Evolving counterfeit threats and how to avoid them

TTI’s VP quality, Kevin Sink

TTI’s VP quality, Kevin Sink and Symmetry Electronics’ quality & operations manager, Megan McCaw, walk readers through the standards and processes for avoiding counterfeit.

More than a decade ago, the military and aerospace industry encountered a new threat: counterfeit components. Parts were harvested from scrap PC boards, cleaned up, re-marked and sold as new. While not technically counterfeit, their structural and electrical integrity was compromised. Also, they were often re-marked to suggest they were superior such as commercial parts sold as mil-spec and standard temperature ranges extended.

The industry responded by educating its members via symposiums and creating of a family of industry standards. AS5553 was the first counterfeit mitigation standard, targeted toward users and installers of electronic components. By following its recommendations, a company could deploy better purchasing, inspection and obsolescence control practices. Test labs learned how to detect counterfeits and the supply chain began to differentiate between authorized and independent distribution as part of risk control.

Today, standards tailored for the supply chain include: AS6081 (independent distribution); AS6496 (authorized distribution), AS6171 (test labs) and AS6174 (products beyond electronic components). Related guidance shows how to implement an anti-counterfeit program, assess supplier risk and align one’s program with DoD requirements. Symposiums, web forums and databases highlight evolving risks. Finally, there are governmental prosecutions to bring counterfeiters to justice.

Symmetry Electronics, an authorized distributor in the TTI family of companies, found that since 2018, there has been a gradual five per cent annual increase in the number of customers requiring counterfeit mitigation policies. Many are contract manufacturers, whose end customers also require mitigation.

Symmetry Electronics’ quality & operations manager Megan McCaw

Once the community reached a critical mass of knowledge, implemented standardized processes and began to constrain buys to authorized channels, the incidence of reported counterfeits began to fall. The bad news is that counterfeiters evolve. While simple methods, like blacktopping, are frequently detected, counterfeiters developed more complex methods. True counterfeits have emerged: brand new die processed into packages and marked with a brand maker. In many ways, because the dies are later generation, they outperform the originals. This raises the concern of state actors who might place malicious code in firmware, giving them information or control that compromises the unit.

The most effective counter to this threat is to buy from authorized channels and plan for obsolescence. Symmetry Electronics sources product directly from its approved original component manufacturers (OCMs). Incoming inspection ensures parts are authentic, in original factory packaging, with appropriate manufacturer labels and markings. When a part is returned by a customer, lot and serial numbers are inspected to ensure original parts are being returned.

To stop non-conforming parts getting into the gray market where they could be mis-represented, Symmetry Electronics destroys scrapped material.

As parts become obsolete over time, OCMs formally alert Symmetry Electronics in writing and suggest newer solutions. These notices are passed to customers. Rather than incorporating obsolete parts in a customer’s designs, OCMs encourage a swap out of end-of-life (EOL) product to avoid obsolescence.