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Research and Analysis on the Reverse Engineering of Electronic Products


Reverse engineering is a method of analysis that involves disassembling (tearing down) a product to identify its various parts and examine its product structure using assorted tools.

It can be divided into the following three categories:


Competitiveness Analysis

The functions of electronic products are changing every day. Progress is being made in leaps and bounds. To catch up to your rivals in this sea of competition, high-tech industries must invest considerable resources into maintaining their R&D momentum, in hopes of attaining an advantageous position in terms of both technology and cost. However, realistically, there will be times when the R&D process encounters a bottleneck or is unable to keep up with evolving trends to enter the market at the most opportune times. At such times, it is only natural to want to see how other people have managed to succeed. Is there some kind of new architecture? Or is there an all new material or design?


Therefore, we endeavor to find a clear path forward through the use of reverse engineering, which allows us to evaluate a product’s competitiveness in the market by its cost or a list of BoM (Bill of Materials). This information can be a powerful R&D tool.


Competitiveness analysis can be divided into the following three categories:


1.Product Disassembly and Cost Analysis

For an end product to be competitive in the market, it must have its own advantages in terms of performance and price. As they say, know yourself, know your enemy, and you need not fear any battle. After understanding the components and materials of a competitor’s products and identifying the upstream suppliers with whom they cooperate, it becomes possible to roughly estimate their cost structure. Then one can evaluate the company’s competitiveness in the market and set one’s own cost targets.


The disassembly process makes use of numerous techniques. These may include using mechanical forces, thermal heating or a screwdriver to dismantle the entire exterior while ensuring that the product’s interior remains in good condition.


After disassembling the mobile phone, various ICs on the PCBA circuit boards can be revealed to identify its suppliers and applications.



2.Process Architecture Analysis

More advanced processes may have smaller chips or packaging, lower chip costs, higher operating speeds, and better performance. Products produced by leading manufacturers must have the above characteristics. Usually, in order to understand the capabilities of competing products, you will want to observe multiple metal layers—the thickness and minimum line width of the process node and each individual layer. Pertinent information can be hidden in the logic circuits and Static Random Access Memory (SRAM). Even the structure and materials of components may be analyzed in order to determine possible process parameters. And it is not only advanced process components but also advanced packaging that may be targeted for analysis.


IC process structure analysis using EDX Line Scan, EDX Mapping, and HRTEM


Cross-section view of the HBM of a 2.5D IC


2.5D IC 3D X-ray of a u-bump, TSV and C4 bump


Mobile phones, though small, have all the components that most usual electronics have. In addition to advanced micro-processors, it contains CMOS Image Sensors, micro-electromechanical components (MEMS), Dynamic Random Access Memory (DRAM) and the core technology for the Vertical Cavity Surface-Emitting Laser (VCSEL) for facial recognition and the mobile phone lens, etc. All these circuits may be the subjects of reverse engineering.


MA-Tek has a rich history and extensive experience in this field. With 3D OM, 3D X-ray, grinding, delayering, SEM, TEM, EDX, SCM, SIMS and other technologies, we are able to offer a complete presentation of all structural features and parameters.


The mobile phone contains various ICs which can be analyzed in reverse engineering


Disassembly and Observation of the Mobile Phone Lens Module

(a)Examine the optical lens using a 3D X-ray

(b)Vertical Cavity Surface Emitting Laser (VCSEL)

(c)Diffractive Optical Elements (DOE)

(d)CMOS Image Sensor (CIS)


Use the Scanning Capacitance Microscope (SCM) to analyze the P-N dopant mapping of high-power MOSFETS


Analyze the structure of compound semiconductors using SIMS



3.Line Photography and Circuit Extraction

For a component to be successful, it needs both the support of process technology and high-performance circuit designs. The circuit design process involves the use of EDA tools to complete the design, from the schematic and layout to the final tape-out and, eventually, the final product. The techniques employed in the middle of this process cannot be discerned through structure observation alone. It takes a considerable amount of effort to obtain circuit-related information.


The process can be roughly divided into two parts. The first is to take pictures of the circuit routes. The process is called delayering, which is to take photos, layer by layer. Note that the upper and lower layers must be aligned in order to allow the tracing of the connection between a component and the circuit. The technical requirements for this process mainly include a high-magnification optical microscope and software that can magnify and track the correspondence between each layer of photos.


The second part of the process is circuit extraction. This is where you turn the photographed circuit back into a circuit. This is done in order to fully understand the circuit architecture and design concept. It is the ultimate purpose of reverse engineering. MA-Tek has the ability to meet the needs of our customers, whether those needs relate to III-V RF ICs or 7nm advanced process circuits.


Post Circuit Extraction Schematic Diagram



In summary, MA-Tek has formulated a set of standard procedures for reverse engineering analysis. Customers can work with the MA-Tek technical team to adjust the details of implementation based on these procedures in order to ensure that their analysis needs are met using the minimum number of samples.


Competitiveness Analysis Flowchart




Patent Infringement Identification

Reverse engineering can certainly be used to uncover a competitor’s techniques. However, if techniques are plagiarized, then one risks facing issues of patent infringement. In essence, the Sino-US trade war is a dispute over the infringement of intellectual property rights.


According to the information published by the Administrative Office of the United States Federal Court, in recent years, there have been over 3,000 patent infringement cases filed in the United States each year. Third-party labs play a key role in such cases.


1996 to 2018 U.S. Intellectual Property Litigation Applications Trend Chart

Ref: https://iknow.stpi.narl.org.tw/post/Read.aspx?PostID=16377


The evidence required for intellectual property infringement litigation is also collected using reverse engineering. However, the process is far more rigorous. From the certification of the sample and the confirmation of receipt to the choice of analysis locations and the interpretation of the final analysis results, all steps require a high degree of professionalism and must meet the standards set forth by the court.


MA-Tek has been operating in the field of patent litigation for many years, handling cases covering advanced manufacturing processes, LED, DRAM, and power components, etc. We are familiar with litigation procedures as we have assisted numerous major companies both at home and abroad with their lawsuits. Time and again, MA-Tek has proven that its illustrious reputation in the field of patent litigation as an impartial and transcendent third-party laboratory is well-earned.




Product Quality Verification




1.Introduction of New Products

Whether it is because of the introduction of a new supplier or the use of new processes and new materials, it is necessary to employ a number of analytical approaches in order to ensure the functionality and reliability of a product. In addition to electrical verification, we may use methods such as the observation of a product’s outward appearance and internal structure. Such analysis is common and increasingly important as new processes and packaging structures are becoming more and more complex. The ultimate goal is to fully understand the product’s structure. That way, when you encounter problems, you are able to have in-depth discussions with your suppliers.


A thorough understanding of the product structure will help you solve future mass production problems



2.Assurance of Product Quality During Mass Production

The quality of mass-produced products must be sustainable. The prerequisite for this is that the process parameters must be stable. That is why we have quality control statistical analysis for industrial processes. However, that is not enough. Ongoing Reliability Tests (ORT) are necessary to monitoring and ensuring the continued reliability of products.


In recent years, in consideration of reliability requirements, more and more international companies are requiring faster physical structure observation to find potential defects so that they can prevent future reliability problems early in the production process. This method is called Destructive Physical Analysis (DPA). The purpose of DPA is to verify the design of a device—whether the structure, materials, and manufacturing quality all meet the requirements for their intended uses. Samples for this analysis are selected based on the device’s production batch. The complete process includes conducting a series of non-destructive and destructive analysis tests on the sample according to a set of established norms. However, it is key to work with customers to establish a set of mutually-acceptable standard operating procedures.


The DPA process can include but is not limited to the following

 (ref: https://wpo-altertechnology.com/destructive-physical-analysis-dpa/)

  • X-ray Examination
  • External Visual Inspection
  • Seal tests (Fine& Gross leaks)
  • Particle Impact Noise Detection (P.I.N.D)
  • Solderability
  • Internal Visual Inspection
  • Bond Pull
  • Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM)
  • Die Shear


To summarize the above introduction, reverse engineering involves a variety of technologies and skills as well as knowledge and understanding of a variety of products, the ability to analyze processes, a basic understanding of circuit architecture, a rigorous work process, the ability to complete analysis quickly, and even techniques for offensive and defensive litigation. MA-Tek has built a solid foundation through years of accumulated experience. By integrating a full range of skills, we have established an unparalleled position in the field of reverse engineering.