Avoiding Counterfeit Electronic Components on Your PCB

If I were a detective, I’d want to be just like Lieutenant Columbo. Of course, he has a cool car - 1959 Peugeot convertible, Model 403 - but more importantly, he always educates himself on his suspect’s methodology in order to catch them. This type of meticulous detective work is required to solve difficult problems in the PCB world as well. For example, just as PCB usage continues to expand, so do the instances of counterfeit electronic components winding up in legitimate products.

Counterfeiting leads to product failures as well as lost revenue for businesses, which directly influences job loss. Although PCB counterfeiting may occasionally involve someone actually purchasing illegal components, the sophistication in the methods of some counterfeiters far exceeds basic larceny. Advanced crime requires advanced technology to catch irregularities. Let’s take a closer look at counterfeit electronic components, their impact and how we can avoid becoming victims to those who go to great lengths to perpetuate fraud.

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Taking a Closer Look

What are Counterfeit Electronic Components?

A counterfeit electronic component may encompass an entire product or one or more elements that comprise a larger system. Companies invest tremendous resources into distinguishing their brand from competitors. In terms of electronic components, this may include years or research, design and development to ensure their products outperform others on the market. Competition among developers, in this case, is healthy as it results in the most advanced (and increasingly improving) products for end users. To maximize the benefits of this development and technological advancement, however, end users must be assured that products perform as expected. Those who trade in counterfeit electronic components undermine this process and depreciate the supply chain. Additionally, inferior products may cause injury or loss of life in critical industries, such as medical, automotive and the military. In fact, the extent and seriousness of counterfeit electronic components have motivated governmental agencies, regulatory organizations and electronics manufacturers to join forces to mitigate the problem.

What is Being Done to Avoid the Counterfeiting of Electronic Components?

In early 2009, SAE international released AS5553, the Counterfeit Electronic Parts; Avoidance, Detection, Mitigation, and Disposition standard, which was quickly adopted by the US military. In 2011, this was followed by the National Defense Authorization Act, which placed the responsibility of avoiding counterfeit components in the hands of defense contractors that supply equipment to the government. This ultimately led to the development of AS6081, the Fraudulent/Counterfeit Electronic Parts: Avoidance, Detection, Mitigation, and Disposition - Distributors Counterfeit Electronic Parts; Avoidance Protocol, Distributors standard, in 2012. AS6081 provides a set of standard practices that purchasers and distributors of electronic components should implement to protect their customers from ending up with fraudulent components.

Even with a number of standards and regulations in place, the problem of counterfeit electronic components has continued to proliferate. In 2017, the US military estimated that 15% of the replacement parts making their way into their systems were counterfeit. Addressing this problem and preventing escalation of counterfeit electronic components in other critical systems, such as medical equipment, automotive and aerospace systems, was a governmental priority. Therefore, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched the Supply Chain Hardware Integrity for Electronics Defense (SHIELD) program. The objective of SHIELD is to implant a microscopic chip or “dialect” within chips to make the process of component counterfeiting too complex and time-consuming to be worthwhile for criminals. This effort holds tremendous promise for finally addressing the counterfeit electronic components problem.

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How Can I Avoid Counterfeit Electronic Components on My PCB?

Obviously, counterfeit electronic components are a huge problem that affects virtually everyone. You’re probably asking yourself if there is anything you can do to protect your PCBs from ending up with counterfeit components. Just as Lieutenant Columbo always manages to detect his suspects, you can take certain measures to reduce the possibility of being victimized by counterfeiters, whether you personally source components or rely on a contract manufacturer (CM).

Know Your Supplier

Component procurement is a time-consuming process that involves dedication and due diligence to perform correctly. If you prefer to traverse this path alone, one thing you can do is to make sure you guard yourself against counterfeit electronic components by verifying they are not included in the database of suspected counterfeit parts maintained under the Government - Industry Data Exchange Program (GIDEP). Although, checking GIDEP can help with identifying components that have been identified as suspect, probably the best defense that you have is knowing your supplier(s) and meticulously examining the steps they take to ensure accuracy while receiving and distributing components. A good way to assess your supplier’s commitment to component integrity is by evaluating whether they follow AS6081 and specifically prioritize the following guidelines:

  • Full transparency - Does your supplier reveal their suppliers so that you can make an informed buying decision?
  • Risk-mitigation - Does your supplier practice certified best processes and procedures, such as source assessment and fraudulent/counterfeit distribution avoidance, as specified by AS6081?
  • Standard compliance -  Does your supplier follow B.1.2.7 & B.1.3.2 of the AS5553A counterfeit avoidance standards?
  • Test standards - Does your supplier employ AS5553A minimum test standards? These include visual inspection, resistance to solvency/part-marking test, X-ray, decapsulation and XRF, with optional electrical testing available.

Instituting these basic guidelines will give you some protection against the acquisition of counterfeit electronic components. However, the best way to be fully protected is by utilizing an experienced contract manufacturer (CM) that is committed to following regulatory standards and guidelines and possesses established relationships with reputable suppliers.

Engage Your CM

Before handing the responsibility of ensuring the validity of your PCB components to your CM, you should understand the procedures and practices in place to guard against counterfeit electronic components. Here are several questions that you may want to ask your CM:

  • How do you determine which component suppliers to use?
  • Do you regularly employ QA methods to verify the quality of the components you procure?
  • Do you regularly employ best practices to avoid counterfeit electronic components in your products?
  • What, if any, recognized standards and regulations do you implement to avoid acquiring counterfeit electronics components?
  • What, if any, recognized standards and regulations do you require your suppliers to follow to avoid shipping you counterfeit electronic components?
  • What, if any, voluntary procedures do you employ to guard against the acquisition and usage of counterfeit electronic components?
  • Do you regularly work with end-users that require counterfeit electronic components standards to be utilized for their products?

Hard cases require a professional like Colombo to solve. When it comes to avoiding counterfeit component on your board, employing a professional CM can help you immensely while navigating through the complexity, time requirements and component procurement QA involved.

Tempo Automation, the industry leader in fast, precise and seamless turnkey PCB manufacturing, is committed to addressing the counterfeit component problem. At Tempo, we only use the most reputable suppliers and employ several checks to ensure your components match your design using our patented BOM tool.

Tempo‘s Custom PCB Manufacturing Service

  • Performs entire turnkey process in as fast as 3 days.
  • Emphasizes DFM to eliminate time-consuming back-and-forth design corrections.
  • Performs BOM verifications to reduce possibility of component obsolescence issues.
  • Sources components from the most reputable suppliers in the industry to reduce procurement time.
  • Performs multiple automated inspections during assembly to ensure PCB quality for prototyping.
  • Provides support throughout the PCB manufacturing process, beginning with design.
  • Smooth transition from prototyping to production.

Our QA procedures not only encompass component procurement but also extend to the fabrication and assembly stages. We furnish information for your DFM and enable you to easily view and download DRC files. If you’re an Altium user, you can simply add these files to your PCB design software.

If you are ready to have your design manufactured, try our quote tool to upload your CAD and BOM files. If you want more information on counterfeit electronic components or how to avoid them on your PCB, contact us.

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