Sunday, July 12, 2009

The post-lead era: living with less reliable electronic hardware

Years ago most of my computer problems were related to local software bugs. Those were the days before OS X 10.3 and XP SP2. (Ok, so 10.5 was a regression until about 10.5.6 -- the iPhone drained a lot of Apple's brain power early in 10.5 development.)

Excluding the nightmare of my corporate XP environment, I really don't run into that many serious software related problems at home.

Instead, I run into hardware problems. They're worse, because they can be really tough to diagnose. You can undo software installs, install new versions, restore from backup, etc -- but hardware is expensive to experiment with.

Everything fails sooner or later, like my mother's (8-10yo?) cable modem or my vintage (6 yo) AirPort Extreme Base Station, or one of my half-dozen hard drives (half-life 2 years) or cheap router/access points (half-life 1 year).

So things are already tough enough, but unfortunately they're likely to get worse. This rant about lead-free solder isn't new, but it's a timely reminder ...
Macintouch - reader report July 2009

... the lead-free solder mandate has changed the rules. The lead-free directive became mandatory everywhere last year so anecdotes about what was true prior to then are not accurate representations of the realities now.

I am the technical chair for a major electronics wafer and IC/ MEMS/ optoelectronics assembly and packaging conference scheduled for this fall. My technical planning team, with electronics manufacturing experts from many countries, has lined up experts from 19 countries to address better ways to deal with lead-free solder and other reliability and manufacturing issues.

I can assure you that the soldering problems are not unique to Apple--it is a frightening global problem. If you want some specifics, check out the following on lead-free solder problems items below.

Tin is the major metal in ALL lead-free solder alloys being used today by Intel, AMD, IBM and others. Tin is known to produce "tin whiskers" (dendritic growths) which cause electrical shorts if there is humidity in the area where equipment operates.

At a DuPont R&D facility several years ago, I saw USAF cruise missile (intended to carry a nuclear warhead) with a guidance system [on] printed wiring boards where tin dendritic growths had created new logic paths, thus enabling the missile to pick its own target. Not desirable. This is one reason the military avoids high tin content lead-free solders.

Cadillac, at about the same time, had an engine computer that would accelerate, change engine power levels abruptly or stop the engine, much to the driver's chagrin. It cost GM millions to recall and replace the faulty circuits.

The USA lost a multibillion dollar recon satellite last year because of lead-free solder failure problems, so it is not just a computer problem.

You can read "Lead-free solder: A train wreck in the making" from Military and Aerospace Electronics magazine ...

... The bottom line:

Lead-free solders used today simply cannot make as reliable mechanical bonds or as reliable electrical interconnects as older eutectic solders with 100 years of proven reliability.

This makes virtually all electronic products vulnerable to early failure....
So we can expect our device lifespans, from computers to routers, to shorten. How can we respond?

I suspect there will be several responses, partly planned and partly emergent:
  • Outsource the hardware -- switch to the Google Book Chrome OS (Chromestellation). This device moves most of the hardware problems to Google. Their 2011/2012 Google branded netbooks will be very cheap, almost disposable. If there are reliability issues, buy a new one.
  • Buy top quality with extended warrantees. Our costs will rise of course.
  • Build in much better self-diagnostics: We're definitely seeing this. A lot more devices are including their own self-test software. IBM used to market this sort of thing in the 90s and I'm sure it's been a part of mainframe technology since the 1970s.
  • Follow Gordon's Laws of Acquisition and Laws of Geekery. More simply, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". Reliable hardware is the proverbial bird in the hand.

No comments: