The bane of any electronic buyer’s very existence, counterfeit components are an ongoing problem that isn’t going away anytime soon. Add the current electronics component shortage to the equation and the urge to make parts and other items whose origins and/or quality are misrepresented grows exponentially.
For the most part, the companies behind these “fakes” are virtually unstoppable. “Although governments, companies, and other stakeholders have been working to prevent counterfeits from entering the market using numerous methods, they still sometimes make it through,” PCBCart writes in “Farewell to Counterfeit Electronic Components.” “These fake parts can cause issues with product performance, as well as safety risks.”
The Risk of Using Counterfeits
Problematic because they are more likely to malfunction than genuine parts—namely due to their lower quality—counterfeit components still fetch a premium price, “since their manufacturers attempt to pass them off as legitimate, higher-quality pieces,” PCBCart points out. In some cases, counterfeit electronic components can be dangerous. For example, if a fake part fails, the user can be injured. Or, that part might cause a piece of equipment to malfunction, short-circuit, or even cause a fire.
The potential hazards don’t end there. “If medical devices don't function correctly due to the use of counterfeit integrated circuits and other electronic parts, they might not provide accurate test results, leading to inaccurate correct diagnoses,” PCBCart warns. “They could even directly harm the patient.”
The question is, how can buyers detect fakes before they turn into real problems? Here are four ways to tell:
Visually examine all packaging, labels, and parts. Compare these elements to other parts of the same model that you know are from the original component manufacturer (OCM), and look for any differences between the two. According to PCBCart, the main things to look for are:
- Misspellings and incorrect information on labels
- Parts and date codes on the label that don’t match those on the part itself
- Incorrect parts codes compared to what the OCM uses
- Date codes that don’t make sense (i.e., too far in the past or even into the future)
- Missing items (i.e., sensitive-to-moisture parts should come with a dry pack and humidity indication card)
- Incorrect or sloppy logos
- Font doesn’t match the one used by the OCM
- A stated country of origin that doesn’t align with the country code on the part
Use X-ray inspections to verify components authenticity. As its name suggests, this process works just like a normal X-ray and allows you to view the internal contents of the part. This process can identify indicators like:
- Missing or inconsistent die sizes
- Visible delamination
- Broken or missing wire bonds
“If the part is RoHS-approved (Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive),” Matric points out in “6 Ways to Detect & Avoid Counterfeit Electronic Components,” “X-ray inspection can be used to confirm its lead-free status, something that counterfeiters often overlook.”
Look for signs of resurfacing. “Counterfeiters have become quite good at replicating the plastic and fine glass mixture that makes up most of today’s plastic electronic components,” Matric cautions, noting that the process used is called “blacktopping,” and requires sanding-off the original markings and applying a coat of polymer to cover them up like nothing happened. “But sometimes, this effect can leave visible clues of its illegitimacy,” the company notes. For example, many times indents on a chip that’s been blacktopped will be partially filled in by the polymer, or the smoothness of the indent’s original surface will still be visible.
Put the components through some electrical testing. Conducting electrical testing on suspect components can give you a better idea of whether the part is genuine or not by comparing the results to the tolerances recorded by the manufacturer. “If the results are significantly different to the industry specifications,” JJS Manufacturing advises, “then further investigation will be required.”