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The Growing Problem of Counterfeit Electronic Components

July 14, 2019 by Biljana Ognenova

The electronics components industry is flourishing—with new suppliers showing up daily, many from abroad, and it becomes a greater challenge for companies to detect fake pieces and distinguish between the real deal and a bland, low-quality copy...

Indeed, products with counterfeit electronic components are a cause of concern for manufacturers and distributors that promise reliability to consumers. Most of the electronics on the market come with some sort of a guarantee, Moreover, a manufacturer risks unknowingly making false claims to buyers that the components incorporated into their product are solid, verified, and deliver on their specification promises. 

Product traceability isn’t quite as effective if you work with standard integrated circuits from a well-known company and contact a bargain supplier to snatch a better—though perhaps a meager-quality deal. Some fakes are easy to spot, and some are not, after all. 

Microprocessors, semiconductors, and connectors are difficult to evaluate for authenticity on their own—even more so when they are combined with hundreds of other original or copied components. Such tiny parts are easy to place into larger devices, as noted from the graph below that provides insights into the typical consumer counterfeits sold worldwide.


Most common counterfeit devices sold worldwide. Image courtesy of Statista. 


Of course, most engineers would avoid dealing with unknown component resources if they could. If you work in electronics, your company most likely has measures in place to inspect the components built in your products for counterfeit prevention. 

For example, buying parts only from authorised distributors is a basic, yet invaluable, counterfeit prevention tactic. However, this is not always possible, as counterfeits cannot always be easily identified: they still manage to slip through the cracks. 


How Do Counterfeit Electronics Reach Market?

Concerns about importing discontinuing electronic items have grown due to the recent news that old electronics are being exported to foreign countries, as electronic waste comes back refurbished in new electronic devices. China and Hong Kong are the most commonly mentioned country names that re-manufacture technology brought to the end-of-life stage.

Between the environmental benefits of recycling old and used parts, and the compromising of technological quality due to the use of poorly-produced fake components, there is a massive conundrum of local and international regulations—which doesn’t make things for engineers easy.


Practical Ways to Detect Fake Electronic Parts

Even if you are regularly dealing with authorised distributors, maintaining standards, and running periodical quality inspections of your electronic components, it’s still worth exploring some of the ways in which you can tell whether the piece under your nose is genuine or counterfeit.

Disposing of counterfeits as early as possible is crucial: it prevents safety issues, reduced performance, and increased costs down the production line.


FCC Standards for Electronics Equipment Certification. Image courtesy of Sicom Testing.


Package and Label Inspection

A  way to detect fake parts is to inspect the package and the product visually and compare it to an already-authenticated component from the original component manufacturer (OCM). On a chip, for example, you can check for details, such as different fonts, the part number, and indent size. Other common indicators of fake components include:

  • Misspelled and/or missing logos, label information, and specifications on the product and the part itself.

  • Inadequate packaging: for example, improper protection against fragile parts, such as moisture-sensitive components without a humidity identification card.

  • Mismatched dates between the component and its packaging/label, dates stamped in the future, or even no dates at all, etc.

  • Discrepancies between the printed product codes and those provided on the OCM’s webpage/datasheet/e-store, etc.

  • Missing country of origin, or the country of origin is not identical to the code on the component.

  • Missing parts.


A close-up of a Dell computer circuit board. Image courtesy of Pexels. 


By carrying out the above checkup before using a new supply of components, you can protect yourself and others against a large volume of counterfeits that can make it to the electronics market—even before you open a package. Other precautionary measures are as follows.

Physical Deformities Checkup

The next step should be to examine the product for physical deformities. Since counterfeit components are made of scrap electronics, they are subject to wear and tear, bent leads, and scratch marks. 

Physical deformities are often connected to poorly-replicated plastic and glass mixtures used in fake parts. Original markings are removed by a process called ‘blacktopping’, which involves surfacing them with a polymer coat so that the new product doesn’t have any immediately-visible deformities or differences. 

A great pointer is the texture of blacktopped fake parts: it is quite smooth, unlike the sharpness in genuine parts. However, to reveal the replicated component, this discrepancy may need to be inspected by a microscope.  

X-ray Inspection

Since chips and other built-in parts are becoming smaller and smaller, you will need to apply advanced measures. In this case, for advanced counterfeiting, use X-ray inspection that goes beyond the naked eye. 

X-ray inspection works by checking the internal contents of the component and finding faults like missing or inconsistent die sizes, missing or broken wire bonds, or obvious delamination.

X-Ray inspection is beneficial for additional reasons, too, including other stages in the manufacturing process. Consider the inspection of densely-populated printed circuit board assemblies, the search for misplaced devices, providing enhancements in end-of-line inspection, aiding in the micro-sectioning process, or helping to expose broken tracks or barrels.

Scanning Acoustic Microscope

A scanning acoustic microscope (SAM) is another non-invasive testing equipment, which uses acoustic waves that can permeate through solids and liquids to the level of sub-micron thickness and detect etching that is otherwise hidden by blacktopping. Etching is a clear indicator that the original marking had been covered by such resurfacing. SAMs can inspect adhesion between layers and are effectively applicable for the inspection of sealing, coating, flip-chip underfills, ball-grid array and quad-flat, no-leads packing, as well as wafer-to-wafer bonding.

Managing Obsolescence

Instead of reaching out to questionable distributors once a component from an OCM is out of stock, you can implement obsolescence management tactics and plan your design with impeding obsolescence in mind. This is an efficient early-on approach to avoiding the majority of counterfeits that emerge due to obsolete components. 


Is There A Solution to Counterfeit Electronics?

The simple answer to this question is: unlikely. Whenever a protective or preventative plan is set in place, there is always someone still looking to find an easy way to avoid having to manufacture electronics with the right, high-quality components. The battle between price and quality is tough. 

Technologies evolve at a rapid pace, and we couldn't keep up with all the replicas, no matter how much we wanted to. But becoming acquainted with manual and visual inspection or labels, packages, and parts checking for physical deformities using testing equipment; and insisting on obsolescence-driven design, and so on, can help engineers to avoid costly mistakes—both early on as well as later in the product design and manufacturing process.

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