Counterfeit Components

Counterfeit Component Testing, Inspection & Certification Programs

The U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) reported that 1,800 cases of suspected counterfeit components went into more than 1 million individual products. The SASC stated these findings during the Counterfeit Electronic Parts in the Defense Department Supply Chain hearing held on November 17, 2011.1

If you consider this number for the military, we can only imagine the number of counterfeits in our commercial yet high reliability products such as life support or other critical systems.

What is counterfeiting?

Counterfeiting becomes profitable when scrapped components, components from recycled products, or inexpensive components can be “remarked” and sold as a new, more expensive, higher reliability version. Reasons for the proliferation of counterfeiting include profitability, the low probability of being caught, and the exporting of US electronic waste for disposal in poorer countries.

Much of the effort today has not been placed on preventing counterfeiting but rather screening components to identify and remove counterfeits before they are used in a finished product.

Your Three-Step Risk Assessment

  1. Assess the percentage of non-OCM (Original Component Manufactured) parts you purchase; this is where the danger lies.
  2. If you are purchasing these “brokered parts,” decide if field failure returns will endanger lives, tarnish your company’s reputation and cost you significantly in warranty repairs.
  3. Calculate the cost versus the risk. To screen a typical lot of parts (<200 components) will cost between $800 to $2,000 depending if the failure is found visually or requires destructive analysis.

The US Department of Commerce reports the following steps, among several, should be taken to minimize the risk of counterfeit component infiltration into the electronics market:

“Implement procedures for detecting and reporting suspect electronic components…” and “screen and test parts to assure authenticity prior to placing components in inventory.”2

Succeeding in the battle of counterfeiting cannot be guaranteed by specifying a list of several screening tests on a purchasing document, which will only allow the counterfeiter to determine how to evade detection. Efforts to detect and prevent counterfeiting of electronic components must show the same creativity and determination the counterfeiters show.

If you determine you must take action, NTS personnel are available to you to help you establish the plan that is right for you, and the initial consultation is free. The program can be as simple or as complex as you require.

Conventional and Unconventional Counterfeit Component Detection Techniques

Screening Techniques

Generally, used components are either refurbished and resold as new or relabeled and sold as something different. The screening techniques detect telltale marks from each of these processes.

Conventional Detection Techniques

External Visual Inspection, Marking Permanency and Blacktop Examination
Visual Examination is the simplest and quickest of the inspection techniques, requiring just an optical microscope, a few chemicals and a trained eye—the most important of all three. An experienced inspector can identify sanding marks, evidence of blacktopping, evidence of rework, bent leads, replated leads, definition and quality of markings, appropriate markings and logos and alteration of the originally occurring features on a component.

Electrical Inspection
Electrical Inspection can range from a few electrical measurements to complex measurements at varying temperatures by using automated equipment and special software.

X-Ray Inspection
Like the x-ray of a fractured bone, x-ray inspection of an electronic component allows for the simplest view into the internal structures. X-ray inspection is made even more effective when suspect components can be compared to a known authentic part.

Decapsulation involves the destruction of a sampling of parts. Decapsulation can be accomplished by mechanically or chemically removing the lid or top layers of the component body to expose the die and internal structures of the component.

Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) offers a great benefit in the examination of the microscopic internal structures of components. Like X-Ray, SEM examination is benefited by direct comparison to a known authentic part.

When coupled with Energy Dispersive X-Ray Spectroscopy (EDS), microscopic areas of the component can be compared for their elemental constituents.

X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF), like EDS, is used to identify elemental constituents.

Unconventional Detection Techniques

Counterfeiters continue to improve their craft; they too know the conventional techniques used to identify their product and they alter their processes so conventional detection techniques will not be effective.

Some of these techniques, such as FTIR, are newly being used in authenticity testing; others are old techniques being used in novel ways, such an x-ray machine calibrated specifically for counterfeit examination.

Marking Permanency and Blacktopping
These tests are performed in a similar manner as the conventional techniques, but without the constraints of industry standard test methods, chemical solutions used for decades and static procedures.

SEM is becoming more commonly used as a technique to detect subtle differences of blacktopping. EDS is being used to detect minor elemental differences between the blacktopping and the actual component body.

Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) is a method used to identify organic compounds. The polymers that comprise the component body and the blacktopping material used to hide the evidence of counterfeiting are all organic materials.

Ion Chromatography (IC) is another technique that can be used to detect a third form of contamination – ionic. Ionic contamination is usually present in the form of salts or organic acids and may be deposited on a part by handling or application of chemicals during the counterfeiting process.

Scanning Acoustic Microscopy (SAM), a form of ultrasound, has been demonstrated to be an effective anti-counterfeiting screening tool. SAM uses cyclical sound waves to determine density differences within a sample.

Thermal Analysis
There are several thermal analysis techniques that can be employed on a small sampling of the component body. Thermal analysis measures some chemical or mechanical property as a function of temperature.

  • One technique, Differential Scanning Calorimetry (DSC) measures chemical reactions as a function of temperature.
  • Another technique, Thermogravimetric Analysis (TGA), measures weight loss as a function of temperature.
  • Finally, Thermomechanical Analysis (TMA) measures dimensional change as a function of temperature. Two significant properties that can be examined are the softening point and coefficient of thermal expansion (CTE) of a polymer.

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