Design Article

Dodging counterfeit electronic components is far more difficult than in the past

Tom Sharpe, SMT Corp.

6/10/2011 11:33 AM EDT

A counterfeit electronic component operating in an electronics system may make itself known when the system experiences an unexpected failure. The failure may be relatively innocuous—a monitoring device that suddenly begins to display meaningless numbers—or it may be directly life-threatening, such as a functional failure in a defibrillator. Even after the failure has occurred, the failed component may not be recognized as counterfeit unless it’s inspected for that purpose.

Due to the nature and complexity of the global electronics component supply system, it’s fairly easy for counterfeit components to be unknowingly purchased by practically any system assembler. The ways in which counterfeits are produced, and the rapidly increasing skill of the counterfeiters in disguising their bogus components. make the problem even more severe.

Many counterfeit components find their way into the inventories of independent distributors who fill the critical role of supplying manufacturers with new components that are either obsolete, allocated, or on long lead-times from the factory. To protect their customers from the increasing counterfeit threat, some distributors have begun thorough incoming inspection processes to detect counterfeits and remove them from the supply chain. As the quantity of counterfeits has grown, and as counterfeiters have become more sophisticated, this effort has grown into a sizable laboratory in some cases.

The vast majority of counterfeit electronic components are plastic-encapsulated microcircuits (PEMs) that began life on a previously used circuit board that was ultimately scrapped, and probably within a western country. When the electronic equipment is discarded, their boards are harvested and shipped in vast quantities to China. Trucks haul the export containers from the docks of Hong Kong harbor to the town of Shantou where most of the component harvesting and counterfeit processing is performed within mainland China.

All of the ones that look the same go into the same pile. Aside from the fact that some of the components are unquestionably dead electronically at this point, a single pile may contain components having different revision codes, or even different functions. But every component in a pile will get the same new matching part-marking.The purpose of all of this work is to make each component as cosmetically similar as possible to the new component that it’s impersonating.

The point at which these counterfeits have value is at the moment when they are sold to a buyer as factory-new components. At that time, the counterfeiter’s work is, so to speak, finished. If he is selling, for example, what purports to be a reel of PQFPs made by vendor ABC, he will also counterfeit, or have someone else counterfeit, the reel and its labels. What the buyer examines will appear to be a new reel that holds new vendor ABC PQFPs.

 If the counterfeiter is worried that his cosmetic work may not be quite up to standards, he may go out and purchase a few genuine vendor ABC PQFPs, and put them at the beginning, middle and ends of the reel. The sharp-eyed buyer who examines the first or last 30 or 40 components on the reel will be satisfied. The remaining 99% of the reel, however, holds counterfeits.

To read more about this insidious and growing problem by reading the entire article, click here.

About the author

Tom Sharpe is the vice-president of SMT Corp., located in Sandy Hook, Ct., a company he co-founded in 1995. He’s also the current vice-president of IDEA (Independent Distributors of Electronics Association), where he has served continuously on the Board of Directors since 2003.


6/14/2011 3:04 PM EDT

Counterfeit parts aren't just confined to Mainland China. The can be found from Malaysia,Taiwan and
the Philippines. The sellers of these products have found ingenious ways of counterfeiting.

1) Buying blanks ICs and marking them.
2) Acid etch inferior parts and remarking them.
3) Theft of rejected parts off the assembly line.
4) Counterfeits can be found not only in commercial parts but also military approved parts.

In order to fight the wave of counterfeiting, we setup our own decapping process whereby the exposure of the die could be read. If you bought a National Semi part and found a Texas Instruments die, you knew you had a counterfeit.

Manufacturers in their data sheets need to publish pictures of their products. In the case where manufacturers use more than one manufacturing site (with slightly different markings) this should also be published. Over time when foreign concerns purchase/own laser marking equipment finding counterfeits will become even more difficult.

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6/16/2011 12:01 PM EDT

At a previous company that I worked for, I implemented what I called a "IC fingerprint" as part of the qualification process for IC's.

When a part was qualified for use in our systems, the physical "fingerprint" was performed. It documented the physical construction of the IC package and materials such as die attach. And detailed photo's of the die and mask revision. The fingerprint was filed with the rest of the qualification package.

I remember one time it came in very handy. A fixed voltage regulator we were using and had been using for years started latching up at startup (Vin = Vout). We took some of the problem parts and decapped them and compared the die to the fingerprint photo's in the qualification package and discovered that the IC manufacturer had done a die shrink with out notifying us in spite of agreements to the contrary. But with the "fingerprint" we were able to quickly identiy the root of the problem.

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