Capacitors Muck up Motherboards
and fury as manufacturers try to dodge blame
all the elements of a good thriller: a stolen secret formula,
bungled corporate espionage, untraceable goods, and lone wolves
saving the little guy from the misdeeds of multinational corporations.
In this case, a mistake in the stolen formulation of the electrolyte
in a capacitor has wrecked hundreds of PCs and may wreck still
more in what is an industrywide problem.
electrolytic capacitors with a low equivalent series resistance
(ESR) are high-capacitance components that generally serve
to smooth out the power supply to chips. Throughout 2002,
they have been breaking open and failing in certain desktop
PCs. Motherboard and PC makers contacted by IEEE Spectrum
have stopped using the faulty parts, but because the parts
can fail over a period of several months, more such failures
far, the only motherboard maker to admit to the problem is
ABIT Computer Corp. (Taipei), and the only major PC maker
to acknowledge being affected is IBM Corp. But the problem
is likely to be more widespread. Indeed, those who have repaired
the damaged boards say that they have encountered crippled
motherboards from Micro-Star International, ASUSTek Computer,
Gigabyte Technology, and others.
Headlee, who repairs electronics in Midvale, Utah, the trouble
surfaced at the end of 2001, when users of PCs with ABIT motherboards
began to complain of leaking capacitors. Headlee's solution
was to replace all the low-ESR aluminum electrolytic capacitors
of 1000 microfarads or over. By last summer he was receiving
as many as 10 broken boards through the mail every day, and
he estimates he has fixed 1200 boards so far. At about the
same time, Carey Holzman, who builds and sells custom PCs,
noticed the identical problem in non-ABIT computers he had
sold and others he was asked to repair [see photo].
In 12 years of PC repair, "I've never seen anything like it,"
says Holzman, owner of Computer Performance Specialists (Glendale,
clear now that a faulty electrolyte is to blame for the burst
capacitors. The mystery is: where did it come from and which
manufacturers used it? Citing Japanese sources, initial reports
claimed that major Taiwanese capacitor firms, including the
island's market leaders, Lelon Electronics Corp. and Luxon
Electronics Corp., had turned out faulty products. But both
companies have denied the accusations.
of the leaking capacitors pulled from bad boards in the United
States, according to repair people, were labeled Tayeh, not
a brand affiliated with known capacitor makers. Many others
however, did bear the trademarks of Taiwanese passive components
firms such as Jackcon Capacitor Electronics Co. (Taipei).
Jackcon claims that it has been out of the motherboard market
for two years but received some complaints from U.S. consumers
in 2002. John Ko, its managing director, blames the motherboard
design and remains confident in the quality of Jackcon products.
According to Ko, the company's low-ESR capacitors passed quality
tests at the Industrial Technology Research Institute (Hsinchu,
Taiwan), a nonprofit R&D organization partly funded by
the Ministry of Economic Affairs (Taipei), which is also often
the source of Taiwanese firms' electrolyte formulas.
of the motherboard malaise seem a lesson in how not to commit
corporate espionage. A well-placed source in Taiwan, who did
not wish to be identified, largely confirmed for Spectrum
accounts published in the United States that were based on
sources in the Japanese electronics industry. According to
the source, a scientist stole the formula for an electrolyte
from his employer in Japan and began using it himself at the
Chinese branch of a Taiwanese electrolyte manufacturer. He
or his colleagues then sold the formula to an electrolyte
maker in Taiwan, which began producing it for Taiwanese and
possibly other capacitor firms. Unfortunately, the formula
as sold was incomplete.
have the right additives," says Dennis Zogbi, publisher of
Passive Component Industry magazine (Cary, N.C.), which
broke the story last fall. According to Zogbi's sources, the
capacitors made from the formula become unstable when charged,
generating hydrogen gas, bursting, and letting the electrolyte
leak onto the circuit board. Zogbi cites tests by Japanese
manufacturers that indicate the capacitor's lifetimes are
half or less of the 4000 hours of continuous ripple current
they are rated for.
makers are ordinarily very careful about capacitor quality.
"The large volumes of passive content in any electronic device
means that you have that many more chances for a product to
fail," says Zogbi, who also runs The Paumanok Group (Cary,
N.C.), a market analysis firm focused on the passive components
industry. Electronics firms generally supply their manufacturers
with a list of parts and materials they can use from suppliers
whose quality they trust. Zogbi suspects that, in an effort
to cut costs, contract manufacturers used dodgy component
sources that were not on the approved list.
Taiwanese capacitor makers have vigorously denied having made
any bad components, but the crisis has had a chilling effect
on the island's whole industry, which produces 30 percent
of the world's aluminum electrolytic capacitors.
buyers refused to maintain their relationship with Taiwanese
firms," says Francis Tsai, spokesman for Luxon Electronics
(Taipei), the second-largest aluminum electrolytic capacitor
maker in Taiwan. ABIT, which is arguably the hardest hit,
now is going to Japan for its capacitors.
capacitors blow the lid off a case of intellectual property
theft in the electronics industry
on Lien Yan (Taichung, Taiwan), the company accused of buying
the stolen formula and selling the faulty electrolyte, has
been just as devastating. The firm has vehemently denied the
accusations, but it has lost 30 percent of its orders since
the problems came to light, says C.H. Lee, a manager at Lien
Yan. The company normally produces more than 60 tons of electrolyte
monthly for customers in Taiwan, China, and Japan. Currently,
Lee says, orders are only from small local firms.
Yan and Taiwanese capacitor makers claim they are the victims
of a smear campaign by Japanese competitors who are saying
that all Taiwanese capacitor makers are tainted. The price
ratio of Japanese products to Taiwanese was about four to
one, according to Lee, and Japanese firms may be trying to
win back lost market share.
Yan's Lee says that Japanese customers who stopped buying
from his company even showed the firm internal documents written
in Japanese that state that any relationship with Lien Yan
would lead to boycotts on the part of the Japanese firm's
customers. (The notices often misspelled Lien Yan as "Lein
Yan" or "Lenyan.") "After checking all names of [capacitor]
companies accused by Japanese companies, we discovered that
almost all had never purchased our products," Lien Yan said
in a statement.
passives makers are trying to shore up relations with their
customers, some of the computer firms affected are doing the
same. ABIT says it will replace or fix defective boards its
customers send it. IBM says it alerted those customers it
believes are most likely to be affected and is handling repairs
manufacturers have been less helpful. As Gary Headlee's capacitor
replacement side business grew, he began receiving damaged
boards built by other companies besides ABIT. But when he
posted the list of other boards on his Web site, he received
letters from lawyers representing two manufacturers, prompting
him to pull the posting.
Holzman, as a builder of custom PCs, has been trying to raise
awareness about the defects since last spring. He thinks manufacturers
should be more public about the problem and issue a recall.
"Main board replacement is a big job. It's a huge amount of
downtime for the user," he says. Failures can also occur after
the warranty has expired, he points out. "The manufacturers
should do the right thing."
Chiu (Taipei) & Samuel K. Moore