23-02-2022 | By Robin Mitchell
The rising demands for repair rights amongst customers combined with the semiconductor shortage bring to light the many advantages of repairing electronics instead of replacing them. What solutions does the semiconductor industry have for advancing technology, what benefits repairing electronics presents, and how can engineers adapt their designs to account for this?
What solutions does the semiconductor industry have for advancing technology?
Just about every electronics engineer is well aware of the challenges faced by the semiconductor industry with Moore’s Law coming to an end. Transistors can only be made so small, and semiconductor dies can only be so large, and this creates a physical limit to the number of transistors on any given 2D plane. Once this number is reached, there is no more increasing transistor counts by reducing the size of transistors.
This presents a significant challenge for engineers as arguably the vast majority of technological advancements have come from increasing the number of transistors on a die. But, just because you can’t add more transistors in the 2D plane doesn’t mean a semiconductor device cant have more transistors.
One solution that is already in use is the use of chiplets mounted on boards. Instead of trying to fit all the transistors onto a single chip, multiple smaller chips are manufactured and then connected together either through an interconnect, bond wires, or a micro-PCB. Not only does this allow for more transistors on a single device, but it also allows for the customisation of modules.
Another solution is to go vertically with the use of additional active layers. Considering that a transistor active layer is incredibly thin (in the micrometres), it is theoretically possible to have hundreds of transistor layers in a semiconductor die. The resulting design could have an order of magnitude more transistors than a single 2D planar device.
However, just because these techniques may yield more complex devices, it doesn’t mean that they will become popular. This could be due to reasons of cost and/or practicality whereby multi-layered chips are far too expensive to integrate into consumer devices.
What advantages does repairing electronics present?
If semiconductor technology gets to the point where it cannot be reliably or practically improved, then replacing electronics for the purpose of improved performance no longer becomes a possibility. In this scenario, replacing electronics would only make sense for the sole purpose of replacing hardware that has failed catastrophically.
At this point, repairing electronics makes a lot of sense; repairing a so-called “old device” would have similar performance to new devices being manufactured, which would allow for such devices to remain useable. The ability to repair and upgrade electronics also has major environmental impacts. Considering the large amount of e-waste that is generated globally, devices could just as easily be refurbished, wiped, and updated with the latest software.
While this may seem like a vision into the far future, the right to repair movement has already seen significant strides from companies and governments. For example, the UK and EU have recently announced legislation that requires manufacturers to present customers with repair guides and spare parts. Another example is Apple having launched their new repair tools available to anyone who requests it (this took the world by surprise considering how Apple historically doesn’t like repairs done outside their control).
This movement is being driven by several factors, including personal liberties and rights, the environment, and most importantly, the current state of the semiconductor industry. The COVID-19 pandemic saw a worldwide collapse of many industries and markets, which had a major knock-on effect on the semiconductor industry. Long story short, the world is now short of semiconductor devices as semiconductor foundries try to ramp up their output to meet the demand.
The inability to source semiconductors has seen many products out of stock, and as such many have turned to refurbished devices, including PCs, laptops, tablets, phones, and even games consoles. If a device breaks, getting a replacement may not be practical in the current market, and thus repair shops have seen an increase in both repairs and remanufactured products.
Thus, the ability to repair electronics helps reduce the amount of e-waste produced and provides consumers with a cheaper alternative to technology, incentivises device care, and forces companies to support older hardware for longer.
How can engineers adapt their designs to help repair in the future?
Many companies that manufacture products intentionally put planned obsolescence in their designs so that customers are forced to upgrade. While this may not be an illegal practice, it will undoubtedly become illegal in the next decade as it is harmful to customers and the environment.
Considering the trends in repairability and privacy, it is likely that future products which win consumer trust and love will be those that can be repaired and protect customer privacy. Therefore, engineers of consumer products may need to start considering making their devices easier to repair and maintain.
Advanced semiconductors come in packages such as BGA and MLF, which cannot be removed and replaced with ease, and it would be unreasonable to expect engineers to not use such packages. However, many designs with a large number of signals (such as a mobile phone processor) will use most of these signals for interconnecting advanced chips such as CPUs, GPUs, and memory.
I/O devices such as USB connectors, bridges, and screens will most likely use industry-standard data lines. This allows for the complex processor part of a design to be mounted onto a single removable board. This ability to remove the processing part of a design allows for memory upgrades, CPU upgrades, and CPU repairs without throwing the entire design away.
Modularised designs could also help consumers maintain equipment for longer, with module parts being available directly from the manufacturer. In fact, one company has already tested this idea with a laptop that is entirely configurable with ports, memory, processor, and hard drive, all being upgradable and interchangeable.
The ability to repair electronics will continue to play an essential role globally, and the semiconductor shortage demonstrates just how vital semiconductors are. Designing devices to fail after a few years and stopping software support will not be allowed for long as government regulation continues to grow. Thus, engineers need to start thinking about how future designs will integrate repairability into their products.