Counterfeit Microelectronic Parts and Inspections & Tests That Reveal Them

New government requirements call for a careful look at inspections and tests necessary to detect and intercept counterfeit parts. When considering purchases from suppliers other than the original manufacturer or its authorized suppliers, risk assessments must account for the fact that the probability of a counterfeit electronic part quality escape will depend heavily on supplier qualification requirements and the extent of inspections and tests applied to detect counterfeits. The design of test and inspection flows should include a reliability physics methodology necessary to reveal the more insidious varieties of counterfeit and fraudulent parts circulating throughout the open market.

NOTE: For the purpose of this specific essay, I use the expression ‘counterfeit and fraudulent parts’ due to new proposals to designate ‘used parts presented as new’ as ‘fraudulent parts’ and rather than including them within the definition of ‘counterfeit parts’.

SAE standard AS5553, Counterfeit Electronic Parts; Avoidance, Detection, Mitigation, and Disposition, includes a recommended suite of inspections and tests designed to detect counterfeit electronic components. This suite of inspections and tests includes low cost and expedient techniques that reveal easily detectable counterfeits, but also includes more rigorous, costly and time consuming methods to (a) detect more subtle variants of counterfeiting that can affect performance in the end use application and (b) reveal defects from damage induced by inadequate handling and storage, termination refurbishing, or reclamation. In an earlier essay, I described how despite the inspection and testing protocol applied by Independent Distributors and “Brokers”, counterfeit products continue to escape detection. Close examination of GIDEP reports reveals that the testing and inspection approach applied by the supplier did not include important methods described in AS5553, particularly the more rigorous, costly and time consuming methods that have greater potential to detect more subtle variants of counterfeiting that can affect performance in the end use application and to detect defects from damage induced by inadequate handling and storage, termination refurbishing, or reclamation.

Techniques used in the counterfeiting industry are continuously advancing. Though counterfeit detection methods have been developed in recent years, counterfeiters continue to hone their craft to counter these methods. Examination of the GIDEP reports reveals that the supplier was not applying methods to counter newer and more advanced counterfeiting techniques discussed at various industry conferences, symposia and training programs available to Independent Distributors and brokers.

The types of counterfeit electronic parts vary significantly. Some types of counterfeits do not work and others do not behave at all like the authentic item. The probability of a quality escape for these types of counterfeits is relatively low; less expensive and relatively quick inspection and testing methods fairly readily reveal the techniques used to disguise them. Other types of counterfeits, however, closely resemble the authentic item and variations in performance are difficult to detect without extensive testing of the electronic parts themselves. Many microelectronic devices providing the same function are available with different levels of precision, speed, power, etc. Without access to the original manufacturer’s design data it is frequently difficult if not impossible to distinguish among these varieties in performance without performing comprehensive electrical testing, including testing over the performance temperature specified by the original manufacturer. Counterfeit case reports record instances where the contractor ordered a device with higher electrical performance specifications among those produced by the original manufacturer. The supplier, however, offered and shipped parts identified as meeting the higher performance requirement, but the parts contained chips with inferior electrical performance specifications. This is much like ordering a 5-series BMW, but receiving a car with the body and interior of a 5-series product and the engine of a 3-series; it would take a road test the reveal it. We all can think of analogous examples that are far more perilous for the user. As counterfeiters continue to refine their techniques to disguise parts, tests and inspections must go beyond kicking the tires and include methods designed to best understand the functional characteristics of the device (such as electrical testing) to reveal these more subtle forms of counterfeits.

Used parts, such as those removed from e-waste by counterfeiting operations, present a significant challenge, particularly as the techniques applied by counterfeiters to disguise them become increasingly difficult to detect. Those who have studied the counterfeit parts problem and their origins are very familiar with photos that illustrate methods used to remove parts from discarded electronics (see slides 15 and 16). Methods associated with counterfeiting operations hardly resemble the controlled rework and repair operations of a competent and ethical equipment producer and authorized repair service. Parts can be damaged due to uncontrolled removal from electronic assemblies and inadequate storage and handling conditions. Used parts may go undetected during electronic equipment assembly and testing if electrical and acceleration testing had not been performed on the parts prior to assembly into the equipment. During testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Lt General Patrick O’Reilly stated “Although a counterfeit part may have passed [equipment] acceptance testing, we do not know its remaining operational life…”.

Inspection and test protocols should be designed to reveal failure mechanisms induced by exposure to conditions used parts are subjected to during counterfeiting operations such as excessive heat, moisture, contaminants, electrostatic discharge and the combinational effects of these exposures. To illustrate, I refer to a table developed by semiconductor reliability physics and microelectronics packaging reliability subject matter experts. This table illustrates tests applied to qualification and process monitor activities associated with semiconductor product reliability monitoring practices. It shows stresses associated with tests, the specific failure modes induced by these stresses, and the contributing failure mechanisms. A similar approach should be used to design Inspection and test protocols for the purpose of revealing and quantifying damage caused during counterfeiting operations. The suite of inspections and tests recommended by AS5553 includes elements intended for that specific purpose.

As industry, the US Government and standards organizations develop authenticity verification approaches, I strongly encourage them to enlist semiconductor reliability physics and microelectronics packaging reliability subject matter experts in the design of test and inspection approaches necessary to reveal the more insidious varieties of counterfeit and fraudulent parts circulating throughout the open market.

© Henry Livingston

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