Re-assessing Counterfeit Detection, Confirmation Technologies

07.18.2012 // Murray Slovick // New Technology

There is no arguing the fact that counterfeiting concerns loom ever larger throughout the supply chain. As reported recently by the information and analytics firm IHS, considerably more than 12 million parts have been involved in global counterfeit incidents in just the past five years, equating to more than one counterfeit part every 15 seconds during that period. A total of 57% of counterfeit-part reports from 2001 through 2012 have involved obsolete or end-of-life (EOL) components, and another 37% were active parts, according to IHS.

Still, I must admit to some surprise reading reports in the blogosphere coming out of last week’s Counterfeit Electronic Parts and Supply Chain Symposium held at the University of Maryland. Those attending heard that the Department of Defense (DoD) is about to engage in a project to assess counterfeit detection and confirmation technologies and identify the “best” tools available for component hardware test and evaluation. Giving added credibility to these reports is that they follow similar conversation a month ago regarding the Missile Defense Agency’s soliciting new techniques to weed out fake electronic parts in weapons systems.

That elements of DoD are on to counterfeiting like water on a duck should be expected given new government requirements calling for a careful look at inspections and tests necessary to detect and intercept counterfeit parts. In particular section 818 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 (Public Law 112-81) requires DOD to adopt comprehensive guidance and processes for the detection and avoidance of such parts. There is also continuing sensitivity at the Pentagon following a year-long investigation launched by Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Ranking Member Sen. John McCain ( R-Ariz.), which found among 1,800 cases of bogus parts suspect parts in the Air Force’s C-130J cargo plane as well as in assemblies intended for Special Operations helicopters and a Navy surveillance plane.

Given all of this, however, the surprising element, at least to me, was a challenge to the assumption I had that nobody fusses too much these days over test procedures because there is no shortage in the number of uniform requirements, practices and tests available for the identification of counterfeit electronic parts. One can discuss until the wee hours of the morning what minimum tests and inspections are necessary to detect counterfeits or which procedures should be employed for the proper reporting and disposal of bogus parts, but I pretty much thought they’d gotten the recipe right in terms of the tests that are readily available.

Let me review the basis of this belief (and get a spoon ready, because I’m about to serve you a hot bowl of test standard practices and requirements). We’ll start with IDEA-STD-1010, which sets forth requirements for visual examination and acceptability criteria of electronic components purchased and sold in the open market. IDEA-STD-1010 documents industry-accepted quality criteria for electronics components. And while there is minimal electrical testing specified in IDEA 1010, SAE’s standard AS5553 (Counterfeit Electronic Parts; Avoidance, Detection, Mitigation and Disposition) more than makes up for it by including a recommended suite of inspections and tests designed to detect counterfeit electronic components.

Intended for use in aviation, space, defense and other high performance/reliability electronic equipment applications (and adopted by the DoD), SAE AS5553 is quite rigorous as the following table of its process flow requirements demonstrates:
















If that’s not enough, SAE has another, yet-to be completed standard in the works. SAE AS6171 will serve as the supply chain industry's first standard written specifically for the benefit of the testing/inspection community. AS6171 will try to standardize practices to detect suspect counterfeit electronic parts and to ensure consistency of test techniques and requirements across the supply-chain. While the standard is not yet published we do know that:

  • It will include external visual inspection, radiological inspection, x-ray fluorescence, tests for remarking and resurfacing, de-lid physical analysis, electrical tests, acoustic microscopy, optical/SEM inspection, FTIR (Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy), DSC (Differential Scanning Calorimetry) and Thermo-Mechanical Analysis (TMA).
  • The level of testing is risk-based and includes sampling plans
  • Accreditation of the Test Laboratory will ensure the impartiality and competence of the Test Lab.

A closer examination of current practice shows that counterfeit part test procedures are not exactly limping along with yesterday’s technology. Following are details on each of the tests that constituted the authentication analysis for parts purchased as reported in the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services inquiry into Counterfeit Electronic Parts in the Department of Defense Supply Chain (REPORT 112–167, May 21, 2012). All tests were conducted by SMT Corp.

  • Visual inspection (to catch obviously deficient parts): Visual inspection is performed on a predetermined number of samples (usually 100 percent) to look for legitimate nonconformance issues as well as any red flags commonly found within suspect counterfeit devices.
  • Resistance to solvents (RTS): A mixture of mineral spirits and isopropyl alcohol is used to determine the part marking resistance and pure acetone is used to remove any resurface material. This test is not performed on all parts. In some cases, resurfacing material would not be used by counterfeiters to re-mark a part; in others, the solvents would remove markings even on legitimate parts.
  • X-ray florescence (XRF) elemental analysis: The XRF gathers and measures the elements within a target area. This is used specifically for testing components for RoHS or Hi-Rel conformance, which refer to dangerous substances such as lead (Pb), cadmium (Cd), and mercury (Hg) that are commonly used in electronics manufacturing. For suspect counterfeit devices, it helps determine if a component has the correct plating for the specification it is supposed to adhere to.
  • Package configuration and dimensions: This test measures key areas of the device to see if they fall within industry specifications.
  • Real-time X-ray analysis: X-ray analysis is performed on a predetermined number of samples (usually 100 percent). The internal construction of components is inspected (depending on the component package type) for legitimate issues such as broken/taut bond wires, electrostatic discharge damage, broken die, and so forth. For suspect counterfeit devices, the differences in die size/shape, lead frames, bond wire layout, and so forth are inspected.
  • Scanning electron microscopy: A scanning electron microscope is used to perform an exterior visual inspection-more in depth than the previous visual inspection. This is usually performed on a two-piece sample from the evidence lot. Depending on the package type, indications of suspect counterfeit devices are sought, including surface lapping, sandblasting and sanding with regard to part marking removal.
  • Solderability: This test is usually for legitimate components to determine if they will solder properly when they are used in production.
  • Dynasolve: Dynasolve is a chemical used to break down epoxies in an effort to remove resurfacing material that is impervious to the standard RTS test.
  • Decapsulation/de-lidding and die verification: The die of a component is exposed with either corrosive materials or a cutting apparatus. This is done to inspect the die or "brain" of a component to determine its legitimacy. This process is performed on numerous samples to look for differences between samples, such as die metallization layout, revisions, part numbers and so forth, all of which are red flags for suspect counterfeit parts.

Admittedly, the counterfeit landscape is shifting and morphing and there is a need to continuously improve our techniques for detection of counterfeit devices. Detection methods effective today may have diminished success in the future so we must be continuous vigilant in our detection efforts.

Still, it will be interesting to see what the DoD comes up with.

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Featured Contributor:
Murray Slovick

Murray Slovick

Murray Slovick is Editorial Director of Intelligent TechContent, an editorial services company that produces technical articles, white papers and social media posts for clients in the semiconductor/electronic design industry. Trained as an engineer, he has more than 20 years of experience as chief editor of award-winning publications covering various aspects of consumer electronics and semiconductor technology. He previously was Editorial Director at Hearst Business Media where he was responsible for the online and print content of Electronic Products, among other properties in the U.S. and China. He has also served as Executive Editor at CMP’s eeProductCenter and spent a decade as editor-in-chief of the IEEE flagship publication Spectrum.

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