Tuesday, March 24, 2009 | David Bernard, Dage Precision Industries and Bob Willis, ASKbobwillis.com
This paper is reprinted with permission from SMTA.
As components become more expensive, obsolete or scarce and hard to find, it is a sad reality that this situation can be ruthlessly exploited by criminals in supplying counterfeit items. However careful the supply chain process may be configured, the practical and desperate requirement to satisfy manufacturing output, coupled with the ease of internet searches, can often force manufacturers, or their suppliers, to have to look into the grey market. These issues are not just for the most expensive and exotic components, where concern for their quality is always present because of their cost: counterfeits exist for long lead time and obsolete devices with values below $10. Such low value items are, arguably, far more dangerous to the production quality of board manufacturers, with enormous resulting costs to reputation and business, as the time and cost associated with checking every item often cannot be warranted. Therefore, after initial checks on a small sample, for example off the end of the reel, such components can easily go straight into production but with the bulk of the reel being counterfeit.
This paper will highlight that the problems from counterfeit components are not limited to a small expensive niche of devices and provide some suggested guidelines for using different analytical and inspection techniques so as to minimize the risk that counterfeits bring. Techniques to be used include optical inspection, XRF, IR microscopy and xray inspection. It will also suggest a strategy for minimising the risk and illustrate a simple procedure for gathering information on parts to create a reference database.
Whilst the prevalence of counterfeit components cannot be said to be endemic, it is the authors' observation that most of their contacts in PCB assembly will admit to having received counterfeit components in the past. Many will also admit to receiving such items on an occasional but regular basis. Therefore, counterfeits are a real issue affecting the industry today and, sadly, appear to be increasing in the frequency of their appearance.
For the purpose of this paper, a counterfeit component will be defined as a received device where the external details and visual look of that device appear to, and are made to, resemble one object but are, in fact, a completely different item. This definition does not include those items that are ‘recovered' from the re-cycling of waste boards. In this latter case, the devices are what they purport to be. It is just that they have been ‘pre-owned' and ‘pre-used'. Whilst this ‘pre-use' may not have been disclosed to the subsequent buyer and, itself, can raise a whole set of additional issues for manufacturing, arguably that may more difficult to reconcile, these items are not counterfeit as far as this discussion is concerned.
When Are You Most at Risk?
As with any aspect of supply and demand, the opportunity for the counterfeiter increases as the need for the item increases. The drivers for counterfeiting in the PCB assembly market include, but are not limited to:
- Limited availability of specialist devices - rationed perhaps because of a limited OEM manufacturing capability
- General market supply shortages for standard items - as perhaps a new mass production item goes on-stream
- The need to source obsolete components - often seen as the major driver allowing the counterfeiter entrance onto the manufacturing floor
- Requiring single source components which have a long lead time - for example being quoted 26 or 52 weeks for delivery but needing to make the product today
- The non-availability of the necessary components to manufacture a new product introduction (NPI)
- Pressure from customers requiring a faster time to market
- The necessity of purchasing components from the grey market to satisfy customer demands.
Although it must always be best practice to only obtain components from trusted and reputable sources of supply, the reality of the market pressures detailed above means that your trusted supplier(s) cannot provide what you need, when you need it. Therefore, you do the same as your attentive supplier(s) do, as well as everyone else wanting the same item, and look on the web to source what you need. Sadly, this is what the counterfeiter is waiting for.
Now that you have no choice but to look outside the known supply routes, suspicion must become the watchword. This is true even when receiving grey market items from your regular supplier(s). Of course, with expensive components (a few hundred dollars each) then their high value demands extra vigilance at all times anyway. So it is quite natural, and there can often be money available, to put in all the additional tests and quality assurance steps to guarantee the quality of these items before they are used. Unfortunately, much lower value devices are also being counterfeited (with values of $10 or less).