X-Rayted Files: iPhone Transparency—A Window Into SMT

Though we don’t do them just for fun, teardowns are fun, but they have also taught us more than we could have imagined. The impulse to break a new gadget to "see what's inside" is often the first sign someone will become an engineer. However, modern teardowns go far beyond pure curiosity; they provide critical insights into the nature and construction of these devices. In addition, they are a window into what’s to come for our broader industry.

Behold the history of the iPhone as told through X-ray imaging (Figure 1). This is also an important snapshot of the history of SMT assembly for the past 13 years since the iPhone introduction in 2007. Major industry trends can be visualized in this single image: Electronics are getting smaller, batteries are getting bigger, and the real estate allocated to the PCB is shrinking. Larger displays with higher resolution require more power. Thinner devices have become a requirement, which led Apple to place the battery on the side of the PCB instead of on top of the PCB in the iPhone 4.
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Figure 1: The (nearly) complete history of the iPhone. (Click to view full resolution PDF.)

We have been tearing down devices for years, always starting with an X-ray image, intent on discovering how the devices around us work. However, we found that this process of exploring how devices are built can give us incredible insights into how the major companies that make them operate. This “under the cover” knowledge can provide insights into design information, how the product works, innovative design features, and even supply chain relationships.

Teardowns may also include an in-depth estimate of the bill of materials (BOM). This BOM can be used to determine component selection and supplier relationships. It can also, from generation to generation of these devices, help us determine which of these relationships are flourishing and which are floundering. The data can further assist companies in determining the cost breakdown of different devices.

Teardowns and the resulting BOMs contribute significant market intelligence. The knowledge that a supplier was picked up as a supplier for a mainstream product can have an incredibly positive impact on a supplier’s stock price. Similarly, being dropped from the BOM of an iPhone or Galaxy can negatively impact share value.

We recall, for example, what happened the day the new iPhone 7 went on sale worldwide. The first teardowns of these devices happened in Tokyo and Sydney, several hours ahead of the Friday launch date in the U.S. The public release that a component by Lattice Semiconductor was present in the iPhone 7 caused shares of the Portland company to climb nearly 14%. That happened on Thursday on indications the Portland company has signed up Apple as a major client.

Carefully examining devices and their components through teardowns provides a view into the future, as well as help in connecting some dots. When the 3.5-mm audio jack disappeared from the iPhone 7, it pointed to a continued effort at waterproofing these devices, and suddenly, the motivation behind Apple’s earlier acquisition of Beats Electronics became clear. Therefore, I want to emphasize the importance of paying attention to the merger and acquisition activities of the major players in the SMT market. These moves might not make immediate sense, but in the case of Apple’s acquisition of Beats, it was a very early signal of a major shift in the way devices would be built.

And while what was missing from the iPhone 7 yielded some insight, what replaced it provided even more. Figure 2 shows an X-ray image of the now-defunct audio jack in an iPhone 6S.

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Figure 2: Bottom left corner of the iPhone 6S, showing the 3.5-mm audio jack.

Figure 3 shows an X-ray image on the same corner of the iPhone 7. This X-ray image revealed the improved Taptic Engine in the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. This device is responsible for the haptic or kinesthetic communication that recreates the sense of touch by applying forces that react to the user’s touch. Such changes point to a future without mechanical buttons, as the ability to emulate the push of a button using haptic feedback greatly improves the reliability (plus water and dust proofing) of the iPhone by reducing the number of moving parts in the assembly.

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Figure 3: Bottom left corner of the iPhone 7, showing the lack of a 3.5-mm audio jack.

creative_electron_fig4_iphone12.jpgLikewise, as we progress through the history of the iPhone, we saw the addition of wireless charging starting with the iPhone 8 (Figure 1) that led to the MagSafe charging coil in the new iPhone 12 (Figure 4), and to the dismay of some, the absence of an included charger. Such an evolution may point to the eventual elimination of the charging port altogether, further improving waterproofing. And it’s probably a safe bet that we have seen the last included charger with an iPhone, perhaps setting a trend for devices of the future.

The other feature of the iPhone 12 Pro that has our imagination going is the LIDAR-equipped camera for improved photos, especially in low light. We are imagining an explosion of apps utilizing LIDAR for augmented reality games, home décor, remodeling, and eventually, perhaps even a crowd-sourced 3D model of the entire world.

Go ahead and call us geeks (heck, we call ourselves geeks), but teardowns are fun. But more than that, they are truly revealing, as are the X-ray images that support them. From them, we gain valuable intelligence and insight that guide our decision making.

Dr. Bill Cardoso is CEO of Creative Electron.

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2020

X-Rayted Files: iPhone Transparency—A Window Into SMT

11-17-2020

Though we don’t do them just for fun, teardowns are fun, but they have also taught us more than we could have imagined. Modern teardowns provide critical insights into the nature and construction of these devices. As an example, Dr. Bill Cardoso details the history of the iPhone as told through X-ray.

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X-Rayted Files: A Century of X-Rays in the Automotive Industry, Part 2

10-28-2020

As one of the main users of X-ray inspection, the automotive industry has been one of the main drivers for the development of higher power and higher resolution X-ray imaging systems. Dr. Bill Cardoso continues with Part 2 of this column series.

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X-Rayted Files: A Century of X-Rays in the Automotive Industry, Part 1

09-29-2020

If you have read any of Bill Cardoso's previous columns, you know that he is passionate about X-rays, cars, and electronics. In this column series, he talks about some of his idols, including Curie, Roentgen, Marconi, Galvin, and Ford.

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X-Rayted Files: Is Quality Really Priceless?

08-19-2020

In a day and age when we can learn virtually anything online, manufacturers still manage to be opaque about pricing, especially when it comes to specialty equipment. Some may say, “Quality is priceless,” but Bill Cardoso explains how it isn't.

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X-Rayted Files: Marching Toward 2021, 20 Miles at a Time

07-29-2020

We’re only at the halfway mark, and 2020 has been a real challenge. Our best-laid plans have been cast in doubt by the COVID-19 pandemic. During this transformational time, Dr. Bill Cardoso looks back a century for a bit of inspiration from Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.

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X-Rayted Files: E-Commerce Boom Fraught With Risk—X-Rays to the Rescue

06-17-2020

It’s not news that online sales are increasing dramatically during this global pandemic. However, with increased sales comes the increased risk of return fraud and abuse. Dr. Bill Cardoso explains how X-ray can help detect dummy and counterfeit merchandise.

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X-Rayted Files: Why Do We Break Stuff? Intelligence From Teardowns

05-20-2020

The impulse to break a new gadget to "see what's inside" and to “learn how it works” is often the first sign someone will become an engineer. We’ve learned a lot in over a decade of teardowns, which have helped us to understand how the SMT industry has changed over these years. Bill Cardoso investigates.

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X-Rayted Inspection: Manufacturing in the Eye of a Pandemic

04-08-2020

Dr. Bill Cardoso usually writes about X-ray inspection, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and how it all connects to Industry 4.0. This month, however, he shifts gears and shares some of the things Creative Electron has been doing during the COVID-19 outbreak.

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X-rayted Files: X-ray and AI—A Match Made In Heaven, Part 2

03-18-2020

In Part 1, Dr. Bill Cardoso covered the basics of the relationship between X-ray inspection and artificial intelligence (AI). In Part 2, Cardoso takes a step forward to cover some of the practical ways we use AI to improve the efficiency of our X-ray inspections.

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X-Rayted Files: X-Ray and AI—A Match Made In Heaven, Part 1

02-05-2020

Dr. Bill Cardoso has been working with AI for a while now and seen real application and success in X-ray inspection, as well as failures. In Part 1 of this column series, he shares how AI is changing the way we think about X-ray inspection.

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2019

X-Rayted Files: Will Radiation Damage My Electronic Component?

12-17-2019

Before I start talking about radiation damage on electronic components, let me warn you: if you are looking for a simple “yes” or “no” answer to the question, "Will radiation damage my electronic component?" stop reading now. Things will get complicated. You may feel like I did not answer the question at all, and you would be correct. There are whole conferences dedicated to this question (check IEEE’s Nuclear and Space Radiation Effects Conference), so the goal of this column is to give you some background to guide you to the right answer for your specific situation. Ultimately, the best way is to ask an expert.

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X-Rayted Files: The Currency of Technology

11-11-2019

In the ever-moving tide of technology, the need to innovate requires a constant shift in vision, and this need has never been more evident than in PCB manufacturing. In fact, innovation has become so valuable that PCBs are quickly becoming the currency of technology. Dr. Bill Cardoso explains.

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X-Rayted Files: The Risk of Installing Counterfeit Parts

10-02-2019

In high-tech manufacturing, the use of sub-standard components can be catastrophic. There is no greater need for quality control than in PCBs, as they are only as good as the components installed on them; therein lies the problem. Some components shipped to manufacturers are counterfeit!

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X-Rayted Files: Just Because You Can't See the Problem Doesn't Mean It's Not There!

08-20-2019

In this new column, Dr. Bill Cardoso will cover everything related to X-rays from cool historical facts to the latest in technological advancements, starting with the discovery of X-rays in 1895.

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