A publication of the National Electronics Manufacturing Center of Excellence December 2003

EMPF Director

Michael D. Frederickson

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Counterfeit Components
Recently, counterfeit electronic components and substrates have come to the attention of both military and commercial electronic assemblers and producers. Counterfeit electronic components and boards are defined as:

  • Substitutes or unauthorized copies of a product
  • A product in which the materials used or the performance of the product has changed without notice
  • A substandard component misrepresented by the supplier

Often the inadvertent use of surrogate counterfeit components results in unexpected premature failure.

The Status of Electronic Product Counterfeiting
Statistics that define the extent of the counterfeit problem are not available. However, both commercial producers and government programs are reported to be affected. Counterfeit components affect systems utilizing a variety of different technologies. The systems and components that are impacted include integrated circuits (ICs), transformers, fuses, resistors, capacitors, relays, motor controllers, heaters, DC power supplies, AC inverters, and transmitters. Of these, chip components and ICs have become an area of large concern, particularly in the personal computer sector where PC motherboards and power management systems are suffering premature deaths from faulty parts. In fact, a number of top-tier computer makers are so concerned about failure that they have begun testing their motherboards [1].

The severity of the problem for key commercial and DOD supply chains still needs to be investigated and assessed. A suitable assessment will include an examination of procurement programs for multiple government and commercial agencies, and a report on the frequency of occurrence. The report should also include the documentation methods utilized by various organizations and their effectiveness for screening multiple component types.

The Source of Counterfeit and Substandard Components
There are numerous documented and undocumented causes for the counterfeit and substandard component issue. Reports have shown that the growing presence of Asian producers in the electronics manufacturing market place has had a direct impact on a recent increase in the circulation of counterfeit parts. The frequency of cloning and other illegal activities performed on ICs and passive devices is expected to rise alongside the demand for devices. Another cause for the release of suspect components has been traced to poor inventory control and disposal methods of OEMs. This practice has unfortunately resulted in "back door" trading of rejected substandard components thus providing an entry point into a complex component supply chain. The component supply chain includes a number of parts manufacturers, authorized distributors, parts brokers, and independent distributors.

Substandard Components
Unspecified changes in component architecture or materials have also been known to produce substandard device performance. This is often driven by high material cost or the inability to produce base metals or polymer products. Some manufacturers and subcontractors use inferior materials and processes to make substandard items whose properties can vary significantly from established standards and specifications.

The EMPF’s failure analysis laboratory has witnessed first hand the effects of undisclosed material changes in chip capacitors, inductors and resistors (Figures 2-1 and 2-2). In one case, the removal of a specified nickel plated diffusion barrier at the inductor's terminals resulted in premature reliability problems. Cross sections of these components revealed separation of the solder from the side of the inductor. This separation was caused by the dissolution of the Ag plating layer into the solder. The vendor did not report the change in the terminal metallization until the customer received several units returned from the field. Without the diffusion barrier, the silver plated inductors were considered to be a high reliability risk for their intended environment. This change in the internal metallization could not be detected by the assembler's normal vendor qualification methods, inspection after assembly, or burn-in testing.

The production of bare circuit boards is not immune to the counterfeit issue. A number of circuit board assemblers and manufacturers have recently reported the use of substandard or unspecified materials in the fabrication of substrates, conductors, laminates, and surface finishes. The EMPF's failure analysis laboratory has observed an increase in the number of cases involving substandard printed wire board (PWB) manufacturing practices. The use of unspecified gold plating has recently come to the forefront of board solderability issues. Changes in laminate and substrate manufacturing have resulted in boards that have increased moisture sensitivity, decreased flexural rigidity, poor adhesive properties, and dielectric properties that are below specifications.

Of particular concern is the use of unspecified materials for the assembly of lead-free and leaded circuit cards. Concerns have grown about the formation of tin whiskers, lead-free material compatibility, and increased processing temperatures. With narrow process windows and ever increasing reliability concerns, the use of specified materials is paramount for improving the transition to environment friendly alloys. As manufacturers experiment with die attach materials and surface finishes, the changes in material specifications often outpace the developed product. These changes often go unnoticed until product failure occurs.

Effective Detection and Protective Measures
The detection of counterfeit components has become increasingly difficult. The majority of parts have the same or similar markings as their qualified counterpart. In many cases, the identification of major manufacturers is applied despite manufacturers’ efforts at product differentiation. Strategically placed logos, alphanumeric marks, and bar codes were tools that manufacturing companies utilized to distinguish their products from the competitors. Now these markings are being reproduced on substandard components and sold as original equipment. Substandard components may have identical exteriors but the internal materials and performance of the components may be misrepresented by the supplier, vendor, distributor or manufacturer.

Standardized practices for identifying counterfeit and suspect components are not readily available to the public. However, many organizations have established internal procedures for identifying, quarantining, and reporting. Recent EMPF Helpline calls have brought to light that the methods for dealing with counterfeit and substandard components are not universal and may even involve techniques that affect component reliability.

Many leading OEMs and contractors are doing extensive testing to determine the overall quality of locally and internationally purchased parts. The Department of Energy (DOE) has their own recommended approach for the resolution of suspect counterfeit semiconductors through their procurement process. These practices are a combination of optical inspection, supplier tracking, physical and electrical testing, and record keeping [4]. Other organizations utilize both procurement and performance based screening methods. Universally, components and PWBs should be quality screened and tested on a lot by lot basis.

1. “Substandard Electronic Parts”, CALCE staff

2."Counterfeit Wave rises in the East", Electronic News Staff, 9/02 Electronic News

3."China Seen as Key to Counterfeiting Problem", Graham, J and Sullivan, L, Electronics Design News and Technology Network, http://www.edtn.com/story/biz/OEG20010216S0069-R

4. “Policy and Procedure for Controlling Suspect/ Counterfeit Items”, Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkely National Laboratory,

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