Though we don’t do them just for fun, teardowns are fun, but they have also taught us more than we could have imagined. The impulse to break a new gadget to "see what's inside" is often the first sign someone will become an engineer. However, modern teardowns go far beyond pure curiosity; they provide critical insights into the nature and construction of these devices. In addition, they are a window into what’s to come for our broader industry.
Behold the history of the iPhone as told through X-ray imaging (Figure 1). This is also an important snapshot of the history of SMT assembly for the past 13 years since the iPhone introduction in 2007. Major industry trends can be visualized in this single image: Electronics are getting smaller, batteries are getting bigger, and the real estate allocated to the PCB is shrinking. Larger displays with higher resolution require more power. Thinner devices have become a requirement, which led Apple to place the battery on the side of the PCB instead of on top of the PCB in the iPhone 4.
Figure 1: The (nearly) complete history of the iPhone. (Click to view full resolution PDF.)
We have been tearing down devices for years, always starting with an X-ray image, intent on discovering how the devices around us work. However, we found that this process of exploring how devices are built can give us incredible insights into how the major companies that make them operate. This “under the cover” knowledge can provide insights into design information, how the product works, innovative design features, and even supply chain relationships.
Teardowns may also include an in-depth estimate of the bill of materials (BOM). This BOM can be used to determine component selection and supplier relationships. It can also, from generation to generation of these devices, help us determine which of these relationships are flourishing and which are floundering. The data can further assist companies in determining the cost breakdown of different devices.
Teardowns and the resulting BOMs contribute significant market intelligence. The knowledge that a supplier was picked up as a supplier for a mainstream product can have an incredibly positive impact on a supplier’s stock price. Similarly, being dropped from the BOM of an iPhone or Galaxy can negatively impact share value.
We recall, for example, what happened the day the new iPhone 7 went on sale worldwide. The first teardowns of these devices happened in Tokyo and Sydney, several hours ahead of the Friday launch date in the U.S. The public release that a component by Lattice Semiconductor was present in the iPhone 7 caused shares of the Portland company to climb nearly 14%. That happened on Thursday on indications the Portland company has signed up Apple as a major client.
Carefully examining devices and their components through teardowns provides a view into the future, as well as help in connecting some dots. When the 3.5-mm audio jack disappeared from the iPhone 7, it pointed to a continued effort at waterproofing these devices, and suddenly, the motivation behind Apple’s earlier acquisition of Beats Electronics became clear. Therefore, I want to emphasize the importance of paying attention to the merger and acquisition activities of the major players in the SMT market. These moves might not make immediate sense, but in the case of Apple’s acquisition of Beats, it was a very early signal of a major shift in the way devices would be built.
And while what was missing from the iPhone 7 yielded some insight, what replaced it provided even more. Figure 2 shows an X-ray image of the now-defunct audio jack in an iPhone 6S.
Figure 2: Bottom left corner of the iPhone 6S, showing the 3.5-mm audio jack.
Figure 3 shows an X-ray image on the same corner of the iPhone 7. This X-ray image revealed the improved Taptic Engine in the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. This device is responsible for the haptic or kinesthetic communication that recreates the sense of touch by applying forces that react to the user’s touch. Such changes point to a future without mechanical buttons, as the ability to emulate the push of a button using haptic feedback greatly improves the reliability (plus water and dust proofing) of the iPhone by reducing the number of moving parts in the assembly.
Figure 3: Bottom left corner of the iPhone 7, showing the lack of a 3.5-mm audio jack.
Likewise, as we progress through the history of the iPhone, we saw the addition of wireless charging starting with the iPhone 8 (Figure 1) that led to the MagSafe charging coil in the new iPhone 12 (Figure 4), and to the dismay of some, the absence of an included charger. Such an evolution may point to the eventual elimination of the charging port altogether, further improving waterproofing. And it’s probably a safe bet that we have seen the last included charger with an iPhone, perhaps setting a trend for devices of the future.
The other feature of the iPhone 12 Pro that has our imagination going is the LIDAR-equipped camera for improved photos, especially in low light. We are imagining an explosion of apps utilizing LIDAR for augmented reality games, home décor, remodeling, and eventually, perhaps even a crowd-sourced 3D model of the entire world.
Go ahead and call us geeks (heck, we call ourselves geeks), but teardowns are fun. But more than that, they are truly revealing, as are the X-ray images that support them. From them, we gain valuable intelligence and insight that guide our decision making.
Dr. Bill Cardoso is CEO of Creative Electron.