Supply Chain Management

Why testing isn’t enough to prevent counterfeit components from entering the supply chain

Author: Victor Meijers, Senior Vice President, Electronic Components Industry Association

Over 10 years ago, the Senate Armed Services Committee issued a report following the discovery of counterfeit electronic parts from China in the Air Force’s largest cargo plane, in assemblies intended for Special Operations helicopters, and in a Navy surveillance plane. In fact, they revealed over a million counterfeit parts in 1800 cases, leading John McCain, one of the members of the committee to conclude that: “Our committee’s report makes it abundantly clear that vulnerabilities throughout the defence supply chain allow counterfeit electronic parts to infiltrate critical US military systems, risking our security and the lives of the men and women who protect it. As directed by last year’s Defence Authorisation bill, the Department of Defence and its contractors must attack this problem more aggressively, particularly since counterfeiters are becoming better at shielding their dangerous fakes from detection.”

Since then, the problem has grown exponentially. The University of Florida has recently identified seven types of counterfeit parts in the supply chain – recycled, remarked, overproduced, out-of-spec/defective, cloned, forged documentation, and tampered. During times of shortages, such as the industry recently experienced, component buyers are tempted to go outside the authorised component channel to obtain components. Testing has been seen as a way to prevent these bad parts from ending up in critical systems. This is a daunting task, and most customers have neither the time nor the resources to initiate a comprehensive incoming testing programme.

Kevin Sink, VP of Total Quality at TTI summarised the situation: “While testing is necessary when parts are procured outside the authorised channel, it comes with risks. Many customers lack the expertise to determine which tests would be most appropriate given the type of part and simply ask for ‘counterfeit testing’, leaving it up to the test house to determine how to test it. Too often this boils down to an economic decision and only the most rudimentary tests are performed.

“However, the big risk is that some counterfeits are very good – passing the tests that counterfeits failed in previous years. Today, newer versions of die are being harvested and repackaged (sealed in their plastic bodies) and marked as the older versions. Even worse, some die are being made in countries with weak IP protections and packaged as the OCM’s product – a true counterfeit from scratch. These typically pass electrical tests, but you do not know if there are nefarious circuits also in the chip.”

According to Dr. Dominc Forte, of the University of Florida, counterfeit detection of electronic parts can be classified into two main categories: physical inspection and electrical testing. The physical inspection techniques examine the IC or component package exterior and interior, and range from simple visual inspection to high-tech imaging solutions that require X-ray, Infrared, transmission electron microscopy (TEMs), focused ion beams (FIBs), etc. The electrical tests capture chip curve trace, contact degradation, device parameter distributions, etc. and compare them to the device specifications.

Both approaches come with their own advantages and disadvantages, the researchers say. Physical inspection more easily extends to different integrated circuit (IC) and electronic component types. However, physical inspection still suffers from some significant challenges including: (i) low confidence and large overheads associated with the tests/equipment specified required by test standards; (ii) destructive nature of some techniques; (iii) lack of understanding of what defects are associated with each counterfeit type; (iv) little if any metrics, data, etc. to facilitate automation in testing and classification of counterfeit components.

Electrical tests suffer from various challenges as well including (i) they demand knowledge and required a particular test-setup for each integrated circuit (IC) and/or component type; (ii) they must distinguish between performance degradation due to counterfeiting and due to unavoidable process variations.

Dr. Forte and his researchers have developed a counterfeit component repository,, which aims to extract images and data from examples of known counterfeit ICs and make these available to the industry. While this effort can improve inspection results, the scale of the problem has overcome the resources available to most customers.

There must be a better way. Buying through ensures the buyer that the parts ordered are genuine. OCMs (Original Component Manufacturers) and their authorised distributors and manufacturer representatives are very aware of the many techniques used to acquire and sell counterfeits and they work together to solve this problem.

The electronic component supply chain is vulnerable because it is global, complex, and involves many players from the OCM, through the sales channel, manufacturing services partners, end consumer, and on through to the e-waste cycle. At any point parts can be harvested, stolen, and hacked in a myriad of ways.

Component customers in the design community and in the electronics manufacturing services (EMS) industry do not have the resources or expertise to tackle this growing and multi-faceted problem on their own.

Component manufacturers sell to Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and their Electronics Manufacturing Services (EMS) partners either directly or through distributors, and their sales forces are frequently augmented by independent manufacturer representatives.

Because of the sensitivity of many electronic applications and the value of the components, these trusted relationships and channel partners are the best safeguard against counterfeit components.

“Unfortunately, we now know that many counterfeits enter the market not because of obsolescence of the original product, but because of scarcity,” added  Sink. “While this is an acknowledged challenge at times, the best way to avoid this risk, is to stick with the authorised channel where you can be sure the parts are genuine and from the real OCM.”