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Like any problem-solving endeavor, failure analysis can often be stopped cold by a seemingly insurmountable obstacle; electrical isolation techniques fail, deprocessing proves too challenging, or (worst of all) the failure mode simply disappears, vanishing into thin air like a magician’s cheap parlor trick. Any of these situations will give the dreaded result of “No Fault Found”, which essentially means that no valuable information was gleaned from the analysis. Encountering a stymie like one of these in the course of an analysis can elicit wailing and gnashing of teeth from even the most intrepid engineers; at times like these, it is often necessary to enlist the help of external failure analysis services to provide a fresh look at the problem.

Labs offering failure analysis services find themselves in a situation unique to an external contractor: they have little to no knowledge of the specific history, technology, or application of a given device. In some cases, this can be a curse; a little knowledge about the sorts of stresses a device has been through can greatly expedite an analysis. (For example, it may be worth mentioning to your analyst that your device was accidentally cooked in the microwave for two minutes.) In other cases, though, lacking any background on the device allows an analyst to make a completely fresh start, approaching a problem with no prior assumptions that might lead down the same path as previous (unsuccessful) attacks. This can result in a novel approach to the problem that ultimately produces the successful identification of the root cause of failure.

In other cases, an external lab providing failure analysis services may have access to specialized equipment that may not otherwise be available. In order to stay competitive, a failure analysis lab must constantly invest in the best tools and employees; this investment can result in a successful electrical isolation where more traditional techniques may have failed, or a successful deprocessing due to the increased precision attained by the most cutting-edge technology in conjunction with the most highly trained analyst. Tools and techniques that may not even be considered by some companies, like magnetic imaging systems that can map out current flow on a device or scanning laser microscopes that induce voltage changes on an IC, are the bread and butter of a lab specializing in failure analysis services. These added capabilities can mean the difference between finding the defect and futilely grasping at straws.

Ultimately, the support of external failure analysis services can be invaluable, even in cases where a captive lab is available. The extensive experience, cutting edge technology, and – most of all – fresh approach to a problem found in most external labs all contribute to unearthing the root cause of failure – and avoiding the looming specter of No Fault Found.

Derek Snider is a failure analyst at Insight Analytical Labs, where he has worked since 2004. He is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, where he is pursuing a Bachelors of Science degree in Electrical Engineering.