Forewarned is forearmed

President and chief operating officer at Digi-Key, Dave Doherty
President and chief operating officer at Digi-Key, Dave Doherty

Getting to grips with different counterfeiting techniques makes it easier to avoid them, advises president and chief operating officer at Digi-Key, Dave Doherty.

Counterfeit electronic components are possibly the most worrying issue in the electronics industry today. The Electronic Component Industry Association has stated that counterfeiting could cost $100 billion a year and affect up to 25 per cent of components. Purchasers should therefore be aware of the different types of counterfeit and the various ways to prevent purchasing them.

In many cases counterfeit components are simply low quality copies of originals, but they could also be official parts that were rejected after manufacture, or cheaper components made to resemble those of a higher value or specification. Once they have entered the supply chain there is a high possibility they won’t function as required. This is inconvenient for designers and manufacturers, but can be outright dangerous in a mission critical application.

Vulnerable buyers
Reclassification ensures components resemble other members of the same family that are more expensive or have more advanced features, such as an extended operating temperature. These components are often higher priced and those targeted tend to be manufacturers of critical systems willing to pay a premium for components intended for extreme environments.

Other techniques involve locating rejected components intended for destruction, or recovering them from electronic waste. Counterfeiters then blacken the packaging to cover identifying markings and screen-print new data on top. ‘Black-topping’ can often be identified by rubbing the top of the component or using chemical testing.

Sometimes contract manufacturers contribute to counterfeiting by manufacturing excess product and releasing the ‘overbuild’ on the grey market. These components may be functional, but they lack the guarantees that accompany genuine products. The best strategy is to avoid the grey market as it presents an easy opportunity for counterfeiters to launder goods through conventional channels.

Checking parts
Due to the variety of counterfeiting methods, customers must use many techniques to avoid counterfeits. Component manufacturers also have a part to play and many are researching new techniques that make their products more difficult to copy and easier to verify.

One of the problems in checking parts is that many of the techniques are destructive and can only be used to test samples. They may also require expensive test equipment such as x-ray sources and mass spectrometers.

The ECIA is trying to stop the rise in counterfeit components and has various initiatives in place. These include the Advocacy and Industry Promotion Council, which includes Digi-Key Electronics as a distributor member, and is intended to promote awareness of the issues surrounding counterfeit components. The ECIA is also acting as an advisor on legislation intended to stop the supply of counterfeit parts.

For buyers, taking precautions, such as forming relationships with the right partners, minimizes the chances of falling victim to this crime, as well as stopping its growth.