The most obvious challenge in failure analysis of modern electronic devices is simply one of scale. Many modern consumer products are available with integrated circuits with semiconductor features of 45 nanometers (or, in some cases, even smaller); with features this small, many of an analyst’s inspection tools are eliminated. Optical inspection is impossible, since the critical features on the device are smaller than one-half the wavelength of visible light, making them physically impossible to inspect with a traditional microscope. Sometimes, even an electron microscope is insufficient – older electron microscopes lack the necessary resolution to image these features, and can even cause damage to the delicate materials used on the device with the high-energy electron beam used to produce an image. Fortunately, microscopy has continued to advance along with every other aspect of technology, and there are now ultra-high resolution electron microscopes that work differently than the traditional instruments that can image these features with relative ease.
Though the problem of scaling is certainly a big one (or an infinitesimally small one, depending on your outlook), these devices are still based on the same sort of integrated circuit technology that has been around for many years. Even more challenging are those devices that are based on distant cousins of that technology: devices that are based on wildly different materials, for example, or microchip-based devices that are designed with moving parts to gather data about their environment (known as microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS). Failure analysis of these electronic devices can be far more challenging, as the analyst must not only consider the usual contributors to failure but also the unusual properties of the material – for example, a MEMS may fail in all the ways a normal integrated circuit can, but may also fail due to stiction of the moving parts.
While it’s certainly true that cutting-edge technology poses some serious challenges for failure analysis of electronic devices, they are not insurmountable. With the diverse set of knowledge and techniques present in the failure analysis lab, the difficulty posed by these devices can be a joy to overcome, not a burden to bear.
Derek Snider has been an employee at Insight Analytical Labs since 2004, where he currently works as a Failure Analyst. He is an undergraduate student at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, where he is pursuing a Bachelors of Science degree in Electrical Engineering.