posted on Jun, 28 2011 @ 03:16 PM
Oh, it's worse than you think.
Quite a few of the irreplaceable parts on the Really Neat Stuff the military uses every day of the week (and some they'll get AROUND to when it
trickles down from the spook labs) are fabbed in Taiwan, at UMC and TSMC.
Right across the Formosa Strait, about 180km away from mainland China.
One good bombing run and Taiwan is off the air, which will put the hurt to whole categories of parts we depend on, militarily.
There are still a few companies that fab here in the US, Intel and TI come to mind, but a huge percentage of discrete semiconductors, low level logic
and the cooler parts like big honkin' FPGAs are all, all made in Taiwan. No FPGAs, no Tomahawks. No F22s. No satellite replacements. Hell, the
military uses FPGAs like popcorn. They love the damned things. It's hard to sell a fixed function board anymore to the military or various TLA's -
if you don't plaster at least a $10,000 FPGA on it they think something's wrong. And with the exception of design test runs on small wafers, there
is NO fab capacity outside of Taiwan for these things. No one can make them if Taiwan bites it. And China hates Taiwan. Don't think they aren't
aware of this.
Even worse, with the exception of maybe one big military board supplier that runs a brokerage under the table, the guys that build these boards often
depend on parts stocked in (drumroll) Hong Kong! We stock some here at distributors, but not a lot when they're $15K a whack. The board vendors
don't want it on their inventory. The distys don't want it on THEIR inventory. The Harvard business wonks push JIT so the inventory doesn't show on
the books, so where do the parts get buffered up? Yep. When TSMC has a glitch in the delivery date, they come from brokers in HK.Hell, WE do it,
although only for prototypes and lab rat boards.
While the scary part of the article is supposed to be in the putative "spy chips", the real issue is more likely going to be the way that boards are
speced and tested these days. The military has a mandate to buy "COTS", or commercial off the shelf boards. It used to be they required full MILspec
on a lot of things, and you had to source US part manufacturers or show why, and you had to track every part on every board from birth to death. I
could tell you what lot a part was made in, what date it was fabbed, and where the fab was done for every transistor or IC on every board. And if the
lowest temp spec part on a board was 60C, that board was speced at less than 60C, whether it would sell better if I speced it at 80C or not, because
that's the way you did it. If the parts dictated that a board was a certain temp range, that's what it was, plus some buffer.
But not anymore. Now the big guys will design boards where the part spec envelopes may be 0 - 60C. And they'll test a representative sample out of
the run, maybe three boards, and if they pass -40 - 80C tests one time, bingo! That entire batch of boards is now good for -40 to 80C! Even if the
individual part vendors don't concur. Here's where the fun starts. If the Chinese have slipped in some ringers that don't have any margin past 0
-60C, or if they don't even work that well at 60C, then your statistical lot-tested temp rating system falls apart. And since they don't track
parts, vendors, or lots anymore...well, who KNOWS where those boards went?
We don't do lot rating. And we don't do magic temp specs. If the parts dictate the board is rated 0-60C, that's what it is. We'll test them for
operation to a wider spec for you, but we let you know up front that's what's going on, and we test each and every board for something like 96 hours
in an environment chamber that's banging back and forth between the lower and upper end. And we don't use broker parts.
You can't say that for many places. And that's why this is an issue. The "spy chip" thing is another issue entirely - the ripoff part market is a
more pervasive problem.