Derek Snider at dual beam stage with star wars R2D2 toy

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The Lighter Side of IC Failure Analysis - Silicon Art

John PeelThe process of IC failure analysis can be long and arduous. The task of diving into a device, meticulously tracing out a failing signal, poring over layouts, schematics, and test results in order to find the root cause of a defect is daunting to say the least. Occasionally, however, an analyst may find an unexpected gem, a hidden inside joke shared between an integrated circuit designer and anyone who takes the time to tear a device apart to get a good look at the semiconductor die; instead of finding an anomaly, an analyst may end up unearthing a piece of silicon artwork.



Most silicon art is fairly mundane in nature, identifying the manufacturer of the device and listing copyright dates. These markings (also referred to as logos) are actually quite a boon when performing IC failure analysis, as they provide additional information that an analyst may use to ask questions about the history of a device. For example, does the manufacturer logo on the die match the logo on the outside of the device?  Does the copyright date on the die inexplicably fall several years after the date code on the package, implying that the part was somehow manufactured before the die had even been designed? Questions like these are the bread and butter of labs who focus on the inspection of integrated circuits for counterfeiting, and are also inherently relevant to the failure analyst; if the device is not what its packaging proclaims it to be, there is a greatly increased chance that it will not meet the specifications of a given application.

Beyond the realm of “functional” die markings, however, there is another, rarer set of images found on integrated circuits that serve no purpose other than to introduce a little levity into the lives of those who may chance upon them. Wrought in the metal, oxide, and crystals that make up a semiconductor device instead of in an artist’s paint and canvas, these pixelated pieces adorn a handful of ICs. Often, a device may be decorated with the names or initials of its design team; other devices may proudly display groan-inducing puns, like a crude drawing of a furry little lab mouse on the optical sensor of a PC laser mouse. Comic book and video game characters, local landmarks, and motivational phrases have all been spotted on various devices; some devices may even include tributes to celebrities, as seen in the image above depicting BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel (actual photo shown at left), taken from one of the RF chips of a cell phone.

These distinctive works of silicon art do not, strictly speaking, have any effect on the functionality of a part; indeed, they often serve as little more than momentary diversions on the road to the scrapyard. Often, it is too easy to become embroiled in the fast paced demands of IC failure analysis; if nothing else, these lighthearted pictures are a reminder to the beleaguered analyst to stop and find joy in something delightedly non-technical, like artwork; even if that artwork may be a crude doodle etched into the metallization of an integrated circuit.

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.

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