Chip Detectives

The chip industry is finding new uses for reverse engineering--to defend patents, spur innovation, and trace product failures

11 min read

Call up the dictionary.com Web site, type in "reverse engineering," and you will get a four-sentence response that begins and ends as follows: "The process of analysing an existing system to identify its components and their interrelationships and create representations of the system in another form or at a higher level of abstraction.... An integrated circuit might...be reverse engineered by an unscrupulous company wishing to make unlicensed copies of a popular chip."

Chip cloning, piracy, industrial espionage. At one time, reverse engineering had a less than savory reputation within the semiconductor industry, and with good reason. During the 1960s and '70s, companies in Asia built up their market share in part by copying--legally and illegally--their competitors' products. The Soviets and Chinese, starved for Western electronics, also became proficient chip cloners. The loss of business for U.S. companies meant that "a lot of American engineers lost their jobs," noted Arthur Nutter, president of Taeus, an engineering consulting firm based in Colorado Springs, Colo.

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iStock

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Liesa Johannssen-Koppitz/Bloomberg/Getty Images

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