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Historically, the role of IC failure analysis labs has been fairly narrowly defined. A failing device is submitted for analysis (either to an internal or external FA lab), where it is torn apart and subjected to countless different tests before the root cause of failure is finally determined, with analysts trained to distinguish between failures due to manufacturing defects and unintentional overstress induced in a customer’s application (among other typical causes of failure). As the microelectronics market has expanded and evolved, however, failure analysts find themselves faced with another potential source of problems: devices that claim to be something that they are not.

Counterfeit microelectronics devices are a hot-button topic in the semiconductor industry; the issue of counterfeit components has even been addressed in some mainstream news outlets, due to the severity of impact these impostor devices have had on government and defense contracts. Recently, the US government enacted measures which impose stiff fines upon suppliers who sell (intentionally or otherwise) counterfeit components to any government project; as a result, there has been a vastly increased demand for “component assurance”, or analysis to determine whether a part is genuine or not. Due to the tools and training at their disposal, IC failure analysis labs are in an ideal position to meet this need.
Many of the techniques and traits that IC failure analysis labs develop in support of their primary mission can be easily adapted to performing component assurance work. In-depth visual inspection can be used to spot re-marked or “blacktopped” packages instead of finding solder bridging or corroded metal; high-resolution x-ray imaging can be used to compare multiple samples of a given device type instead of looking for cracked traces or disconnected bond wires. One of the clearest benefits of using an FA lab for component assurance work, however, is the breadth of exposure to different devices such labs can boast of.
Independent IC failure analysis labs will often deal with an extremely broad spectrum of different devices – from the most basic of discrete components to the most complex FPGAs and digital processors, there is a good chance that failure analysts have had at least some degree of exposure to a given device. When these independent labs put forth the extra effort and begin to document the different devices they have seen, they can assemble a compendium of device characteristics – die and logo images, package markings, and so on. As this compendium grows, it becomes a “gold standard” by which suspect devices can be judged – a quick reference guide for determining whether a part is genuine or should be regarded with more suspicion.
As the demands of the market shift, the capabilities of the integrated circuit (IC) failure analysis lab must evolve as well. Component assurance and counterfeit inspection are areas where an FA lab’s unique experience, tools, and exposure to different processes is a clear benefit to the industry; as such, FA labs should continue to grow and develop the necessary techniques to service these needs.