Trust is an integral part of our lives—more so than many realize. While we expect a certain level of trust with those we interact with, we also place a lot of confidence in objects and processes. For example, while driving your car, you typically trust that the traffic lights at the next intersection will work correctly to keep you safe and the traffic flowing smoothly. If we were all to drive without relying on lights, traffic would become hopelessly congested and dangerous.
Today, in the electronics industry, we face a severe loss of trust with the components used on printed circuit boards. Over the past several years, our confidence in the quality of the parts used has been violated by counterfeit parts’ proliferation on the market. The flood of counterfeits has required extra diligence in sourcing electronic components to ensure that what is purchased is the real McCoy and will work as expected when installed on a PCB. Here are some tips on how to ensure the components you are working with are genuine.
What You Need to Look for When Sourcing Electronic Components
When working with electronic components, especially if they come from a new supplier, it is crucial to examine the parts carefully. Many of the counterfeit parts now flooding the market can be detected with a simple visual examination. Here are some of the more obvious indicators that you should be looking for:
- Incorrect labeling: The labeling on counterfeit parts can contain spelling mistakes and inaccurate information. In some cases, the information on the label doesn’t even match the parts inside the package.
- Part and date codes: Counterfeiters often do not take the time to match their part codes with the original component manufacturer specifications or check the date codes. By comparing withtrusted parts, the incorrect codes are easy to spot.
- Logos and fonts: Other details to compare to a trusted part are the components’ markings. These parts are often altered in their appearance to match the OCM parts, but the logos and fonts are inferior reproductions.
- Incomplete packaging: Counterfeit parts may be packaged without all the expected and necessary items in the package. For instance, moisture-sensitive parts may sometimes be missing a dry pack.
Counterfeiters use various methods to produce their products, including pulling assembled parts off of old or stolen circuit boards, which then have to be cleaned up and processed. They may also use rejected parts or old stock that is unsellable due to being out-of-date. To guard against these deceptions, inspect the component for signs of use or age. These can show oxidation on the pins or scratches and other signs of wear and tear.
Counterfeiters also go to great lengths to alter parts to sell them as higher grade imitations. These alterations can include acid washes, surface sanding, or being treated with heat to conceal their original form. To complete the process, the altered part is then resurfaced in a process known as blacktopping. Some details to look for here are the normal indentations of the part used during its original manufacturing, which could be partially filled with blacktopping. The part’s indentations or regular contours may also appear to be shallow or thinner, indicating that the component was ground down.
It is essential to inspect the parts you are using for counterfeits to avoid the challenges that these parts can cause on your circuit board. We’ll discuss these issues in the next section.
What to Expect With Counterfeit Parts
As we have seen, counterfeit parts are often altered in their appearance to pass them off as higher-grade components. These tricks allow the counterfeiters to sell these lower-spec parts at higher prices where they may be used in incompatible applications. When these applications involve mission-critical medical devices or equipment that operates in extreme environmental conditions, the counterfeit parts are prone to failure. The issue has become so severe that the Department of Defense has enacted regulations to detect and avoid the use of counterfeit parts in military hardware.
Counterfeiters also try to pass off defective parts as functional components, or they may repackage used parts as new. In some cases, counterfeiters pose as legitimate component manufacturers to fabricate and sell unqualified parts themselves. No matter which counterfeiting method is being used, however, the result is the same. The end-user is left with a component that may not work correctly or fail prematurely. Not only does this cost the electronic manufacturer time and money in detection and repairs, but there is also the potential safety risk for those using and relying on the faulty equipment. With all that is at stake, you can see why it is essential to work with a manufacturing partner who understands component counterfeiting and knows how to ensure the procurement of quality parts.
Finding a Trustworthy Manufacturing Partner
To successfully manufacture a printed circuit board, you must use authentic parts and components during its assembly. The difficulty is knowing how to navigate through the component supply chain to avoid counterfeits. Here is where working together with component procurement specialists who understand how to verify part suppliers’ authenticity can save you time and money.
The electronic component supply chain comprises many different component manufacturers, distributors, and part brokers, which is a lot for a typical design engineer to have to manage. But for a PCB contract manufacturer, it is part of the normal process of building circuit boards. PCB CMs have a team of procurement specialists who are experienced with this supply chain network, and they know how to make sure that the suppliers with whom they work are authentic.
At VSE, our procurement team has been working within the component supply chain for over 30 years, and we know what to look for. We have a vast network of suppliers we regularly deal with, and we only buy from reputable brokers when necessary. All parts get inspected as part of our quality acceptance plan, ensuring each board is built according to specifications.