A couple of years ago, the cell phones that my wife and I were using both developed a problem simultaneously. The batteries in the phones began expanding, creating a bulge in their cases, and we had to replace the phones quickly as a precaution. This malfunction occurred when there was a lot of talk about exploding cell phone batteries, which I didn’t want to experience. I was surprised to find out that some of these cell phone problems were due to counterfeit batteries.
Counterfeiting problems in electronics go far beyond batteries, extending all across the industry. Not only do these pseudo parts potentially damage the quality of the products that they are used in, but they are also a severe drain on the legitimate component industry. The best defense against a problem like this is to expose it and discover ways to prevent its spread. Here is information on counterfeit electronic components and what you can do to protect yourself.
The Problems Counterfeit Electronic Components Cause the Electronics Industry
A counterfeit electronic component is either a part that has been knowingly copied, altered, or created to misrepresent a legitimate component or a used or older part that has been misrepresented as new. Counterfeits have filtered throughout all aspects of the electronics industry and include military equipment. The problem has become so extreme that industry experts estimate up to 15% of pentagon components are counterfeits, leading to the DoD issuing the Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement regulations (DFARS 252.246.7008). DFARS covers the detection and avoidance policy for counterfeit electronic parts used for military hardware.
Counterfeiting components can include trying to pass off parts with lower specifications as higher-spec parts by altering part numbers, re-packaging them, or even mixing them in with higher quality parts. Older parts sometimes sell as new, and defective parts will be marked as functioning and resold. These counterfeit parts will not have gone through the same testing and qualification processes expected of components rated for high-demand or extreme operating environments. This lack of testing can result in catastrophic equipment failures that perform critical functions for medical, aviation, or military applications.
It’s estimated that counterfeit parts have cost manufacturers in the United States billions of dollars annually as companies try to work around the problems these parts can cause. There are some protective measures you can take by learning to identify counterfeit parts and thereby avoid them.
Some Methods for Identifying Counterfeit Electronic Components
Counterfeiters begin by acquiring the parts they need, which can be done in multiple ways. Sometimes people are paid to strip components off stolen electronics, and in other cases, legitimately discarded electronic waste is recycled. These parts will get their true origins masked through sanding, burning, or washing with acid and then re-branded with digital printing techniques labeling them as high-quality parts. Here are some ways to determine if your parts may be counterfeit:
- Visual inspection: It is important to compare your parts to a known good example. Your inspection should include looking for incorrect or misspelled information, part numbers or date codes that are wrong, packaging that is miss-labeled or incorrect for the part type, and logos and fonts that don’t match those of the original component manufacturer.
- Detailed examination: A closer inspection may reveal more complicated problems when compared to your useful component:
- The thickness and edges of the component may be altered by sanding to remove the original codes. Look for uneven edges or variations in size and appearance.
- Look for blacktopping, which is the resurfacing of a part to hide its original markings and apply new ones. The original part should have a more textured finish than the blacktopping, and the false coverings and markings of a counterfeit may be removable with solvent.
- Check that the pins of the component match your good component. Counterfeit parts may have unevenly spaced pins, or the pins may show signs of oxidation.
- A legitimate part’s molding process produces uniform indents in the package for pin markings or other purposes. A counterfeit part may have indents that are uneven or have markings or blacktopping in them.
- X-ray inspections: This inspection level can determine if the dies in your components have inconsistent sizes, if there is delamination of the part, or if any of the wire bonds are broken or missing.
- Testing: Components can also be electrically tested to verify their operational status before use.
All of these are good ways to determine if the components that you’re working with are counterfeit. Another method is to enlist some industry experts’ help on component sourcing to help you navigate your way through the procurement process.
Component Sourcing Resources that You Can Trust
The procurement process of electronic components used in the manufacturing of printed circuit boards is complex. Multiple vendors and distributors offer new components for purchase, and it takes a thorough understanding of the supply chain to get the best prices and timely deliveries. Beyond that, there are older parts required for legacy designs that may only be available from part brokers. Here is where the experience and expertise of a skilled procurement staff are critical, as they perform the following services:
- Build good working relationships with multiple part brokers to understand their capabilities and vet the components before ordering them.
- Knowledge of which providers within their networks is at a higher risk than others and would require more stringent inspection processes for their parts.
- Employ trained inspectors who understand what to look for to identify counterfeit components.
- Have an engineering department available to assess the quality of any components that may be questionable.
Guarding against counterfeit components in the procurement of electronic parts is a very exacting skill, and not a lot of corporations have the personnel available for this. These capabilities are available at your local PCB contract manufacturer. To supply their customers’ needs, the PCB CM will have the best resources to procure legitimate and trustworthy components for PCB assemblies.
At VSE, we have over 30 years of experience in component sourcing for our customer’s circuit board builds. We understand the rigid requirements of Copy Exactly restrictions and have a vast network of component manufacturers, distributors, and brokers that we regularly work with to source our parts. We understand how important this is to your designs’ success and are pleased to provide you with this unique asset.