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Avoid Performance Concerns Caused By Counterfeit Components
The SHIELD program from DARPA uses an identifying mechanism or dialet on each electronic component to greatly increase the difficulty of counterfeiting any component so treated. (Photo courtesy of DARPA,

Counterfeit electronic components have become more than a minor concern for users of electronic products. Counterfeit components and integrated circuits (ICs) have invaded the supply chains for a wide range of commercial, industrial, and military electronic design projects. And while they might represent a financial advantage (for someone), such counterfeit devices typically represent a compromise in performance and reliability compared to the genuine components and ICs from original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). Counterfeit electronic devices do not need to comply with performance and safety specifications. Because they are counterfeit, they are not tested or approved to any standards. Counterfeit electronic components can represent serious financial liabilities to manufacturers. Manufacturers can be held responsible for accidents that result from problems with counterfeit electronic components. Counterfeit electronic components are not always easy to identify, but by following some simple guidelines, they can be spotted and avoided.

Counterfeiting of electronic components has grown into international business valued at billions in US dollars per year. Counterfeit parts can start as new parts that are relabeled, to misrepresent those parts as having higher grades of performance. Or counterfeit parts can be old parts that are misrepresented as new parts. They might have even been components or ICs that were defective and scrapped by the original manufacturer, but salvaged by a counterfeiter and recycled to be sold as new devices. Counterfeit parts need not only be expensive components, since relatively inexpensive electronic components are also victims of counterfeiting. Consumers who have purchased products with counterfeit components or ICs are often not aware of it, and many consumers view counterfeiting of electronic components as "a victimless crime," since the counterfeit parts often provide satisfactory performance and remain undetected in many applications.

Many applications for electronic products cannot afford the decreased performance and reliability represented by a counterfeit component or ICs, however. For applications in medical electronic systems, for example, an under-performing counterfeit electronic device can literally mean a matter of life and death. Similar serious consequences can occur from under-achieving counterfeit parts in defense electronics systems, where the failure of a single part can jeopardize lives and missions.

Military Hard Hit by Fakes
Military electronics applications have been particularly hard hit by a growing influx of counterfeit components and ICs, to the extent that the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is now exploring possible solutions to simplify the identification of counterfeit electronic devices in military and Department of Defense (DoD) applications. DARPA (, for example, has established its Supply Chain Hardware Integrity for Electronics Defense (SHIELD) program to combat counterfeiting in electronics. It is seeking proposals for some form of identifying component or dialet, no more than 100 X 100µm in size, that would contain a full encryption engine, sensors, and other mechanisms to authenticate a component. It would be added to a component, microchip, or its package but without electrical connections to the existing device, to provide close to 100 percent assurance against counterfeiting. DARPA refers to the dialet as low in cost (less than a penny per component) but robust and reliable. Component authenticity is checked by scanning the dialet with a handheld or automated prober.

Manufacturers and distributors seeking to avoid counterfeit electronic components can sidestep problems through improved inventory management, by performing proper sampling and inspection of incoming components. By acknowledging the dangers of using counterfeit components, and establishing an anti-counterfeiting policy, a manufacturer or distributor can help fight against counterfeiting. Other methods of combating counterfeit electronic devices include the use of improved quality-control methods, improved communications in the supply chain, the use of registered trademarks and copyrights, and by joining trade associations for support against counterfeiting. Use of anti-counterfeiting technologies can also help, such as embedding trademarks in electronic devices, avoiding the use of labels that can be easily removed, and using labels that are difficult to reproduce. Anti-counterfeiting technologies include different printing techniques, such as micro-printing, invisible ink, layered inks, or heat-reactive inks, bar codes, the use of radio-frequency identification (RFID) for model numbers, combinations of holograms and RFID, magnetic stripes, and chemical and biological markers.

Detecting Counterfeits
According to the National Defense Authorization Act, DoD contractors must purchase their parts from OEMs to avoid the use of counterfeit parts. But for companies that cannot afford the luxury of working exclusively with OEMs, some means of detecting counterfeit parts will be needed. Detecting counterfeit electronic components is not always simple or easy. Visual inspection is the most straightforward detection method, relying on visual clues or identifying marks to differentiate an original component or IC from a copy.

Visual inspection may involve the use of a microscope or other tools, including scanning electron microscopes (SEMs, as reported in U.S-Tech, March 2014, p. 70) for close looks at the packaging and outside of an electronic device and x-ray systems for investigating the internal portions of an electronic device. But visual inspection also relies upon enough knowledge of the authentic component or IC so that a comparison can be made, or to have access to an authentic component or IC to serve as a reference. Sometimes, a counterfeit IC can be identified by a faulty mark or indentation. Or the feel of the surface texture may be wrong. At times, it is the color of the paint or the way that an electronic device has been painted that is off. Paying attention to the smallest details can help when inspecting electronic components and ICs for counterfeits.

X-ray inspection systems can be used to examine electronic devices according to the latest counterfeiting inspection standards, including IDEA 1010B from the Independent Distributors of Electronics Association (IDEA,, CCAP 101 from the Components Technology Institute (, and AS6081 from SAE ( X-ray inspection permits nondestructive testing of electronic components, with the capability of "seeing inside" a part without taking it apart. The SAE standard AS6081, for example, which is applied by the DoD, requires organizations purchasing electronic devices to have a quality management system in place and the capability to verify the authenticity of purchased components by means of visual and x-ray inspections.

Authentic Documentation
Checking the documentation that accompanies different electronic products can help when searching for counterfeit parts. The printed documentation, packaging, and labeling can be compared with an original product when available to check for strange use of language, spelling and grammatical errors, and unusual printer fonts compared to the original. The date codes on a product can also be checked for date codes on a label that may not match the product or may represent future dates or dates that do not make sense.

Curbing electronic component counterfeiting can be done, but it requires concerted efforts by manufacturers and distributors. Inspection policies must be well defined at different points along the manufacturing chain, including at the factory, prior to shipping, and at any port of entry for international orders. Manufacturers and distributors can help their own efforts by working closely with law-enforcement agencies to improve their own knowledge of recent counterfeiting episodes and the types of components and ICs that might be most affected. Perhaps the most significant efforts that can be made to stop counterfeiting of electronic components start by training staff to recognize counterfeit products, and to provide the required tools, such as SEMs and optical microscopes, that can help separate counterfeit devices from authentic products. The manufacturer of an electronic product should know their own product the best, and be capable of identifying counterfeit copies of the product. By helping investigators and their own employees to better spot the counterfeit products, customers are eventually the ones who will benefit, with electronic components and ICs that provide the performance and reliability as advertised.  

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