Are your parts the real deal?

09 June 2008

Shortening time-to-market, squeezed margins – have we created the perfect environment for fruadsters to flourish? Tom Perrett looks at the problem and introduces one possible solution.

At the April 2008 APEX conference it was estimated that the cost of global counterfeiting now stood at $650 billion. It didn’t seem so long ago when counterfeit goods referred to the manufacture of look-a-like designer clothing and watches. Now there is virtually nothing that is beyond the attention of the clever counterfeiter. The pressure for shorter times to market is pushing electronic equipment manufacturers to look beyond their trusted supply chain for the quick delivery of components which are difficult to source. This has led to the growth of component counterfeiting. A recent report estimated the losses to customers in the electronics industry falling victims of counterfeiters exceeded $15 billion/annum.

At APEX a US Government Official stated “A counterfeit electronic part is one whose identity has been deliberately misrepresented by the supplier”. We all like to think that we can spot a counterfeit, but can we? And what are the consequences of not spotting it.

The answer to the first question is “sometimes” and the consequences of getting it wrong could be disastrous. The counterfeiters have turned their skills to the electronic component market to make money - quick and easy money. They are becoming ever more sophisticated in their efforts to fool the purchaser so the industry must find new tools to outwit the crooks.

Our own desire for more electronic goods, for more choice and for lower prices plays into the hands of the counterfeiter. Late deliveries equate to lost profits. The pressure is on for the supply chain to take shortcuts to hit new deadlines. The supply chain becomes complex; so complex that it is no longer possible to track all the parts from source to finished product. Recent issues in ensuring RoHS compliance has confirmed this. If the parts are no longer possible to track all the way from the source of manufacturing then there is no chance in being able to understand the test protocols at each stage. The counterfeiter has seen the opportunity.

Most of us insure the contents and buildings of our house because we cannot be 100% sure of what the future holds; or indeed what the consequences of the past has in store. It is very possible that the builder of my house no longer exists, nor does his supply chain. As a result I always have an independent survey carried out prior to purchasing my bricks and mortar. Many will think me over cautious; others will think that the relatively small outlay on insurance and surveys is money well spent. Perhaps I sleep easier for minimising the risks.

So what test protocols can we use to mitigate the risks when buying electronic components? A good place to start is the IDEA-STD-1010-A Standard which describes a rigorous optical inspection regime supplemented by tests on the marking inks. It will not detect all the counterfeits. Why not? It does not offer any functional testing, nor does it use any of the more sophisticated materials characterisation techniques available today.

During the autumn of 2007 Retronix and Soldertec Global were struggling with the same problem. Both could see that there was a need for a strong and comprehensive testing scheme but neither had the expertise in all areas to offer it. A chance conversation led to a meeting and soon it was apparent that there was a win-win situation possible. Retronix would take the lead role in offering a mitigation service as it already had close links to the component supply chain, and Soldertec Global would support them with material testing.

The resultant Counterfeit Component Detection Service offers an insurance against the supply chain not being as clean as it hopes. The supplier of parts to the assembler may have absolutely no idea that the part they are selling is not exactly what it says it is. The complexity of the chain and the ingenuity of the counterfeiter allow for some extremely difficult to detect con tricks to take place. The more like the true part the counterfeit is the less likely the detection, but the more difficult it becomes to produce. The more costly the fake is to make, the less attractive becomes the con. The less money can be made the less likely the product is counterfeited.

Thankfully the range of electrical and materials testing available to the Detection Service would be extremely difficult and expensive to fool. Some of the techniques offered have never been used before in this type of work enabling the testers to keep ahead of the forgers and con men… thus far.

Tom Perrett is Marketing Manager for Soldertec.

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