When people talk about electronic components, price might be mostly discussed and addressed. As the core of the electronic products, the cost of the components decide the margins and markets of the finished electronic products. While for those professional and responsible companies, they always put quality ahead of price. We may lose our customers temporarily because of prices, but we will definitely lose their trust permanently due to quality issues.
In semiconductor and EMS (Electronics Manufacturing Services) industry, “counterfeit electronic components” can be the top chief criminal of quality issues. A counterfeit component usually has inferior specifications and quality, which will either shorten the service life of a product or even kill a whole project or handling people.
In this article, we are going to talk about what are counterfeit components, why counterfeit components exist, what are the main types of counterfeit components, how to identify counterfeit components and how to reduce or eliminate the risks of buying counterfeit components.
What are counterfeit electronic components?
Counterfeit electronic components are electronic parts 1) that have bee knowingly copied, altered, or created to misrepresent as legitimate components or 2) used or older parts that have been misrepresented as new, or 3) the original identification of grade, serial number, lot number, date code, or performance characteristics that have been changed intentionally, or 4) items that have been produced or distributed in violation of intellectual property rights, copyrights, or trademark laws.
Counterfeit components can bring small glitches to common consumer electronics, such as a shorter service life of a switch; they can also cause serious hazards if integrated into critical systems such as aircraft or automotive navigation, emergency assistance and military equipment etc.
Why counterfeit electronic components exist?
From the perspective of philosophy, counterfeiters and their “masterpieces” exist due to “the evil of human nature”.
But people often look at it from economics – the imbalance between supply and demands.
With the rapid development of science and technology, the demands on electronics have been tremendously growing in the past decades. Especially during the Covid-19 period, almost all the companies in semiconductor and EMS encountered the “global shortages” on electronic components (mainly on MCUs).
Demands exceed supply, which create more opportunities and spaces for counterfeiters to make money through dealing fake parts.
What are the main categories of counterfeit electronic components?
There are countless counterfeit electronic components flooding over the global markets, but they can be classified into these main categories:
1. Defective Parts Scrapped from Original Part Manufacturer
A. Scrapped due to cosmetic issues: these parts may have some flaws on their appearances which were rejected by QC standards, such as visible scratches, holes, humps and dents etc. These parts may not have real malfunctions but only imperfect surfaces.
B. Scrapped due to functional issues: these parts may look perfectly from outside, but they failed the functional testing partially or completely.
C. The combination of A and B.
2. Unauthorized Overproduction
Some contract manufactures of the original part manufactures may play some tricks during the production plan and QC procedures, they will over produce some quantities and sell them for private profits. These parts may have lower risks of quality issues, but they are unlawful.
3. Reclaimed or Refurbished Components
China is one of the main importing countries for Electronic Wastes (E-Waste). A tremendous amount of “end-of-life electronics” produces every day around the world. Reclaiming and refurbishing electronics or electronic components have been a mature industrial chain.
The used parts can be resold as new after processed by some counterfeiting techniques such as sanding and re-marking, blacktopping and re-marking, component leads re-attachment and re-packaging etc.
4. Pass off Lower-grade Components as Higher-grade Components
A. Parts are original new without no cosmetic nor functional issues, but counterfeiters often alter the markings to pass them off as higher-grade components. For example, disguising common commercial grade parts as industrial grade, industrial grade as military grade, low rate as high rate, low frequency as high frequency and low capacity as high capacity and so on.
Different grades have different specifications and performance capabilities. The lower-grade components applied to higher-grade devices usually cause high risks of incompatible issues or even serious safety hazards.
B. Parts are original but defective (cosmetic or/and functional) and in wrong grades.
C. Parts are fake completely.
5. Pass of Exclusive/Customized Components as Compatible Components
Some components have the same original MPNs, but they have been programmed with exclusive or customized codes, which can be compatible with specific applications only. Counterfeiters may sell these customized parts as common parts in lower prices or higher prices when the common parts have serious shortages from other sources.
6. Mix Different Part Numbers and Disguise Them as Same Parts
Counterfeiters may mix two or more different part numbers into one lot/reel to pass off them as the expected part. From the external packaging, labeling and internal reel, buys can hardly tell the problems until the parts assembled on circuit boards and some failed the testing.
Those wrong part numbers are mixed inside of the reel which can’t be detected unless buyers check the whole reel piece by piece.
7. Complete Fake Components
Components that are produced in violation of intellectual property rights, copyrights or trademark laws. The materials, performance and characteristics are usually knowingly misrepresented.
Many buyers secure these parts at market price or even higher price but finally find those are fake ones.
How to identify counterfeit electronic components?
The quality of electronic components can significantly impact the performance, service life and market potentials of your end products. As the most critical and valuable part of your projects, we can’t stress the importance of electronic components more.
Since electronic components are vital, it’s necessary for us to master the main methods about identifying the counterfeit electronic components.
1. Visual Inspection
1) External visual inspection on packaging, labels, markings, silkscreens, legends, fonts, date codes and logos etc.
2) Microscope visual inspection on signs of resurfacing, leads re-attachment or polishing or oxidation and uneven edges or thickness etc.
2. X-Ray Inspection
Comparing the suspected component with a known good original homogeneous component by X-Ray, we can tell the internal structure will have vast differences including but not limited to the die frames and wire bonding between the fake and genuine items.
3. X-RF Inspection
X-Ray fluorescence spectroscopy can be used to confirm RoHS status which is often overlooked by counterfeiters.
4. Functional Electrical Testing
Conducting electrical testing on components to verify its values and operational status.
5. Testing by A Professional Third-party Inspection Company
Sending the components to a professional third-party inspection company for further analysis and inspection. Except the usual methods, they will also adopt deeper inspections by:
By removing the external packaging on a semiconductor and exposing the semiconductor wafer or die microscopic inspection of markings, and laser die etching can be used to determine authenticity.
Technique utilizing heated acid to expose wafer or die packaged in plastics or resins.
Technique utilizing cutting, cracking, or chipping the ceramic or metal to expose wafer or die for inspection.
2) SAM (Scanning Acoustic Microscopy)
A scanning acoustic microscope can be used to discover evidence of resurfacing and blacktopping by revealing laser etching below blacktop material.
3) Parametric Testing a.k.a. Curve Tracing
An less inexpensive and expedient method to determine of a sample of product has identical electrical characteristics.
4) Leak Testing
It can do gross leak and fine leak of hermetically sealed components.
Testing by third-party inspection company usually takes longer time and involves with higher expenses, buyers mainly use it for high value components or critical projects.
For common cases, normal tips will be enough to identify the counterfeit parts.
How to mitigate the risks of buying counterfeit electronic components?
Firstly, we should ask ourselves “what fake parts mean to us ?”.
Threaten Personnel Safety
Affect Mission Success
We can’t underestimate the negative impact from counterfeit parts.
In previous paragraphs we talked about how to identify counterfeit components, actually how to avoid buying fake parts is the more important precondition.
Generally speaking, if we purchased components from OCM (Original Component Manufacturer) or OCM authorized distributors (e.g. Digi-Key, Mouser, Arrow, Farnell and Avnet etc.), it would have very tiny chance of getting counterfeit components. Even if any exceptions happened, we can claim for exchange or refund online or contact with their customer service directly.
While in our real work circumstances, we may have to or try to purchase from other sources (i.e. unknowing, unsophisticated, and unaware Independent Distributors, we can also call them as “Component Brokers”), when
– Looking for better prices;
– Looking for shorter lead time;
– Sourcing obsolete components;
– Parts out of stock from OCM or OCM authorized sources.
So in order to get rid of counterfeit components and ensure the quality of the end products, we should take necessary time and efforts to learn about how to identify a reliable components source.
As per our industry experience, the tips below might be helpful for your purchase and acceptance of components:
1. Confirm Traceability of Electronic Components
If the parts got from genuine sources, it shall be easy to share the original label and packaging of the components; otherwise being cautious to take the parts.
2. Check Customer Support and Returns Policy
Make sure you can communicate with the supplier by emails or phone calls smoothly; confirm warranty policy before transaction; a supplier who promises money back or exchange for substandard components tend to be more reliable.
3. Purchase and Test Samples
Purchase and test samples before formal order which will be helpful to identify the source but still can’t completely guarantee the quality for next purchase.
4. Check Certifications
Check if the supplier could provide some certifications such as ISO 9001, RoHS and REACH etc. These certifications are important assurance that the components are of high quality and comply with environmental regulations; without these documentations doesn’t mean the parts involved are counterfeit, but with them can increase the credibility.
5. Check Industry Experience and Reputation
Try to check the industry experience and reputation of the supplier through different methods. You can either have video call or visit the company or have a third-party company to do supplier audit.
6. Apply Strict IQC
No matter where the electronic components purchased from, it’s necessary to apply strict IQC for each component received: conducting standard visual inspection (labels, markings, dimensions and materials etc.), further inspection by equipment (Microscope, X-Ray and electrical testing etc.), and use anti-counterfeit software.
7. Working with A Trustworthy Manufacturing Partner
The supply chain of electronic components is very complicated and the procurement of electronic components also requires professional skills and experience. If you didn’t have suitable personnel for procurement nor reliable IQC procedures or testing equipment, please consider to count on your PCBA manufacture.
These tips will help to mitigate the risks of buying counterfeit components. You can apply part of them or all of them during your daily purchasing activities.
Further more, if the procurement handled by the business owner or key member of the organization who has good experience and knowledge on identifying counterfeit parts, the tips might be “common sense” to them. But if the daily procurement work processed by purchasing employees, the company should establish standard components sourcing and IQC procedures for buyers to follow.
It shows the purchasing process and risk control chart from our team for your reference below.