Types of Counterfeit Electronic Components and How to Avoid Them

Types of Counterfeit Electronic Components and How to Avoid Them

Counterfeit components can torpedo entire production runs. How can you keep them out of your supply chain?
Luke Crihfield

Counterfeit electronic components have become a growing concern in recent years, posing serious risks to individuals and organizations alike. The surge in counterfeits isn’t just a question of poor-quality products or delayed production lines – getting the right components can the the difference between life and death.

The tragic case of Air Force pilot 1st Lt. David Schmitz, who lost his life in June 2020 after his parachute failed to deploy, highlights just how deadly the consequences of counterfeit components can be. The Air Force Research Laboratory found that the ejection seat may have contained up to 10 counterfeit and faulty transistors and semiconductor chips, which could have contributed to the malfunction. 

It's clear that the lack of transparency in the supply chain of electronic components can have devastating consequences. In this blog post, we'll explore the dangers of counterfeit electronic components and how to protect yourself and your organization from these risks.

Types of counterfeit electronic parts

There are seven ways in which an electronic component can be counterfeited, and each comes with its own severity and risks. On top of that, different types of counterfeits require different types of detection to keep them out of your supply chain.

Recycled counterfeit parts

These are components that have been removed from old equipment and re-sold as new or unused. While they may be the genuine article, when their age and previous duty cycle is concealed they will likely not perform as intended. Usually, they’ll have a shorter lifespan and be prone to failure due to wear and tear.

Remarked counterfeit parts

These are components that have been remarked with a false part number or date code to conceal their true identity or age. They may not meet the original specifications and could cause malfunctions.

Overproduced counterfeit parts

These are components that were produced in excess and sold to unauthorized distributors or brokers. They may be sold as authentic parts but may not have been subject to the same quality control measures as the original parts. Depending on the circumstances, these counterfeits can sometimes be independently tested and then used relatively safely as substitutes.

Out-of-spec counterfeit parts

These are components that do not meet the original manufacturer's specifications but are sold as genuine. They may be prone to failure or cause malfunctions in the equipment they are installed in.

Cloned counterfeit parts 

These are components that have been illegally reproduced to look and function like genuine parts. They may be sold at a lower price but likely do not meet the same quality standards as authentic components.

Forged counterfeit parts 

These are components that have been manufactured and sold under false pretenses, with counterfeit labels or documentation. They are often difficult to distinguish from genuine parts and pose a particular risk to manufacturing.

Tampered counterfeit parts 

These are components that have been intentionally modified or altered to conceal defects or to mislead buyers. They pose a significant risk to the safety and reliability of the equipment they are installed in.

Counterfeit electronic component detection

How can you tell if electronic components are counterfeit? Per the University of Florida’s research, physical inspection and electrical testing are two common methods used to identify counterfeit chips and other electronic components.

Physical inspection involves visually examining the exterior and interior of the component. This can range from a simple visual inspection to high-tech imaging techniques, such as x-ray, infrared, transmission electron microscopy (TEMs), focused ion beams (FIBs), and more. The purpose of physical inspection is to identify any physical anomalies that may indicate the component is counterfeit, such as inconsistent markings, unusual packaging, or unexpected material properties.

While physical inspection can be effective, it also presents several challenges. For example, the equipment required for high-tech imaging can be expensive and may require specialized expertise to operate. Most electronics manufacturers don’t have it lying on hand themselves.Additionally, physical inspection can sometimes be destructive in nature, which can make it impractical or undesirable for certain components. Another challenge is the lack of understanding of what defects are present in each type of counterfeit component, which can make it difficult to know what to look for during physical inspection.

Electrical testing, on the other hand, involves capturing chip curve trace, contact degradation, device parameter distributions, and comparing them to the device specifications. The goal of electrical testing is to identify any electrical anomalies that may indicate the component is counterfeit, such as inconsistent electrical performance or unexpected behavior.

However, electrical testing also presents several challenges. For example, it requires knowledge of the expected electrical behavior of the component and a test setup for each integrated circuit (IC). Furthermore, it can be difficult to distinguish between degradation due to counterfeiting and degradation due to unavoidable process variations, which can make it challenging to accurately identify counterfeit components. Finally, there may be a lack of metrics and data to facilitate automation in testing and classification of counterfeit components.

Relying on brokers for counterfeit detection

The risk of counterfeit parts is relatively low when buying from an authorized distributor, so the question, “can I trust this part?” comes to the fore when buying from brokers on the secondary market. Some brokers recognize the challenge of counterfeits and actively offer testing services to try to head them off, while others look the other way while passing parts to desperate customers.

Some that offer testing services have the capabilities in-house, while others partner with third-party testing laboratories to provide these services to their customers. It's important to note that the quality and reliability of counterfeit testing services can vary widely. 

We recommend working with brokers that offer testing services, but then also securing insurance on components that you buy through them. You can also contract with a third-party testing laboratory yourself – this is an especially good idea when buying critical components from a broker with whom you haven’t worked before. Have the lab test a sample of the chips when they first arrive; if they’re genuine, then you can proceed. If not, the insurance will minimize your losses.

Amplio’s PartSecure service navigates the secondary market on behalf of our clients when components are out of stock with authorized distributors. We’ve built trusted relationships with brokers that deliver trusted parts, and we add 1-year insurance on top of that to minimize the risk of counterfeits for our clients.

Counterfeit electronic component control plan

A counterfeit electronic component control plan outlines the procedures and processes that your organization will follow to prevent the use of counterfeit electronic components in your products. We like Gary Beckstedt’s three simple, but impactful tips for minimizing the risk of counterfeits:

Educate your organization on counterfeiting standards

You need to know which industry quality standards are relevant to your components so that you’re asking for the right qualifications and tests. If your supplier isn’t familiar with the standards that you know assure quality for your needs, that’s a red flag that they’re susceptible to counterfeit components.

Be dogmatic about the T’s and C’s

If you don’t carefully read the fine print of your purchasing contracts, you could be opening yourself up to counterfeits. Do you know the allowable age of critical components in your supply chain? Seemingly small details like this can open you up to be supplied with parts that may technically meet the letter of the law, but aren’t sufficient for your needs.

Build trusted relationships

Gary notes that it’s a bit old school, but actually picking up the phone and getting to know your suppliers is always solid advice. The better you know them, the easier it will be to ask tough questions about the origin of the components they’re selling – the easier it’ll be to work through challenges that may arise. And if you can build a solid foundation with one or two brokers that you know test components well, then you’ll be able to handle authorized distributor shortages as well as you can.

Rely on Amplio to avoid counterfeit components

Navigating electronic component brokers and avoiding counterfeits can be a tough task. The secondary market is a minefield of opaque pricing, vanishing inventory, poor quality, counterfeits, and headaches.

Instead of trying to do it yourself, let Amplio’s PartSecure service find components like for you.

We’re the first VC-backed electronic marketplace specializing in hard-to-find parts. With 200+ vetted suppliers & OEMs, quality & counterfeit protection, and price transparency, you can rest easy when we’re on the case. 

We’ll get you a quote in 24 hours and keep production running. Contact us today.

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