Counterfeiting: know your enemy

ES Nov13 Pg12 DigikeyDigi-Key’s Dave Doherty examines how counterfeiting occurs and ways to mitigate risk

The growth in counterfeit components concerns everyone in the electronics industry, from component manufacturers to end-users. In fact, the Electronic Component Industry Association (ECIA) estimates that between five and 25 per cent of the total available electronic components are counterfeit.

Very often, counterfeit goods are not cheap copies but failed, unsuitable or non-functional components made to look like high-value parts. If these parts enter the supply chain there is a high risk that equipment using them will not perform. This presents concerns to any manufacturer, but for those making industrial and critical systems, it can be dangerous.

Spot the difference

There are a number of ways counterfeiters attempt to pass their products off as working components. Some high-volume, relatively simple parts are copied and made to function similarly to their targets, albeit without the guarantees provided by legitimate manufacturers. These devices are hard to identify by functional testing as they often behave similarly to the real parts. Such devices can be identified by chemical testing and by package discrepancies.

Many counterfeiters make no attempt to provide functional devices. Instead they exploit weaknesses in the supply chain itself. Manufacturers normally mark products with logos and identifying codes, but it may be hard to distinguish a genuine product from a clever fake.

A common technique is overmarking, in which a cheaper device, suitable only for use at standard temperatures, is repackaged as a part able to withstand extreme temperatures. These components are then sold at a high margin.

Another technique is to locate reject products that were not destroyed properly after test, or to use products recovered from electronic waste when it is recycled. These parts are often simply ‘black-topped’ to remove old markings and a new set of markings screen-printed over the top. Black-topping can be identified by chemical tests or sometimes by rubbing the component, as the new ink rubs off.

Target markets

Companies supplying industrial, medical and military are often targeted by counterfeiters because they have to maintain long-term support for their systems. They are more exposed to component obsolescence, since devices designed for consumer markets evolve more rapidly.

Manufacturers of industrial, medical and military systems cannot get approvals for redesigns quickly and will often commit to long-term support agreements. The ability to source replacement parts for these products gets harder as time passes and legislative changes increase the risk of counterfeits entering the supply chain.

Protect yourself

There is no single solution to the problem of counterfeiting, but customers can protect themselves. Intelligence on how counterfeiters mark products can be a useful weapon, however the most effective strategy is to engage with supply-chain partners who have access to legitimate parts.

Many counterfeit components enter the supply chain through the grey market. Franchised distributors, however, engage directly with manufacturers and can establish a complete audit trail, with detailed information on date codes and other supporting evidence, for the components they supply.

To help counter the rise in fake components, the ECIA has created the Advocacy and Industry Promotion Council, of which Digi-Key is a member, to raise awareness of the issues caused by counterfeit parts. The ECIA is active in advising on legislation designed to reduce the supply of counterfeit parts and is supporting the role of franchised distributors through services such as

Counterfeiting remains a hazard for any user of electronic components, but armed with the right information, and with access to the right partners, there is no need to become a victim and aid the growth of this insidious crime.