitive in what they indicate and are not recommended. For example, a “+” or “-“ sign isn’t good enough, because it’s not always true that current flows through a diode from the anode to the cathode. For the common barrier diode or rectifier, it’s a pretty safe bet. However, with a zener diode or TVS, it’s not necessarily true. That is why marking a diode on your PCB with the plus sign (+) is not good practice.

LEDs: Seeing Double

Like I do so often, I’m being a bit redundant. While I’m all for stamping out and eliminating redundancy, this is redundancy with a purpose (not a porpoise). Not long ago, in a galaxy not far away, I blogged about annoyances in surface mount diode polarity markings. You can read that here.

I’ll wait.

Messy isn’t it? Well, after reading that blog, someone asked me about dual diodes. For some reason, I can’t seem to find the page covering dual diodes in my IPC book, but that’s not the important part. What is important is the way the diodes are marked on the PC board.

We do ask for centroid data which, in theory, contains the component rotation. That would be cool except that we find that far too often, the zero degree orientation (and the rotation from that) differs from the standard. That, and there are seemingly half a dozen or so standards.

Since LEDs don’t work too well backwards, we really would like to see everything marked in a non-ambiguous way in silk screen (or in an assembly drawing if you don’t have silk screen). A “cathode bar” won’t work because it could be a bar indicating the cathode or negative. The cathode isn’t always negative, especially when looking at TVS or Zener diodes.

Mimicking the diode markation pattern printed on the part may not be secure either. Read that article I linked to right at the start of this blog. What if you put silkscreen down to match one of those LEDs but ended up buying the other one? That’s exactly what I did myself. Trust me. It just leads to disappointment and possible soldering iron induced finger burns.

So what is the answer, and why am I talking about single LEDs and TVS diodes when the blog is about dual LEDs? Well, the answer is the same. The best way to communicate the desired polarity of an LED or any kind of diode is with a mini version of the schematic symbol. It doesn’t matter if it’s a single LED, dual LED, Schottky, Zener or whatever kind of diode. The schematic symbol is the clearest way to go.

Led marking

The diode footprint has the manufacturer’s polarity marking, but I don’t care. I still put the diode schematic symbol next to it. If you don’t have room for silk screen, put it in an assembly drawing. You won’t regret it.

Duane Benson
And they called him Flipper…


QFN Solder Paste Layer

LBDCminiI’ve got the fab order placed with Sunstone.com for my next demo project. The little board is represented here at pretty close to actual size on screen – provided you have a 22″ monitor set at 1680 pixel horizontal resolution. Given that, you might want to click on it to pop up a bigger representation of it. That makes it about 4X life size.

When you do that, take note of the QFN/DFN parts: The processor in the middle, the LiPoly battery charger right between the upper two mounting holes and the RS232 driver in the lower left. I’ve followed my paste layer advice and segmented the paste stencil layer to reduce the chance for float or major voids.

I found a footprint in the library for the big processor in the middle. I just had to modify the paste layer, as shown here. I made the footprint for the charger and RS232 chips from scratch. Neither had anything close enough in the library.

The DFN has a slightly different approach to segmenting the stencil layer. Little squares like I used on the other two chips work just as well, but this is effective as well.

Another thing to take note of is the marking on the LEDs. The original footprint for the 0402 LEDs does have a polarity mark, but it’s one of the types that can easily be misinterpreted or can be difficult to see. The diode symbol put down in silkscreen removes any possibility of ambiguity.

Duane Benson
I’m happy I live in a split level head.