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. Some say you don’t become an engineer; you’re born an engineer. However, the teardowns we do with iFixit go far beyond pure curiosity: they provide us with critical insights into the nature and construction of electronic devices.
Our most recent teardown of Apple’s newest Magic Keyboard for the iPad Pro unveiled an incredible amount of complexity for a seemingly simple device (Figure 1). After all, how can Apple justify selling a keyboard for $330 ?
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. These findings also help us forecast where we are going as a community by discussing miniaturization and packaging, automation and labor force allocation, device features, and other important topics. These are key issues we need to address to keep SMT manufacturing relevant in the USA.
Figure 1: X-ray image of Apple’s newest Magic Keyboard for the iPad Pro.
We found that this process of finding 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).
Supply Chain Exposure
Once a complete teardown is completed, we can determine the exact BOM for the device. This BOM can be used to determine the 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.
This data also assists companies in determining the cost breakdown of different devices, as seen in this detailed chart from the Benchmarking team at HIS Markit.
The knowledge that a company was picked up as a supplier for a mainstream product can have an incredibly positive impact on the company’s stock price. Similarly, being dropped from the BOM of an iPhone or Galaxy can negatively impact share value.
One recent example 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 USA. 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.
Product managers, competitive intelligence professionals, and engineering leads for semiconductor and component suppliers use our product teardowns to identify:
- What socket opportunities would best suit their products?
- What component integration opportunities are available?
- Which techniques are their competitors using for integrated circuit (IC) packaging?
- What is their competition doing that could be an external threat?
Product managers, procurement professionals, and competitive intelligence analysts in device original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) value product teardown reports for critical insights into:
- Who are the emerging electronic component suppliers?
- What are the best approaches to reducing BOM and manufacturing costs?
- What emerging technologies are being developed in complementary devices that may be integrated?
- What are the best design, sourcing, and manufacturing strategies to compete in the emerging low-cost environment?
- What are the competitive strengths of new international market entrants?
The process of tearing down popular consumer electronics will continue as a means to gain some insights into how large companies work and develop their products. The major forces in SMT manufacturing will continue pushing U.S. manufacturers toward miniaturization. The number of WLCSP devices and additive substrates we find in major devices continues to grow, which tells us they are on their way to becoming a standard.
The impact of this transformation may not be instantaneous. If you are a small or medium contract manufacturer in the USA, for example, you can think that these trends don’t impact you. But they do, and here’s how. Even though your customers are not designing products with wafer-level chip-scale packaging (WLCSP), they will soon not have an option because the large volume players in the market—and the ones the component manufacturers cater to—will give preference to WLCSP. This is a continuous process similar to what happened to the through-hole components. We still come across manufacturing companies that are now migrating to surface mount components. Progress is inevitable.
- K. Purdy, “Dang, the iPad Pro Magic Keyboard Looks Cool in X-Rays,” iFixit, May 7, 2020.
- “Teardown: Wearable Technology Intelligence Service,” HIS Markit.
Dr. Bill Cardoso is CEO of Creative Electron.