In early January 2013, the CBC News concluded its investigation about Canada’s new Hercules C-130J aircraft military transport aircraft containing counterfeit Chinese parts in the cockpit instrumentation. (http://bit.ly/13iknKi)
The report confirms what a leading U.S. testing lab has known since 2010 — that the parts are fake and could leave pilots with blank instrument panels in mid-flight. The Hercules counterfeit device issue was first made public in November 2011 during a congressional committee hearing, and the subsequent investigation reported the fake microchips used in the Hercules were originally manufactured by Samsung in the 1990s, and more than a decade later, had been recycled, refurbished and remarked to appear genuine by a company in China. In mid-2012, a U.S. Senate committee released its official report stating more than a million counterfeit parts were found in U.S. military equipment, including those in the Hercules aircraft. (http://1.usa.gov/KkeOD3)
The electronics industry has an epidemic on its hands. And the problem is not only that counterfeit devices make their way into vital military electronic systems like the Hercules aircraft, but the inadequate response and actions taken by the parties involved to date. The Canadian government denied the allegations that fake parts were used in the manufacturing of the Hercules plane for months, if not longer. Even more disturbing, the Canadian military continues to operate the new Hercules planes with the counterfeit devices, and says it still has no immediate plans to ground the planes or replace the fake parts. This interesting decision comes after an investigation by the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, which concluded that counterfeit parts in the Hercules transports and other military equipment are prone to failure with potentially “catastrophic consequences.”
The Hercules transport plane is just one recent example of counterfeit and substandard devices making their way into critical military equipment. What are the appropriate government entities/agencies such as the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee (and other U.S. Congressional Committees) and the Department of Defense doing to eliminate these counterfeit events? Likewise, what is the industry doing to eradicate this potentially life-threatening problem?
The first step to solving a problem is recognizing there is one. One of the most insidious aspects of counterfeit and substandard semiconductor devices is that they are not easy to identify, especially as semiconductors become smaller and more complex. Some of the nation’s top experts in computer hardware security recently gathered in Storrs, Connecticut to discuss new ways to address the growing counterfeit electronics industry. (http://bit.ly/XuGFUA)
The symposium, held on January 28 and 29 and sponsored by The University of Connecticut’s new Center for Hardware Assurance, Security, and Engineering (CHASE) and the U.S. Army Research Office (ARO), confirms government and industry are willing to work together and take steps to eliminate counterfeit activity.
There, as described in a University statement, "Intel, Texas Instruments, Analog Devices, Honeywell, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), and Connecticut-based SMT Corp., as well as other entities, discussed new tools for improving detection in the increasingly advanced – and profitable – world of counterfeit electronics. They also discussed ways to stay one step ahead of the counterfeiters through the development of low-cost technologies that would stamp unique ‘signatures’ on hardware components to ensure that only reliable, high-quality parts are available to manufacturers.”
In addition, Brian Toohey, SIA President & CEO, recently published an outline of its 2013 industry roadmap to strengthen the semiconductor industry, boost innovation and fuel growth. (http://bit.ly/12LAFww)
In his announcement, Mr. Toohey explains that, “[the] SIA is focused on advancing the U.S. semiconductor industry’s key policy objectives for 2013. Our industry is critical to America’s economic strength, national security and global competitiveness. SIA’s 2013 Policy Roadmap will help keep America at the forefront of innovation and ensure the long-term success of the U.S. semiconductor industry.”
Of the six talking points outlined in the 2013 roadmap, the fifth bullet speaks to the threat of counterfeit and substandard devices and the importance of improved security measures and procurement procedures to protect our supply chains. The SIA 2013 Policy Roadmap reads:
“Improve the security and authentication of semiconductor products through partnerships with industry and government. With the proliferation of counterfeit semiconductors a growing economic and national security concern, SIA will work to advance legislation that stops counterfeit semiconductors from entering the U.S., promote stricter government procurement guidelines, enhance international efforts to stop counterfeiting at its source, and explore various research opportunities and technology solutions in order to drive the debate on the future of technology security.”
But what do these meetings, symposiums, congressional hearings and roadmaps really do for the industry regarding counterfeit activity?
The unfortunate truth is that counterfeit components will likely always be a threat to original equipment manufacturers. This is primarily because the methods to determine the authenticity of components are costly, time consuming and not foolproof.
Internally, companies need to consider establishing inspection protocols that apply to all incoming components as a first line of defense when bringing devices into the supply chain. Companies need to refine or overhaul procurement policies that only seek critical life and safety-sensitive components through AVL lists of certified-in-advance authorized sources. This would be components of a category 1 status. When and if a component is absolutely unavailable through an authorized source, which is the only secure and 100 percent safe assurance against counterfeit, mitigation methods like testing and screening would be viable. These would be deemed a category 2 status. In this instance, the authorized supply chain distributors would also be able to help advise to the best route to take.
Semiconductors purchased through unauthorized sources are more likely to be counterfeit or substandard devices. Without traceability, a device must be subjected to the fullest extent of legitimate, supplier-approved testing to ensure quality and performance characteristics, especially for mission-critical applications like mil/aero.
Some unauthorized sources claim testing and screening as protection from counterfeit products; however, more often than not, they do not have the proper equipment or original test programs to guarantee device performance. Testing cannot guarantee a part’s origin, and “spot testing” cannot guarantee an entire lot. Semiconductor testing is rarely performed to the full extent within the gray market, thus the possibility for receiving counterfeit and substandard devices through unauthorized sources remains.
The three main types of testing protocols that should be applied include visual inspection, electrical testing and destructive physical analysis (DPA), all of which focus on authenticity, quality and consistency. An additional method includes reliability testing, but this requires extensive expertise, specialized equipment and a significant amount of time. Even with the different testing methods in place, there is not a 100 percent guarantee that OEMs will eliminate substandard devices from their inventory, as seen in the case of the Hercules C-130J aircraft military transport aircraft. The various techniques used by counterfeiters are making it harder and harder to verify authentic devices and detect counterfeit ones.
The counterfeiting of semiconductor components is escalating at an unprecedented rate. Counterfeit components are produced in many areas of the world, using increasingly sophisticated methods, and they are being distributed globally. The only sure way to avoid purchasing counterfeit and substandard semiconductors is to purchase from the original manufacturer, or one of their authorized distributors, such as Rochester Electronics. It is vital for the government and semiconductor industry to continue to work together and combat the increasing number of recycled and emulated computer chips making their way into the international electronic component supply chain, so that counterfeit situations like the Hercules transport plane never happen in the first place.