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Electronic Components

Counterfeit electronic component detection

When you work in the electronic components industry, it is inevitable at some point you will come face-to-face with counterfeit electronic components. It is a veritable stone in the shoe of the electronic component industry, worth hundreds of billions of dollars.  

With over 30 years of experience in the electronics industry, specialising in hard to find and obsolete components, at Cyclops Electronics we have a lot of knowledge when it comes to identifying and avoiding counterfeit electronic components. Our team of highly qualified inspectors have accumulated almost a century of experience between them, and we take pride in how vigilantly we deal with this supply chain havoc-wreaker. 

In this post we would like to share some of our know-how on how to detect counterfeit electronics and our testing and processes for electronic components counterfeit mitigation. It will arm you with the information you need to make informed, wise decisions about which brokers to work with and who works to the highest standards. 

What are counterfeit electronic components?

To make sure we are all on the same page, it is probably best that we define what a counterfeit electronic component is.

Counterfeit components are unauthorised copies of an electronic component in which the material characteristics and quality of performance have been deliberately altered.There is a chance that the counterfeit components would work with the same function as their original counterpart. 

The issue arises when they do not have the longevity, or integrity, of the original. Buyers can end up spending a fortune on parts that will not work or will damage their circuitry, and there will be no one to hold to account. This is why it is so vital to have trusted brokers in your supply chain, so the risk to you is minimised.  

There are countries that are more infamous for the amount of counterfeit electronics produced there, but they can come from anywhere. Professionals at every stage of the supply chain have to be vigilant to mitigate the risk of counterfeit components to their customers.  

As long as there has been chip shortages, there has been a counterfeit industry, with new prolific methods accompanying each decade. In the 90s, among other things, it was counterfeit SRAM during the shortage. Then the 2000s began with counterfeit tantalum capacitors during the component’s allocation period.  

What do counterfeit electronic parts look like?

Most of the inspections undertaken within Cyclops Electronics facilities – or in vetted test houses we work with – are undertaken with highly specialised equipment.  

Here are some relatively common electronics counterfeit giveaways to look out for when you are inspecting electronic components: 

Evidence of packaging tampering

If you receive your components and the packaging looks damaged, this is the first sign to suspect they are counterfeit electronics. The packaging may look damaged beyond reasonable transportation wear and tear, or the tape may look tampered with.  

Key indicators of this include: 

  • Water damage 
  • Puncture marks 
  • Packaging does not match previous deliveries 

If this is the case, there is a chance that the electronic components have been tampered with or switched. It is worth notifying the vendor and the courier to make them aware of this issue, whether counterfeit is detected or not. 

An industry example of goods that have been repackaged

Verify all included information

A white box with 'Vishay General Semiconductor written across it, however 'general' has been misspelled with an 'I' instead of an 'L'
An industry example of counterfeit packaging with spelling errors

All electronic components should come with packaging documentation and product datasheets are available online.  

Check the following information: 

  • Date code 
  • Part number 
  • Sealing date 
  • All other displayed information 
  • Packing date was after the date of manufacture.  
  • Spelling mistakes. Just like with spam emails, this is sometimes the easiest way to detect a counterfeit electronic component. 

The importance of the ‘golden sample’ 

In electronic component counterfeit detection, the ‘golden sample’ is an electronic component, reel or tray that has come directly from the manufacturer or from a franchised distributor. It is good practice to compare all, or at least any suspect incoming goods, to a golden sample. If there are discrepancies, it is a good indicator of potential counterfeit. 

Something unique and specialist that Cyclops can offer above its competitors is our cross-database checks. Thanks to our years of experience in the industry we have built a huge database of electronic component images. We can compare incoming goods to these industry standards where other providers don’t have the same resource.

Count and consistency

Usually when you buy electronic components they will be in trays, reels or cut tap. You may even get bags of components delivered to you. So, count them. There will often be partial factory quantity, so make sure you have the correct count ordered. 

More than just the outer packaging of the components, the quality of the inner packaging can be indicative too. If a reel is discoloured or warped, it can indicate damage or tampering, and the same applies to the orientation of parts on a tray or reel. Parts may have been removed and replaced if they are not all oriented in the same direction.  

Electronic Counterfeit Detection Technology

A lot of the ways to detect counterfeit electronic components mentioned above are included under the banner of visual inspection. It is often the first line of defence when avoiding counterfeit electronic parts. There are more advanced, accurate tests that often need to be used to minimise the risk of counterfeit components 

Decapsulation and delidding

Decapsulation involves the corrosion of the top layer of a component to check the internal die wafer and wafer bonds. Cyclops uses an acid-free DPA System, instead of the traditional wet chemical process. This method is much cleaner than the wet chemical alternative, and means our staff are not at risk of inhaling any harmful chemicals. 

Decapping is commonly used for devices with plastic packaging. Once the package cavity is exposed the internal die wafer can be checked. It should match the golden sample in layout and structure. It is a form of destructive testing – once this test is performed, the part cannot be used.  

X-ray testing and XRF

X-ray testing shows defects through the electronic component without having to damage the die wafer inside. X-ray fluorescence (XRF) testing takes this a step further and can tell you the material composition of the component.  

In XRF an x-ray beam is directed at the component’s surface, then the atoms in the component produce a fluorescent x-ray beam that is processed by a detector. The differences between the energy of the original and x-ray beam correspond to different elements, which shows the elements used in manufacturing. Usually counterfeit components will have a slightly different material composition to parts directly from the manufacturer. 

Resurfacing, acetone and scrape testing

There are other effective forms of testing for avoiding counterfeit electronic components. 

Similar to decapping, remarking and resurfacing testing use solvents to corrode the top layers of a component. This, however, isn’t trying to get all the way to the wafer inside. It instead detects if the identification information on the component has been altered or remarked. It is not a destructive test since the wafer inside is left undamaged. 

The process counterfeiters often use is called ‘blacktopping’. The original chip markings are sanded off and a polymer coating is painted over to cover up the sanding markings 

Scrape testing is a similar, manual way of removing the top layers of a component. This shows if a component has had a clear coat applied to it, which is acetone-resistant and lowers the chances of counterfeit being revealed by remarking or decapsulation testing. 

The datasheet shows the discrepancies between the original and counterfeit component

The process counterfeiters often use is called ‘blacktopping’. The original chip markings are sanded off and a polymer coating is painted over to cover up the sanding markings 

Scrape testing is a similar, manual way of removing the top layers of a component. This shows if a component has had a clear coat applied to it, which is acetone-resistant and lowers the chances of counterfeit being revealed by remarking or decapsulation testing. 

Electrical testing/Curve trace testing

A relatively simple method is to test the component. Curve trace machines can test current, voltages, diode resistivity and silicon connectivity. This will detect any physical damage caused by heat, electrical overstress or electrostatic discharge damage.  

Choose Cyclops Electronics to avoid electronic counterfeit components

Nonfranchise distribution channels are a vital and legitimate part of any supply chain, particularly in the case of legacy products where parts may no longer be in production. The electronics industry has realised that, as counterfeiters become more and more proficient, there is not a ‘one size fits all’ measure that can be used to combat fraudulent parts entering the supply chain. 

At Cyclops Electronics, quality is at the core of everything we do. From our industry-leading component testing program to our commitment to continuous improvement, the quality of our components and service is our key tool to drive the highest customer satisfaction year after year. 

When it comes to counterfeit mitigation, component analysis is a crucial element to protect our customers’ supply chain.  

At Cyclops Electronics we continuously and thoroughly vet and monitor our supply chain. Since we also have a presence in China, we have the advantage of controlling our incoming goods from Asia in real time on a local level. A large proportion of counterfeit goods often come from China, but because of our presence there we can be much more vigilant than other brokers.  

The Cyclops counterfeit inspection process

Goods coming into the Cyclops warehouse go through a vigorous inspection process on arrival before they are even booked in. All components are photographed and undergo inspection based on the type of part, age, supply chain and specific customer requirements. Basic checks are performed, such as checking the quantity, part numbers and RoHS compliance. 

Our experienced inspectors have the training and technical expertise to ensure quality product reaches the end customer. Parts are then tracked through a barcode system, from supplier delivery note right though to customer despatch.  

Following this, if the parts are still factory sealed, we perform visual checks. If the components are not factory sealed, we are very diligent in our need for further testing. High resolution and secondary checks are undertaken, and testing continues depending on whether the part passes. 

We have very strict protocols in place for testing, and it always follows our process flow. For destructive tests like decapsulation, these are only undertaken in very specific circumstances and need to be requested by the customer. Thankfully, our combination of specialised testing facilities and our team of dedicated inspection staff mean these tests are not often required. 

At Cyclops Electronics we have several optical magnifiers that we use in-house. This includes, but is not limited to, Opticron Hand magnifiers, the vision engineering mantis and the Amscope microscope. We also perform acetone testing, black top testing, reel counters and decapsulation testing. 

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