While a machinist can put a beautiful finish on a piece of metal with their lathe or mill, to achieve the ultimate finish, a further set of polishing procedures are necessary. Successively finer abrasives are used in a process called lapping, which removes as far as possible any imperfections and leaves eventually a mirrored smoothness. It’s not without problems though, particularly at the edge of a piece it can result in rounded-off corners as the abrasive rubs over them. [Adam the machinist] has a solution, and he’s found it with a 3D printer.
To avoid the rounded edges, the solution involves fitting a piece of metal or wood flush with the surface to be lapped, such that the pressure doesn’t act upon the corner. This can be inconvenient, and the solution avoids it by 3D printing a custom piece that fits over the entire machined object providing a flat surface surrounding the edges. We see it being used with a demonstration piece that has three separate surfaces in the same plane to lap,something that would have been challenging without the 3D printed aid.
We treat them like black boxes, which they oftentimes are, but what lies beneath the inscrutable packages of electronic components is another world that begs exploration. But the sensitive and fragile silicon guts of these devices can be hard to get to, requiring destructive methods that, in the hands of a novice, more often than not lead to the demise of the good stuff inside.
To help us sort through the process of getting inside components, John McMaster will stop by the Hack Chat. You’ll probably recognize John’s work from Twitter and YouTube, or perhaps from his SiliconPr0n.org website, home to beauty shots of some of the chips he has decapped. John is also big in the reverse engineering community, organizing the Mountain View Reverse Engineering meetup, a group that meets regularly to discuss the secret world of components. Join us as we talk to John about some of the methods and materials used to get a look inside this world.
We rarely take a moment to consider the beauty of the components we use in electronic designs. Too often they are simply commodities, bought in bulk on reels or in bags, stashed in a drawer until they’re needed, and then unceremoniously soldered to a board. Granted, little scraps of black plastic with silver leads don’t exactly deserve paeans sung to their great beauty – at least not until you cut them in half to reveal the beauty within.
We’ve seen a little of what [Tube Time] has accomplished here; recall this lapped-down surface-mount inductor that [electronupdate] did a while back. The current work is more extensive and probably somewhat easier to accomplish because [TubeTime] focused mainly on larger through-hole components such as resistors and capacitors. It’s not clear how the sections were created, but it is clear that extreme care was taken to lap down the components with enough precision that the inner structures are clearly visible, and indeed, carefully enough that some, most notably the LED, still actually work. For our money, though, the best looking cross-sections are the capacitors, especially the electrolytic, for which [Tube Time] thoughtfully provides both radial and axial sections. The little inductor is pretty cool too. Some of the component diagrams are annotated, too, which makes for fascinating reading.
Honestly, we could look at stuff like this all day.
For those not into the anatomy and physiology of semiconductors, getting a look at the inside of the chip can reveal valuable information needed to reverse engineer a device, or it can just scratch the itch of curiosity. Lapping (the gentle grinding away of material) is one way to see the layers that make up the silicon die that lies beneath the epoxy. Hard drives designed to spin at 7200 rpm or more hardly seem a suitable spinning surface for a gentle lapping, but [electronupdate] just wanted the platter for its ultra-smooth, ultra-flat surface.
He removed the heads and replaced the original motor with a gear motor and controller to spin the platter at less than 5 rpm. A small holder for the decapped die was fashioned, and pinched between the platter hub and an idler. It gently rotates the die against the abrasive-covered platter as it slowly revolves. But the die wasn’t abrading evenly. He tried a number of different fixtures for the die, but never got to the degree of precision needed to see through the die layer by layer. We wonder if the weight of the die fixture is deflecting the platter a bit?
Failure is a great way to learn, if you can actually figure out where you went wrong. We look to the Hackaday community for some insight. Check out the video below and sound off in the comments if you’ve got any ideas.
“Teardown” isn’t really accurate here, at least by the standard of [electronupdate]’s other component teardowns, like his looks inside LED light bulbs and das blinkenlights. “Rubdown” is more like it here, because what starts out as a rather solid looking SMT component needs to be ground down bit by bit to reveal the inner ferrite and copper goodness. [electronupdate] embedded the R30 SMT inductor in epoxy and hand lapped the whole thing until the windings were visible. Of course, just peeking inside is never enough, so he set upon an analysis of the inductor’s innards. Using a little careful macro photography and some simple image analysis, he verified the component’s data sheet claims; as an aside, is anyone else surprised that a tiny SMT component can handle 30 amps?
With the exception of [Eric Evenchick], the Hackaday crew are safely back from Defcon and not missing in the desert. This means we can really start rolling out all the stuff we saw this weekend, beginning with an interview with [Joe Grand], creator of the JTAGulator, early member of l0pht, and generally awesome dude.
The focus of [Joe]’s many talks this year was reverse engineering circuit boards. Most of these techniques involved fairly low-tech methods to peel apart circuit boards one layer at a time: sandpaper and milling machines are the simplest techniques, but [Joe] is also using some significantly more uncommon methods. Lapping machines get a mention, as do acoustic microscopy, CAT scans, and x-rays. [Joe]’s Defcon talk isn’t up on the intertubes yet, but his BSides talk about techniques that didn’t work is available.
In case you forgot, [Joe] is also a judge for a little contest we’re running, and we asked what he’s looking for in a truly spaceworthy entry. [Joe]’s looking for projects with a lot of effort put into them. Don’t get us wrong, project that require no effort can be extremely popular, but documentation is king. [Joe] thinks well documented projects are evidence project creators are building something because they want to build it, and not because they want to win a prize. That’s intrinsic motivation, kiddies. Learn it.