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November 26, 2008

The scanning electron microscope

SOUTHWOOD, England – Breaking phones is all well and good, but it’s finding out where, and how, faults occur as a result that builds reliability. Obvious physical breakages are easy to spot – a chipped casing here, a furled keypad there, but what happens when those cracks appear on one of the gates in a silicon chip? Or one of the myriad components on the numerous circuit boards inside a phone comes apart? That’s where the reliability labs analysis department comes into play. Resembling a science lab the place is packed with microscopes, and xray machine and a scanning electron microscope, which uses liquid nitrogen to clear the air before scanning, so no unwanted particles get scanned.

When we walk in we’re handed some gifts. Half an N79 encased in potting compound and a vibrating mechanism from an N79, also encased. Components are stripped out of withered devices and “potted up” to protect them before being skimmed down to the area that needs to be examined. Bigger cracks (not big enough to be seeing by the naked eye) are checked out under a standard microscope whilst smaller ones get moved over to either the xray machine (pictured right) or the scanning electron microscope (In the picture above you can see a human hair after being scanned, magnified on screen). There’s little these forensic brains can’t find in the way of failure.

I honestly had no idea. Much of the testing stuff I’d figured must exist in one form or another, but that components are then examined in such detail was beyond my imagination. It is fascinating stuff.

So that brings an end to our little adventure into the testing and reliability labs. In case you’ve missed any of our reports, here’s the full list. Let us know what you think.

“We’re a bunch of guys who break phones for a living”

Testing extreme weather

Repetitive testing

Testing wear and tear

Stress testing