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Positive Feedback Instability

Key Takeaways

  • Positive feedback instability happens when an initial change in a variable sets off a chain of events that amplifies that initial change in a system. 

  • Unintended and potentially damaging consequences in electronic systems can result from positive feedback instability.

  • PCB designers need to be aware of positive feedback instability and take steps to mitigate it through proper design, simulation, and testing.

Block diagram representing a basic feedback system

Block diagram representing a basic feedback system. In the diagram, the + symbol is an adder, and A and B are arbitrary causal functions.

Positive feedback instability, also known as positive feedback loop or positive feedback mechanism, happens when an initial change in a variable or process sets off a chain of events that reinforces and amplifies that initial change in a system, leading to an escalating or self-reinforcing process. It enhances or amplifies an effect by influencing the process that led to it. This can result in rapid and often uncontrollable changes within the system.

Characteristics of Positive Feedback Instability


A small disturbance or change in one part of the system triggers a response that further enhances the original change, leading to exponential growth or an accelerating trend.


Positive feedback loops tend to destabilize a system, making it more prone to fluctuations and extreme outcomes. 

Runaway Effect

As the initial change is reinforced and amplified, it can lead to a "runaway" or "snowball" effect, where the system moves further away from its original state.

The feedback can be direct or through other state variables. In such systems, qualitative behaviors can be produced; whether the feedback is positive or negative has a profound impact on the outcomes. Negative feedback moderates the original process, while positive feedback reinforces it. The terms positive and negative refer to loop gains greater than or less than zero without implying any value judgments about the outcomes or effects. Digital electronics use positive feedback to shift voltages away from intermediate voltages and into 0 and 1 states. At the same time, thermal runaway, which is positive feedback, can destroy semiconductor junctions.

Positive Feedback Instability and PCB Design

In the context of PCB design, positive feedback instability can occur when a feedback loop within a circuit amplifies a signal or a noise to the point where it disrupts the regular operation of the circuit. Unintended and potentially damaging consequences in electronic systems can result:

  • Noise Amplification: In electronic circuits, feedback loops are often used for various purposes, such as amplification and filtering. If a feedback loop inadvertently amplifies noise or unwanted signals, it can lead to instability in the circuit, which can cause erratic behavior, signal distortion, or even component damage.

  • Power Supply Instability: Positive feedback instability can lead to voltage spikes or power supply noise in circuits, which is often detrimental to sensitive electronic components that require stable power sources.

  • Signal Integrity: PCB designers must consider signal integrity to ensure signals propagate correctly and without distortion. Positive feedback instability can disrupt signal integrity by introducing noise and signal reflections, which can be particularly problematic in high-speed digital circuits where even minor disturbances can lead to data errors.

  • Oscillation and Ringing: Positive feedback loops can lead to unintended oscillations or ringing in the circuit. For example, if a signal is fed back and amplified repeatedly, it can cause the voltage or current to oscillate at a specific frequency. Oscillations can interfere with the operation of the circuit and disrupt its function.

Mitigating Positive Feedback Instability

Mitigating positive feedback instability in PCB design involves several key practices. First of all, careful component placement and routing are essential to minimize unintended coupling between traces, which can create unintended feedback loops. Grounding and power plane separation, as well as proper decoupling capacitor placement, help reduce noise and maintain signal integrity. Simulation and testing of the PCB design are crucial to identifying and addressing potential instability issues before fabrication, ensuring a stable and reliable electronic system.

  • Component Selection and Placement: Choosing components with appropriate characteristics and tolerances can also help prevent instability issues. The placement of those components can impact the behavior of feedback loops. Proper placement can minimize parasitic capacitance and inductance that might contribute to instability.

  • Negative Feedback: Designers should use negative feedback loops to stabilize circuits whenever possible. Negative feedback tends to counteract changes in the system, making it more stable.

  • Grounding and Decoupling: Good grounding and proper decoupling capacitors are essential to prevent noise and instability in PCBs.

  • Simulation and Testing: Before finalizing a PCB design, engineers use simulation tools to predict and analyze circuit behavior. Extensive testing during the design phase helps identify and address stability issues.

Positive feedback instability in PCB design refers to situations where feedback loops unintentionally amplify signals or noise, potentially causing circuit instability and performance issues. PCB designers need to be aware of this possibility and take steps to mitigate it through proper component placement, design, simulation, and testing.

PCB Design Tools Can Account for Positive Feedback Instability

For all of your circuit designs, Cadence OrCAD PCB Designer contains the tools and features you need to get it done right the first time without costly errors or setbacks. If you need to account for positive feedback instability in your PCB, you’ll want the right PCB layout and design software from a trusted name like Cadence. 

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