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How a Quality Management System and its Tools Weed Out Counterfeits

In the final part of Sourceability's Quality Management System Series, we take a look at the tools and testing methods that keep counterfeits from slipping into your products.

In our last article, “How to Establish a Superior Quality Management System,” we discussed implementing a superior quality management system in your warehouse. The most significant reason a great QMS is instrumental in any semiconductor supply chain is to prevent the infiltration of counterfeit or poor-performing components. Having a QMS in place is only a part of the grander puzzle. While requirements and regulations organizations are vital in managing and properly documenting counterfeits that appear, they do not detect them.  

Highly sophisticated counterfeits can slip through rigorous quality management systems if the proper tools are not in place. Unfortunately, no one tool, test, or process can detect all counterfeits. Counterfeits often appear in various ways and can be undetectable to the human eye. Especially now that chips are expected to reach 1.4nm by 2027. That’s smaller than a strand of human DNA which is 2.5nm.  

Counterfeits will likely continue to threaten buyers as long as commerce exists. It doesn’t matter how small these products become; counterfeiters will adapt to changing circumstances as efficiently as any chameleon. In the past, counterfeits were far easier to discern due to the methods used to create them. Most commonly, counterfeiters would blacktop different parts and pass them off as others. Old parts misrepresented as standard commercial parts have been going on for decades.  

Now, the difference between authentic and inauthentic parts is almost entirely indiscernible. Worse, the number of counterfeits within the electronic component supply chain is rising. This number has been growing since the global electronic component shortage. Shortages give counterfeiters a golden opportunity, as desperation is often the greatest tool in their arsenal.  

The Counterfeit Risk Now After the Shortage

In 2011, the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) determined that counterfeit components cost the electronic component industry and others $7.5 billion annually. Within this report, the SIA also revealed an estimated 15% of spare or replacement semiconductors purchased by the U.S. Pentagon are counterfeit. In 2012, the Senate Armed Services Committee found that over one million counterfeit electronic components had been used in equipment designed for the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Special Operations.

That was then. This is now. Counterfeits are still entering the electronic component supply chain, growing in number.  

Between 2021 and 2022, during the height of the global semiconductor shortage, reports to the Electronic Resellers Association International (ERAI), increased by 35%. Specifically, in 2022 the ERAI reported a total of 768 suspect counterfeits and nonconforming parts, a marked increase over the last three years. Within the 2022 annual report, the ERAI noted that during this 35% increase, semiconductor sales had remained relatively flat. Even worse was that the majority of reported parts, 80.5%, were new occurrences that had not been previously reported. Only 19.5% were previously reported parts.  

What does that information mean? Evertiq explained, "Companies must be especially cautious when sourcing parts as previously unidentified counterfeit parts are constantly entering the supply chain, and the risk of meeting one of these parts remains quite high.”

The most popular parts to counterfeit have remained the same over the past five to ten years, with analog ICs, programmable logic ICs, and microprocessor ICs seeing the most documented reports. Furthermore, counterfeits were broken down by active and obsolete status, with 62.2% labeled as “active” and 32.5% as “obsolete.” This goes against the notion that “if you don’t acquire old parts, you’re less likely to come across counterfeits.”  

Industries with stringent requirements, such as defense, aerospace, security, and healthcare, continue to see counterfeits infiltrate their supply chains. In early 2023, Stewart Thompson, a former Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) agent, detailed these occurrences in his article “Battling Fraudulent Product Substitution.” Within the defense industry, counterfeit or non-conforming parts can mean the difference between life and death.  

In an interview with the military aviation website, The Aviationist, Stewart explained that in 2006 the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) created an Anti-Counterfeiting Task Force to collaborate with law enforcement to investigate counterfeit semiconductors. As a result, this task force often collaborated with the NCIS to counter the rising problem of counterfeits and defective parts within the military.  

The investigations revealed that most of the time, electronic waste (e-waste) that is shipped from the United States to China is often returned to the U.S. as counterfeit parts. For example, Stewart explained, “Circuit boards are heated over flames or with soldering irons to remove the electrical components, which are washed in rivers or left out in the rain and humidity. The ICs are then sanded and remarked, often with military-grade markings, to make them appear new so they can be sold at a premium price. The electrical components are then exported from China to waiting distributors in the U.S., which sell them to other distributors or DOD prime contractors.”

Stewart continued, “In another instance, a contractor ground down markings of genuine lower-speed computer processors and remarked the components to make them appear as though they operated at a higher speed to conform with contract specifications.”

After the findings of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) in 2012, which found 1,800 instances of suspected counterfeits in the military between 2009 and 2011, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)and amendments to address weaknesses in the DOD supply chain, i.e., requiring contractors to purchase semiconductors from OCMs or their licensed distributors “whenever possible” and to implement a counterfeit avoidance testing and reporting programs.

Most recently, the 2022 America COMPETES Act contains language to stop the flow of e-waste to China and other countries known to counterfeit electronics; however, the House and the Senate have yet to agree on common language in the conference committee. In addition, NASA and the DOD have adopted the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) AS5553(A) and other aerospace standards, standardizing practices to detect, mitigate, avoid, procure, and report counterfeit electronic components.

These measures have worked to deter counterfeiters from engaging in criminal activity. However, the global semiconductor shortage gave them a wide berth to make up for lost time. It should be noted, however, that counterfeit incidents have dropped sharply since 2019, from 963 cases to 504 in 2021. ERAI president Mark Snider believes that the sharp drop could be due to the pandemic-related shutdowns in China, which made it more difficult for counterfeiters to operate.

These problems will likely continue over the coming years, but continued efforts will help stifle growing avenues of dangerous suspect counterfeit components. Ars Technica notes, “Counterfeiters are well aware of the time pressure and chip shortages that companies face, and appeal to their victims’ ultimate need to get products out the door despite shortages.”

How to Test for Counterfeits

There are numerous ways to test components to determine authenticity. Each test examines a different feature or utilizes a specific process to unveil the hidden counterfeit. According to the NTS, a global leader in electronics testing, many tests help prove component legitimacy, including:  

External Visual Inspection, Marking Permanency, and Blacktop Examination

A visual examination is one of the quickest ways to determine component authenticity. An optical microscope and acetone–one of the most commonly used chemicals in counterfeit testing–are used by trained personnel to examine a component. Beneath the microscope, an inspector can check for part marking permanence with acetone solvent to determine if a part has been remarked with different information. Another solvent often utilized, less harsh than acetone, is three parts mineral spirits and one part alcohol, the standard set forth by MIL-STD-883, which is required for part markings to withstand.  

With a solvent and microscope, the examination includes checking for sand marks, evidence of blacktopping or rework, bent leads, replated leads, definition and quality of markings, appropriate markings and logos, and alteration of the originally occurring features on a component. Some of this information can be presented as misspellings on the manufacturer’s labels, date codes that are not possible, mismatched, or from the future, and a lack of humidity indicator cards or dry packs.  

Blacktopping, one of the most common ways counterfeit parts are produced, is sanding a component to remove the old markings before being resurfaced to fill the shallow cavities made in the sanding process. These cavities or “indents” are never produced during manufacturing, and authentic components always arrive clean and uniform from the manufacturer.  

Electrical Inspection

Another common practice to quickly determine part authenticity is through an electrical inspection of the component. Using automated equipment and special software, these tests can range from a few measurements to complex measurements at varying temperatures. Since many counterfeits are e-waste that has been remarked and remade to resemble authentic components, they do not perform at the same standards.  

Most authentic components hardly perform when tested under electrical inspection; if they do, it is below the standards set forth by their counterparts. As former agent Stewart said, in one case, a remarked component that operated at a lower efficiency has made it appear to offer higher efficiency than the authentic part. When put to the test, the counterfeit component would have been quickly exposed as a fraud for the inability to perform at the same standard.  

X-Ray and XRF

One of the more popular methods of component testing is using X-rays, which gives inspectors the ability to view internal structures. According to the NTS, X-ray inspection is even more effective when suspect components can be compared to a known authentic part.

X-ray inspection within counterfeit detection and mitigation processes has only improved over the years with the introduction of X-Ray fluorescence (XRF) tools which not only look inside the component but help identify the elemental constituents of the component. That can help weed out suspect counterfeits no matter how sophisticated they become.  

Manufacturers can take component testing a step further with a process called decapsulation. Decapsulation involves the destruction of a sampling of parts. Decapsulation can be accomplished mechanically or chemically, removing the lid or top layers of the component body to expose the die and internal structures. While these tests are inherently destructive, as they involve deconstructing the component, they reveal further information about what the counterfeit is.

Thermal Analysis

According to the NTS, another way to weed out suspect counterfeits is through thermal analysis techniques on a small portion of a component’s body. Thermal analysis measures some chemical or mechanical properties as a function of temperature. This can be achieved through three different techniques called Differential Scanning Calorimetry (DSC), which measures chemical reactions from temperature changes and Thermogravimetric Analysis (TGA), which measures weight loss from temperature changes; and Thermomechanical Analysis (TMA) which measures the dimensional change from temperature changes.  

Further Testing Measures

As described by the NTS, there are other ways to test components on their authenticity which include new and evolving technology that measures different materials within an electronic component, including polymers by Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR), ionic contamination with Ion Chromatography (IC), and even ultrasounds through Scanning Acoustic Microscopy (SAM).  

Each tool and process are particular in its effectiveness and suits the specific needs and place of the inspecting body. These tests are the proverbial teeth of a stringent QMS for any suspect counterfeit components to slip through the initial stages of procurement and verification. This is especially necessary for excess electronic components, as there is no way to be sure what excess parts have been through.  

To prevent counterfeits from entering your supply chain and your products, having the proper testing equipment and a quality management system to document the occurrence for anti-counterfeit organizations like ERAI is pertinent.

Or purchase components through a supplier with a strict QMS and many anti-counterfeit tools to uncover even the most sophisticated fakes.  

Sourceability’s Counterfeit Detection Process

In a recent article by EPSNews, Sourceability founder Jens Gamperl discussed Sourceability’s 3-step verification process to detect and mitigate counterfeit components.

“There are different sources of counterfeits,” Gamperl told EPSNews. “What we see once in a while is that a manufacturer decides that product is not on their quality level, and they send it to a destruction facility, and on the way, the shipment gets lost.”

The first step of the process is verification. Every product, even those that can be traced back to the manufacturer through shipping, is verified by brand, part number, packaging, date code, and dimensions. Sourceability maintains an extensive database of known parts regularly updated to test a component’s dimensions.

The second step, or Level 2 of the 3-part process, is testing on components sourced directly from authorized distributors. Acceptable quality level sample inspection is done based on the quantity received with a microscopic examination to validate complete conformance. Shipments are checked for open packs, resealed packaging, cut tape, or 3rd party packaging.  

Sourceability will perform a level 3 inspection for component stock with no traceability. This stock usually comes from independent distributors, contract manufacturers, excess stock channels, and brokers. Component markings are then tested for permanence, which utilizes a solvent, such as acetone, to detect epoxy-based blacktopping. Should a component be counterfeit, the markings will dissolve under a solvent.  

Furthermore, components are analyzed via XRF for solderability and must undergo chemical decapsulation to determine authenticity accurately. Gamperl told ESPNews that during these tests, staff removes component packaging to go down to the die and review the wiring through these x-rays. While these tests are “destructive,” it is the most assured way to determine authenticity. Many strict industries, such as defense and healthcare, will not accept shipments unless the results of these tests can be confirmed and documented.  

Devoted to assuring quality, Sourceability employs highly trained staff to operate sophisticated testing equipment that help determine component authenticity:

  • High Power Microscopy Capabilities Keyence VHX5000, VHX7000, Olympus DSX1000
  • Keyence IM-7020 Instant Measuring Equipment
  • Heated Chemical Testing (HTC)
  • Creative Electron TruView™ Prime X-Ray Inspection System
  • Glenbrook Technologies JEWEL BOX 70T
  • RoHS Testing with X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) Equipment Olympus: Xpert Model
  • RoHS Testing with X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) Equipment Fischer Technology-XDAL-237 SDD
  • NISENE Jet-Etch Pro Acid Decapsulation System
  • RPS Prelude Dip and Look Solderability Test System
  • RPS Cadence Steam Aging System
  • Memmert JEDEC J-STD-033 and UF260 Universal Drying Ovens

Out of 50,000 recent shipments, Sourceability detected 120 through our rigorous quality system. “That’s a small portion, even if counterfeiting has increased,” Gamperl notes. That number is so small because of the lengths Sourceability goes to prevent counterfeit occurrences in the first place.  

Sourceability will always strive for perfection in quality management. If you have a question about our quality management system and how we help others, you can chat with some of our experts today. If you are ready to buy or need help sourcing stock, send our staff at Sourcengine an RFQ.  

Thank you for joining us for in our Quality Management System Series Deep Dive! Next month we will cover digitalization and how it benefits the electronic components industry.

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