Semiconductor parts: Distinguishing real from fake requires a trained eye
Detecting counterfeit electronic components is not easy — if it was, our industry would not be suffering the $160 billion in annual risk identified by IHS Research. The industry is being forced to take action, with recent federal legislation setting an example for the entire supply chain by tasking military suppliers with ‘detecting and avoiding the use or inclusion of counterfeit electronic parts or suspect counterfeit parts. The ultimate responsibility, however, still rests with buyers whose organizations will suffer if fake parts enter their supply chains.
The majority of counterfeits are used across a broad range of commercial and industrial applications and no supply chain is insulated from their impact. So how does one distinguish real components from fake? Most counterfeit parts are not easily identifiable from authentic components, but design engineers and purchasing professionals are educating themselves to become familiar with the five most commonly-used methods for counterfeiting electronics components:
· Empty shells — these are chips which have the same external form factor and top marks as authentic parts, but are empty inside. Since they are the most easily detectable, empty shells have not proven to be as much of a danger as more sophisticated counterfeit methods. If one was to make its way into the manufacturing process, even after testing was conducted, the result, while expensive and time-consuming, would not be a catastrophic failure. For this reason, counterfeiters have increasingly turned to less easily detectable methods.
· Pulls — pulls may be legitimate parts that have been recycled and repackaged as new, authentic parts, often becoming damaged in the process. Discarded electronics equipment, such as laptop computers, are collected and shipped to counterfeit centers, often in third world countries where the process is not regulated and labor is inexpensive. Here, the products are disassembled in order to obtain the components. Printed circuit boards are heated so that the chips can be more easily ‘pulled’ off. Some have lot numbers altered to make identification impossible. There are many examples of roadside operations, where components are de-soldered in uncontrolled environments, then repackaged and sold as authentic components. The heating and handling processes often damage the components, which, if not detected, can cause massive problems when utilized in commercial production.
· Blacktopping — a process in which a thin black epoxy coating is applied to the top of a component so that a new part number and date code can be printed on it. Because the blacktopped part has the same dimensions as the one it is intended to copy, it usually passes visual inspection. However, because it is not authentic, and is not designed to withstand rigorous temperature, pressure, and other conditions, the counterfeit part often fails. Blacktopping can sometimes be detected through x-ray inspection, but it is prohibitively time-consuming and costly to inspect every part, so some make their way into production. Counterfeit parts can also be detected by examining their indents – cavities that are purposefully created during the mold process. Originally clean-edged, indents are difficult to protect during the counterfeiting process, and often become unaligned or ragged. Indents are also affected by the sanding of original markings and by blacktopping, which fills the shallow cavities. Counterfeiters are becoming more aware of the need to maintain indents, and some have resorted to re-creating them to pass visual inspection.
· Uninspected/untested parts — these are legitimate components, not counterfeits, but are equally dangerous. They are manufactured on the same assembly line as authentic parts. In this case, however, insiders at the packaging facility will run the assembly line after hours, producing parts that fall outside the official supply chain and that the insider then sells directly for his own profit. Because these non-conforming parts do not subsequently go through the manufacturer’s inspection and testing process, defective parts are not caught. These non-conforming parts are nearly impossible to detect from authentic parts, since production and markings are the same.
· Sample/scrap parts — these are also legitimate components which have been discarded because they are obsolete products, test failures, or excess inventory. ‘Dumpster divers’ make a business of retrieving these components and reselling them. They are also difficult to distinguish.
If the counterfeit part is not detected, and makes its way into the supply chain, the results can vary from failing during testing to potentially more devastating consequences. Some items won’t work at all, while others’ performances may degrade over time. The worst outcome is an abrupt and catastrophic failure of a counterfeit part, so it is essential for buyers to identify and report any counterfeits. As buyers become more aware of fakes, counterfeiters are resorting to more complicated processes to fool inspectors. Fortunately, increased education on the part of buyers combined with sourcing only authentic parts from franchised and authorized distributors are beginning to even the playing field.