Saturday, June 23, 2018
Publication Date: 06/1/2011
Archive >  June 2011 Issue >  Special Features: Test and Measurement > 

Counterfeit Devices: An Ongoing Menace
PCB from failed LCD monitor.

About seven years ago an independent distributor asked us to examine some parts that he had purchased from an offshore source — in this case, mainland China. He was not sure that the parts were marked correctly. He asked we could determine if the parts were, in fact, correctly marked.

That was our introduction to the counterfeit problem that is now so widespread. Over the years, we have worked with many independent distributors of electronic devices — helping and training them in the process of counterfeit detection. This has involved identifying and rejecting literally thousand of lots of materials coming from Asia. In an effort to further define what products constitute "counterfeits", NASA, the Department of Defense, and other organizations are putting together a comprehensive definition of counterfeit components to help combat the problem.

At this point in time, the fact that there is a problem with counterfeits is not news to any of us. Those of us who are involved in securing and using these microelectronic components are keenly aware of the problem.

Even with all of our vigilance, The counterfeiters keep re-inventing the problem — coming up with new and imaginative ways to make money dishonestly.

It can even strike at home, victimizing supposedly knowledgeable people in the industry. About 18 months ago we purchased a 17-inch LCD monitor for use in our laboratory . It was used intermittently over several months in conjunction with a microscope that was located in the back of our lab. After a short time, the monitor stopped working. Why had this relatively new and unused monitor stopped working? Since we are a failure analysis laboratory, we took the non-working monitor apart to see if we could determine the problem.

Taking it apart was relatively simple. I then examined it closely using optical microscopy. The surprise was that a number of components on the board appeared to have been "refurbished". While this should not have really been a surprise, it was very disturbing. A more careful re-examination of the components revealed that not only were the integrated circuit packages refurbished, but it also appeared that many resistors and capacitors had also been refurbished. While we were unable to establish that the refurbished devices were the root cause of the failure, they probably were.

Refurbishing Widely Practiced
In the following weeks, in conversations with others in our industry, I expressed my concern that it is possible that the use of counterfeit devices in newly produced assemblies may be widely practiced.

Sometime after this, we were asked to assist a manufacturer who was putting together a complicated PCB, which included many types of parts. It was a complex assembly that was being assembled in Asia. As I was inspecting the parts for proper solder structure attachment, I noticed several devices that appeared to have been altered. I continued with the requested analysis, wrote my report and then also reported to the customer that I could see components that were obviously altered. I am not sure what I expected as a reply, but I did think that the client would show some concern. The client did not respond in any way to my observations, so I continued with the requested analyses.
Refurbished IC from failed monitor PCB. Note "Philips" name on trademark has been blanked out.

Then several months after this observation, we was once again asked to examine a populated PCB that was not working properly. Analysis of the board once again showed fairly obviously altered components. This also had been assembled in Asia. We have analyzed a number of other boards since then that have came into the lab for different reasons and were able to see additional devices on these boards that had been "refurbished".

Well-Established Practice
Now I began to realize that the use of refurbished components — "counterfeit" by definition — was being practiced by a number of manufacturers. In and of itself, this is not a big deal; the use of refurbished components is a practice that has been going on for decades. I know for a fact that in Mountain View, California, back in the early 70s, there were at least two companies that did nothing else but refurbish components. They would take devices off of scrapped PCBs and clean them up and retest them; they would then sell them as refurbished, retested components. Well, when you are buying refurbished, retested components, you can make a judgment as to whether they should or should not be used. Many companies within the United States are practicing the use of refurbished

semiconductors every day. For the most part the quantities are small and serve a specific purpose or use. The point here, is the user knows they are refurbished, and can make a decision whether or not to use them.

However as a consumer, when we go into a store to purchase something new, we make the assumption that it really is new and not made up partly of used parts.

A Little History
A little history of the development of the counterfeit problem may help to better understand how it evolved. Some years back the Chinese government made an agreement with many of the major countries of the world that in essence said: "If you send us all of your scrapped PCBs, we will remove all of the precious metal then dispose of the remainder and in this way you will not have to worry about putting these materials in your landfills." What a great idea. Many countries jumped at the opportunity to unload all of these lead-bearing, contaminated, printed circuit boards. The Chinese, as agreed began to strip these boards of any precious metal and buried or burned the remainder. Somewhere along the way, some enterprising individuals made the observation that many of the device components on these boards would in fact work if removed and reused in other circuits. So they started to remove these components from these boards, clean them up, retest them, and began to resell them to people in a number of countries as refurbished, retested components.

The refurbished components were very well received and were widely used. Millions of these devices have been purchased and reused. As a result, the refurbishing industry in China began to grow; the price was right and the market was willing. Microelectronic components in general are sturdy, well-made, and very reliable and have a long lifetime expectancy. They are often tested to extremes to insure that they will function as intended and specified. As they go through the manufacturing process, and as they find their way onto PCBs they are handled very carefully, and technicians meet stringent ESD requirements. However as the parts are being removed form the scrapped PCBs very little if any effort is made to insure that the parts are not damaged by ESD.

Not too long after this the refurbishing began, China as well as other Asian countries began to offer contract-manufacturing services to users all over the world. As we all know the Asian labor in those days was extremely cheap. China had hundreds of millions of people who had nothing to do and no way to earn a day's pay, so companies began to manufacture PC boards using this very inexpensive labor. It appears that somewhere along the way, some of them also began to use these refurbished devices in the contract manufacturing of finished printed circuit boards.

Customer Beware
If you make a purchase with the knowledge that you are buying something that contains refurbished, counterfeit components, if the price is right, you might be willing to take the risk, especially if there is some type of warranty offered. However, when you purchase something brand-new, such as a monitor, or TV, or radio, or any new product, you don't expect that this new product will contain refurbished components. This is a reasonable assumption. If you buy a new car, you certainly do not expect it to have a rebuilt (refurbished and tested) transmission.

Now just because the new electronics-based item that you are buying contains refurbished electronic components does not mean that it will automatically fail somewhere down the line. It could go on working just fine for years; but it definitely will have a higher probability of failure sometime during its expected operating life. What's the solution? Since you can't look inside and inspect the components when making an electronics purchase, if a product is made in Asia, it's probably a good idea to also purchase an extended warranty.

Contact: Custom Analytical Services, 50A Northwestern Dr., #4, Salem, NH 03079 603-898-7074 fax: 603-898-6797 E-mail:  

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