Counterfeiting is a problem that has been around for a while, but as forgers of electronic components become more sophisticated, we have to start caring more, and fighting back.
As an ex-soldier, I know that being able to trust your equipment is paramount. Not something to be taken for granted, it’s a given. Sadly not anymore.
Counterfeiting has made even the things we most rely on unreliable, and that is a travesty.
It’s 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 aren’t 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 can’t 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).
It’s 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.
It’s 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 don’t 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.
So what’s to be done about it? Well, raising awareness and taking the issue seriously for a start. At next month’s DesignCon in Santa Clara, EBN’s editor in chief, Bolaji Ojo will be hosting a two-part panel discussion on the subject. In the first his panel will include a forensic expert to talk about the identification and detection of counterfeits and how procurement professionals can take the necessary precautions to minimize the risks of buying them.
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.
It’s 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 people’s lives, so perhaps it’s time we all started taking the issue a little more seriously.
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