The US government naturally wants a whistle-clean military supply chain. Recent legislation like the National Defense Authorization Act also confirms Congress won't settle for anything order than a counterfeit-free military procurement channel. All indications are that electronic equipment manufacturers and their suppliers understand this and are racing to plug holes through which fake products sneak into the supply chain. (See: Counterfeiters Aren't Winning: Here's Why.)
To combat the scourge, semiconductor suppliers, passives and electromechanical components vendors, and OEMs are employing traditional anti-counterfeiting tools as well as new and highly innovative approaches. In addition, many companies are taking simple steps to plug holes in their own systems to ensure that customers are promptly notified in the event fake products are detected. They are also implementing a range of actions that make it either highly difficult or extremely expensive for anyone (not only counterfeiters) to benefit from, or be able to traffic in, products bearing labels without clearance or permission.
One company that has instituted a subtle anti-counterfeiting program is Linear Technology Corp. Alastair Boyd, an executive in the UK branch of the analog IC vendor, said during a presentation at Electronics Sourcing Live that Linear Technology helps keep the supply chain clean by never moving any of its components to obsolescence.
How does this help in the fight against counterfeiters? As long as Linear Technology continues to supply and support legacy components at decent pricing, OEMs involved in the maintenance of older equipment don't feel pressured to scour the market for secondhand parts and perhaps fall into the hands of unscrupulous dealers.
The task isn't easy; counterfeiters have various ways of infiltrating the supply chain, and many of the products they pump into the system are not necessarily fake but could be simply substandard, or marked for the wrong application or speed and relabeled. In fact, a great chunk of what the industry has dubbed counterfeits are legitimately produced products that, for a wide number of reasons, don't belong in the inventory channel but have been injected into the system via a backdoor, according to Bob Willis, a UK-based expert on counterfeiting.
"In an ideal world, components would only be purchased from the original producer, a franchised distributor, or an approved non-franchise source," Willis said during a separate presentation at the ES Live show. "However, it's never an ideal world."
How's the industry trying to even the odds against counterfeiters? As previously noted, suppliers are nowadays taking both conventional and non-conventional approaches, but they are increasingly opting for high-tech weapons. Here's a sampling of some tools identified by Willis in his presentation:
- Component reference database.This is a database containing information and detailed specs on specific components from the original manufacturers. It is often used to confirm product authenticity by randomly matching freshly delivered or suspect parts against metrics such as size, branding, and batch numbers provided by suppliers. Even a minor dissimilarity from the specs should set off alarm bells, according to Willis. "Reference component details should be obtained when a component is known to be: going obsolescent, on long lead times, difficult to obtain, or found to be in circulation as a counterfeit product."
- Photo guide. While this is a low-tech option, it can be used quite quickly and inexpensively by component engineers and purchasing professionals to check the genuineness of suspicious parts and packages. A swift visual check against original information from suppliers would indicate whether or not markings such as logos, reel labels, and outer packing labels have been altered or reproduced.
- Updated material handling procedures. OEMs are updating their material handling procedures and standardizing processes to ensure traceability of products to original suppliers, distributors, and contract manufacturers. By doing this, suppliers are limiting the number of counterfeit parts that can be introduced into the supply chain by sources claiming to be returning old, unused, or damaged components.
- Early exchange of NPI information and sales quotes. The NPI (new product introduction) process is often fraught with challenges for suppliers and end-users. But by exchanging information promptly about changes to specs, markings, and component size (due to miniaturization, for example) companies are able to reduce the need to speculate about the genuineness of older parts. Sometimes parts identified as counterfeits are not really fakes but could have been mislabeled as such due to changes in packaging and size that were not properly transmitted to procurement and other end users.
- Automatic flagging. Companies are automating their supply chains to automatically flag components that don't match prescribed criteria. Many suppliers and distributors have introduced strict requirements for "further inspection of potentially counterfeit components" once these have been flagged for closer review by mechanical and electronic IT systems that have picked up on errors in coding and batch labels.
- Independent laboratory inspection and product verification. The increased attention to the problem of counterfeiting has led many industry experts to set up independent laboratory services that help companies determine the authenticity of products in their supply chains. Some companies routinely send samples of new batches for testing by these laboratories, many of which have high-tech solutions for quickly determining the genuineness of the parts. While their services can be expensive, they have become essential resources for companies unwilling to invest in internal verification of high-end components.
- X-ray of component packages. This is another expensive verification process that some suppliers have instituted to quickly sort out suspicious packages, especially when visual inspection proves unreliable. The X-ray can be used on packets as well as actual components to match items like supplier-specific branding and even the number of pins on parts.
The above represents only a sampling of some of the counterfeit component examination tools being used in the industry. Other tests used include the following identified by Willis:
- Review documentation/specification
- Manual optical/mechanical inspection
- Comparison of surface and color of molding material
- Termination and plaiting confirmation
- Mechanical testing and solvent resistance on markings
- Decapsulation and internal inspection
- Electrical testing
- Electrical and reliability screening
All these steps will not completely eliminate counterfeiting in the electronics industry, but by devoting the resources and time to ensure compliance with industry standards and regulatory requirements, the industry is slowly and efficiently tightening the noose on counterfeiters.