As an ex-soldier, I know that being able to trust your equipment is paramount. Not something to be taken for granted, itís a given. Sadly not anymore.
Counterfeiting has made even the things we most rely on unreliable, and that is a travesty.
Itís not just the military that suffers. Doctors relying on faulty equipment, car makers who unwittingly install fake brake pad parts, substandard semiconductor components find themselves embedded in every day devices that can fail or dangerously overheat. The basic and awful fact is that counterfeiting can cost lives, and people just arenít taking it seriously enough.
According to survey after survey, counterfeiting of electronic components is on the rise, not because people intend to sabotage, but (perhaps even more chillingly) because they want to turn a profit, however small. The economy has not helped, and with companies cutting back on inventories to keep afloat, the counterfeit markets have boomed, thriving on the shortages of needed components.
The counterfeiters are becoming clever too. With every passing year, production of rip-off parts becomes more sophisticated as do methods of manufacturing and distribution. The parts trickle down into mainstream markets, and sometimes get unwittingly sold by decent distributors who canít possibly test every single part, and more often than not these duds get incorporated into devices.
Once there, they can cause system failures that are sometimes nothing but an annoyance (say a faulty cell phone), but can also prove fatal (the deadly fate of at least one military helicopter in Afghanistan has been attributed to counterfeit parts).
Itís not new, of course. Counterfeiting of components has been around for some 30 years, making its debut with fake, expensive military components, but as consumer electronic devices became ever more prolific, so did counterfeiters willing to chase after smaller margins.
Itís not always easy to tell a dud part from a real one. Some are manufactured from scratch, while others started out as legitimate parts but are remarked to indicate higher functionality, or improved speeds and feeds. Some are even authentic parts that have been used, scavenged, repackaged and resold as new. Some work for a while, others donít work at all.
Regardless of how they were made or where they come from, counterfeit parts are all dangerous, because they introduce an unknown element into a system, and that creates an element of unreliability. Unexpected part problems can also cause manufacturing delays which hurt company projections, and faulty parts can affect perfectly good parts on the same board.
In the second panel, Ojo has gathered industry executives and experts to discuss how counterfeits enter the electronics supply chain and the potential impact of recent government regulations on OEMs, component suppliers and distributors.
Itís true that electrical and reliability testing are both time consuming and costly, but ignoring counterfeiting has its costs too. And those costs are sometimes paid with peopleís lives, so perhaps itís time we all started taking the issue a little more seriously.
You raise a great point - a point that is often lost in the cacophony of lawmakers and industry discussing how to address the issue - that in the real world counterfeit components pose a real and immediate threat to the health and well-being of the men and women who rely on systems to perform.
I work for an independent distributor (Secure Components) who has aggressively pursued counterfeit avoidance certifications (we are AS6081 certified and DLA QTSL approved). We pursued these certifications because we care about doing the right thing, which in this case also happens to be good business. Too often buyers tell us they do not want to buy from us because they do not want to pay the cost of destructive testing.
They fail to understand that the cost of testing components procured from the secondary market is far less than the potential cost associated with incorporating a counterfeit part into their system, The risk of a counterfeit component infiltrating the supply chain outweighs the cost of confirming the authenticity of a part,
Although representing reused parts as new is illegal and can cause accidents, calling them "counterfeit" is misleading. I would recommend that terminology and infraction reporting distinguish between "counterfeit" (made by an unauthorized manufacturer), "used", and "misrepresented" (genuine component of a different grade or revision level) components. A clear understanding of the incidence of different categories of fraudulent parts could help direct corrective action. Better distribution channel controls, device authentication, and tamper evident features are all possibilities once we know what we need.
Join our online Radio Show on Friday 11th July starting at 2:00pm Eastern, when EETimes editor of all things fun and interesting, Max Maxfield, and embedded systems expert, Jack Ganssle, will debate as to just what is, and is not, and embedded system.