Get an inside look at Chinese electronic component markets, manufacturing, fake parts, and the hacker mentality.
"The Hardware Hacker: Adventures in Making & Breaking Hardware" by Andrew "bunnie" Huang. No Starch Press, San Francisco, Calif. www.nostarch.com. Price: $29.95 (includes e-book if purchased from the publisher).
We hear about hacks all the time. While we mostly hear about hacks such as cyberattacks, don't believe for a second that hardware hacks don't happen. In "The Hardware Hacker," Andrew "bunnie" Huang takes you through the steps required to develop and manufacture electronics in China; then he shows you in detail how he hacked hardware to uncover previous hacks and how he circumvented legal loopholes to create legal hacks.
The book opens with bunnie taking you on a tour of the electronics markets in Shenzhen, China. Having never been there, I can only surmise that these markets must make an engineer's mouth water. You'll get the impression that you can find any component there. But bunnie warns that the parts you get are often not what they appear. He tells stories of how SD memory cards are hacked to make them appear additional capacity. Indeed, such hacking takes place right in the seller's space. Later in the book, bunnie explains how he hacked some hacked memory cards to see how they were altered.
Bunnie's Shenzhen tour wasn't just for fun. He went there to buy parts for his new product, but he had to make sure that the parts were exactly what he expected — which, as he shows later, is often not the case. He then takes you through the process of bringing a product to manufacturing, including the many problems that can arise. For example, there's more to a BOM than electronic parts, something that EEs may not consider. You need cases, screws, connectors, spacers, complete part numbers, and so on. Then there are things such as injection molding and the problems that can make a mold unappealing to the eye. Having been down that path with both local and overseas mold makers, I can appreciate what bunnie went through.
Bunnie clearly stresses the importance of knowing your manufacturers' capabilities, which means spending time with the people who will build and test your product. He also warns you of the risks of buying excess parts, which you'll pay for but can be resold by the contract manufacturer, distributor, or some unscrupulous employee on the gray market.
Then there are counterfeit parts, of which there are many variations. For example, some parts packages are simply stripped of markings and reprinted to designate a more expensive part and sold on the open market. In other cases, parts are removed from scrap boards, cleaned, and resold. Going further, some people will take scrap parts and resell them as new. Bunnie notes that analog and power ICs are particularly vulnerable to this practice.
Chapter 5: fake goods, gives you a firsthand look at fake Kingston microSD cards on the Shenzhen market. Here, bunnie describes the differences in how vendors sell fake devices. Some simply slap fake parts into Kingston packaging. Others are more advanced, requiring some forensics to identify fakes by reading serial codes and ID numbers. Some of these parts were purchased from sanctioned Kingston sources in China, but were still fake.
The book also takes a long look at the hacking mentality in China. The Chinese approach to intellectual property (IP) is, as bunnie explains, difficult for Westerners to understand. We, in the West, tend to put more emphasis on protecting IP, but bunnie argues that China's open approach has advantages that encourage innovation in ways that we simply can't see because of our protectionist way of thinking. He shows how, because of this more open system, engineers can design feature phones that cost a mere $10 for emerging markets, something that simply couldn't happen in the West.
Bunnie is an advocate for open-source hardware and software. Indeed, he provided schematics and source code for his products because he wanted others to experiment and improve on his designs. Furthermore, bunnie sees a slowing of Moore's law. With that, he says, will come longer life cycles for electronics. That will encourage a stronger hacker/repair culture as products might not be so "throw-away." Such a culture will produce a rising demand for schematics and documentation. Remember, there was a time when computer and other consumer electronics — and especially test equipment — came with schematics, and bunnie argues that could return. "I'm looking forward to the return of artisan engineering, where elegance, optimization, and balance are valued over feature creep, and where I can use the same tool for a decade and not be viewed as an anachronism."
You may be thinking, If so much of today's device functionality is in software or firmware, how much can having open hardware matter? Bunnie argues that if Moore's Law slows, FPGAs will eclipse microprocessors, giving small innovators a chance to modify and improve performance in a way that they can't do as easily today. Why? Because processors improving at a rapid pace favors large companies over small innovators who can't keep up with that change. Assuming that Moore's Law slows, innovators will be able to create new, more powerful products from technologies already in place without fear of being eclipsed by products with next-generation technology.
—Martin Rowe covers test and measurement for EE Times and EDN. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org