Editor's Note

System Design: Forged and Counterfeit Parts (Part II)

By Walter Shawlee | September 1, 2004
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My first encounter with forged parts was almost 40 years ago. I discovered that some U.S. surplus dealers would strip the markings from expensive tantalum capacitors and connectors, and then select or remake them. Tantalums would be bridged out to tighter tolerances and then remarked. The connectors would be disassembled, rotated, reinserted and made into different parts. These efforts were somewhat benign, as all the parts remained original, and the dealers were making them into what the customer needed. But the parts were not what the manufacturer had created. Recall the theft (particularly by insiders) of central processing units and memory parts, beginning in the 1980s. That’s when crime entered the electronics marketplace and quality risks began to escalate.

Other misdeeds have occurred with regard to processor speed markings in an attempt to make standard parts more valuable or to transform industrial parts into mil-spec or space-rated parts. When you consider that quality assurance (QA) and source validation is no more than a piece of paper to the buyer, it soon becomes clear that anyone gifted in altering documents can transform lead into gold. Not surprisingly, the world is now awash in many suspect items, and telling the authentic parts from the fakes is no longer so easy–especially if the forged parts are made from real, but defective or discarded parts.

Now a new phenomenon is making its way into the marketplace: the forging or counterfeiting of commodity parts that have only modest value but are in high demand. Coupled with an explosion in manufacturing outsourcing to countries where standards may be weak, this is a truly alarming situation. Any type of product can be affected, and the problem may not materialize until it is far too late to detect or control.

A major U.S. manufacturer sent me the forged parts you see in these pictures. I am grateful to get the detailed information and sample parts for study and will honor the manufacturer’s request to withhold its identity.

As I explained in my last column (July, page 51), the common path for forgeries is to take rejected parts–such as scrapped capacitors–and tumble off the markings or sand the top surfaces. Original markings are almost always laser-marked on surface mount device (SMD) components; they are shallow and easy to remove. The removal process often makes edges and corners a bit rounded and renders the surface matte rather than smooth. Once the old markings are removed, the parts are then impact-printed with epoxy ink, which is colored to resemble the previous laser-marked appearance, and are sent off as new, premium parts. Parts that have the same appearance but are from second-rate manufacturers also are forged this way, and someday soon could be laser-marked on their production lines–a scary thought.

The pictures on this page show one of the current, most common forgeries: garbage tantalum capacitors that are remarked and sold as premium parts–in this case as AVX, but they could be any U.S. or European premium brand. The AVX comparison document shows fake and real parts side by side. The color picture here shows all fake AVX parts; under high magnification, they are clearly not the original parts and can be seen to be impact-printed.

A quick glance at the parts reveals nothing odd. They appear to have real markings, right down to the date codes and logo. And the parts look real–which they are, but they are rejected parts from an unknown vendor. With accompanying paperwork, such forgeries can travel anywhere in the world via any distribution channel and will pass as authentic. Unfortunately, the parts are flawed and usually will fail within hours, if not immediately. Had they been forged from merely second-rate parts, they probably never would have been detected.

How can you identify the fake parts? Place the part under a magnifying glass or microscope, and simply look for any stamping depressions or lines in solid areas. Real parts are laser-marked and have smooth surfaces, while forgeries have slight depressions by the characters, where they have been stamped. With some simple visual aids you can easily detect a fake. Other chip capacitor makers also have seen their parts forged, and AVX is just another victim in this unhappy story, copied because its parts are known to be of high quality.

The strategy of substituting "rejected parts for good ones," however, is almost appealing, compared with what is happening with fake integrated circuits (ICs) and transistors. In the semiconductor world, some forged parts are just molded plastic leadframes that look real but are either empty inside or contain something completely different. They are remarked to look valuable, but they can derive from scrapped parts or be made from scratch.

Some of the most astonishing forged parts were high-demand, plastic power transistors that contained the incorrect silicon wafer, glued with thermal epoxy to the metal frame. They tested OK but failed almost immediately under load. The parts may even have appeared to be better marked than the originals–which were laser-marked and thus hard to read on black epoxy transistors.

There also are ongoing issues of low-quality Asian-made electrolytics that are marked with higher-performance ratings–a trick especially prevalent with low equivalent series resistance (ESR) and high-temperature parts. These appear to be good parts and command a premium price, but they will fail in as little as 100 to 500 hours. Their recent impact on the computer motherboard industry serves as a reminder of how easily this problem is creeping into all our products.

Any high-value item that can be made from a lower-quality part is a promising target. In addition, any third-tier maker with flexible ethical standards can increase its product’s value by forging the logo and markings of a better manufacturer. The free-for-all technology markets in China–which used to make software copies, $10 Rolexes and bootleg CDs–are now finding new activities to explore.

Since their parts have penetrated the incoming QA systems of some major brand name companies with good procedures, you should assume they will come your way, or have already done so. The best defense is to be more visually oriented during incoming inspection and to insist on sample lot testing for all incoming items, regardless of what they are. Purchasing departments must focus on quality and consistency above pricing and on ongoing relationships with known good vendors, rather than ad hoc shopping for the lowest price. To do otherwise will make you a potential target for forgers.

Even if all these illicit practices were stopped today, millions of forged and counterfeited parts will still be in circulation; we will continue to see them for years. We therefore must reinstitute strong incoming quality assurance on all parts (just as in the days of mil qualification) and stop relying on paper as a substitute for testing and visual inspection. The aviation world has always been careful with parts, so we are easily mobilized to stop these parts at the shipping desk. But first we must realize and accept that they are out there.

Electronics Supply and Manufacturing estimates that the current value of forged parts is between $1 billion and $10 billion annually. We cannot safely assume we will escape this problem.

Walter Shawlee 2 may be reached by e-mail at [email protected].

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