The ever-increasing demand for quicker, more powerful, and more compact devices – all at a static or even decreasing price point – has been an immense driving factor in the evolution of the electronics and semiconductor industries. As things like smartphones make the cultural shift from “geeky” to “irreplaceable”, the technology upon which they are based must change to meet the needs of the expanding market. In some cases, these changes are simply reworks of proven technology; in others, attempts to build the proverbial better mousetrap have resulted in creative new products with physical and electrical characteristics far different from their predecessors. This constant drive to innovate is undoubtedly a boon to the consumer; however, the constant introduction of new tech poses unique challenges in the process of electronic device failure analysis.
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.