X-Rayted Files: Semiconductor Shortage—Avoiding Counterfeit Components

From bicycles and sundries to consumer electronics and automobiles, shortages and supply chain issues have hampered an otherwise strong economic recovery as much of the world emerges from the pandemic. Among these challenges, none has received more media attention than the semiconductor shortage. The increased demand for integrated circuits (ICs) to support the internet of things, personal electronics, and all manner of increasingly sophisticated electromechanical products has converged with a supply constrained by capacity as well as interruptions in production.

While the delays in production and product deliveries are notable, a less obvious knock-on effect of the chip shortage demands our attention—counterfeit electronic components. So, while it is yet to make the front page, let’s review some of the best practices that will help mitigate the risk of falling prey to counterfeiters and fraudsters, and maybe even prevent it from hitting the headlines. 

First, counterfeiting isn’t necessarily the dirty business it once was. While many are still sorting, re-tinning leads, re-balling, and re-marking components crudely harvested from piles of e-waste, others have simply taken to counterfeiting entire websites. Simply click on their Google ad, enter the part number you are looking for on their search bar and–low and behold–they have inventory of the part you need, at a tantalizingly low price; all that’s left to do is wire the funds and wait, as the parts fail to arrive, the website disappears into the ether, and they busily build a new site while you scramble to find the parts elsewhere. As improbable as it may seem, this is among the most common frauds currently being perpetrated as a result of the chip shortage. 

So, first on our list of best practices in avoiding being scammed, is to double down on your purchasing protocols. It goes without saying that purchasing through trusted vendors on your AVL is always preferable, but if you need to look beyond familiar faces to source hard-to-find components, stick to your guns on those requirements that have served you so well. For additional assurance, check your potential new vendors standing with organizations such as Independent Distributors of Electronics Association (IDEA) and Electronic Resellers Association International (ERAI), as members of these groups are dedicated to well-established standards for counterfeit abatement. The latter even maintains a database of reported complaints against fraudulent operators like those describe above.

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Figure 1: Missing die makes clear that this component is counterfeit.

For high-value components, counterfeiters can make hay with the inclusion of a small percentage of substandard parts within reels, tubes, or trays of otherwise authentic ICs. Visual inspection techniques have been highly effective in identifying counterfeits, but can be challenging with highly sophisticated fakes, or when 100% inspection is required. X-ray inspection, a well-established practice in counterfeit abatement, has the advantage of being non-destructive, and can be automated to achieve 100% inspection of packaged components in reels, trays, and tubes.

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Figure 2: Parts need not be removed from their reels, tubes, or trays to perform 100% inspection.

The non-destructive nature of X-ray inspection, combined with powerful automation software, makes it ideal for inspecting components, especially in those situations that require 100% validation. The following are proven methods of using X-ray inspection in weeding out suspect components:

  1. Checking for empty package. One of the oldest tricks in the counterfeiter’s book is to sell an IC package with no die.
  2. Inspect for lot anomalies. There should be no discernable differences among parts from the same lot.
  3. Compare against a known good. Whenever possible compare images against a known good sample.
  4. Check for data sheet discrepancies. The layout of the lead frame and the wire bond diagram can tell a lot about a component, and when a known good isn't available, comparing a sample image against information from the data sheet in an important check.
  5. Missing wire bonds. As long as the bond wire isn't aluminum, they should be visible under X-ray examination. 
  6. Internal defects. We often use the term counterfeit to include substandard parts.  Even if "authentic," you don't want rejected or mishandled parts populating your boards.  Look for missing or damaged bond wires or excessive die attach voiding.
  7. External defects. X-ray inspection can reveal external defects like bent pins without having to remove components from their reels, tubes, or trays.
  8. BGA and die attach voids. Crude harvesting of components from e-waste is another favorite pastime of counterfeiters, and along with it, re-balling BGAs. Parts are not properly cleaned, and are often overheated in the process, so it is common to find counterfeited BGA components with excessive surface voids.

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Figure 3: Whether counterfeit or just mishandled, damaged bond wires make this component suspect.

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Figure 4: Some substandard parts are product of harvesting and “refurbishing” used components.

The semiconductor shortage will likely persist well into next year, if not longer. During this period, counterfeiters will be keen to take advantage where they can, be it by fake websites perpetrating wire fraud, passing off refurbished components as new, or via increasingly sophisticated counterfeit parts. In response, we must maintain our vigilance, and continue to execute on our proven best practices for procuring parts. For those high reliability applications requiring 100% inspection, X-ray inspection will play a key role. As an industry, we need to continue working together, reporting fraud where we find it, and sharing best practices openly. 

Dr. Bill Cardoso is CEO of Creative Electron.

 

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2021

X-Rayted Files: Semiconductor Shortage—Avoiding Counterfeit Components

08-11-2021

From bicycles to sundries, from consumer electronics to automobiles, shortages and supply chain issues have hampered an otherwise strong economic recovery much of the world emerge from the pandemic. Among these challenges, none has received more media attention than the semiconductor shortage.

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X-Rayted Files: Tales from the Files of Lithium-ion Batteries

06-23-2021

Lithium-ion batteries have, in part, enabled the continued miniaturization of the devices we love. They have also played an important role in making practical electric cars a reality. But like other approaches high density energy storage, they do present risks.

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X-Rayted Files: Genius, Evil, or Evil Genius?

05-20-2021

Apple dominates its market in many ways. Is this genius for the consumer, or does it effectively rule out any competition? Columnist Bill Cardoso debates its merits—and disadvantages for other players.

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X-Rayted Files: Crafting Our ‘Next Normal’

04-20-2021

As profound an experience as it has been to lead an enterprise through the pandemic, what’s to come may make every bit as much of an impression. So many things that we took for granted as practices and behaviors etched in stone, were interrupted, suspended, or eliminated entirely. As we exit the tunnel into the light of the post-pandemic, we will be challenged collectively in crafting the next normal.

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X-Rayted Files: The Bright Side of the Chip Shortage

03-17-2021

In his previous column, “The Dark Side of the Chip Shortage: Counterfeits,” Bill addressed one of unanticipated outcome of the crisis: the shortage of electronic components and predictable wave of counterfeit components likely to flood the market. Combating that tsunami of fakes may also accelerate the adoption of advanced techniques for detecting counterfeit components.

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X-Rayted Files: The Dark Side of the Chip Shortage—Counterfeits

02-17-2021

It’s February 2021, and as the world slowly recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, another problem plagues the global economy: the electronic component shortage. What some economists have deemed to be a decade of immense prosperity and growth, the “roaring ‘20s” started with a hiccup.

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X-Rayted Files: The Year of 2020 Vision

01-20-2021

What else can we say about 2020 that hasn’t been said? We have so much to reflect on, both to mourn and to be thankful for. The global pandemic has made an indelible mark on us all, and we, like everyone else, are changed forever. With the year behind us, and light at the end of the tunnel, we take a moment to look back as well as look forward.

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2020

X-Rayted Files: Solving for the Limits of Human Visual Inspection

12-16-2020

Because a key element of quality control in manufacturing is still good old-fashioned visual inspection, it’s important to understand the ability of operators to sustain their focus and what we can do to support their success. And while the fallibility of human inspection presents challenges, Dr. Bill Cardoso details how there are many ways to address shortcomings.

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X-Rayted Files: iPhone Transparency—A Window Into SMT

11-17-2020

Though we don’t do them just for fun, teardowns are fun, but they have also taught us more than we could have imagined. Modern teardowns provide critical insights into the nature and construction of these devices. As an example, Dr. Bill Cardoso details the history of the iPhone as told through X-ray.

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X-Rayted Files: A Century of X-Rays in the Automotive Industry, Part 2

10-28-2020

As one of the main users of X-ray inspection, the automotive industry has been one of the main drivers for the development of higher power and higher resolution X-ray imaging systems. Dr. Bill Cardoso continues with Part 2 of this column series.

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X-Rayted Files: A Century of X-Rays in the Automotive Industry, Part 1

09-29-2020

If you have read any of Bill Cardoso's previous columns, you know that he is passionate about X-rays, cars, and electronics. In this column series, he talks about some of his idols, including Curie, Roentgen, Marconi, Galvin, and Ford.

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X-Rayted Files: Is Quality Really Priceless?

08-19-2020

In a day and age when we can learn virtually anything online, manufacturers still manage to be opaque about pricing, especially when it comes to specialty equipment. Some may say, “Quality is priceless,” but Bill Cardoso explains how it isn't.

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X-Rayted Files: Marching Toward 2021, 20 Miles at a Time

07-29-2020

We’re only at the halfway mark, and 2020 has been a real challenge. Our best-laid plans have been cast in doubt by the COVID-19 pandemic. During this transformational time, Dr. Bill Cardoso looks back a century for a bit of inspiration from Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.

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X-Rayted Files: E-Commerce Boom Fraught With Risk—X-Rays to the Rescue

06-17-2020

It’s not news that online sales are increasing dramatically during this global pandemic. However, with increased sales comes the increased risk of return fraud and abuse. Dr. Bill Cardoso explains how X-ray can help detect dummy and counterfeit merchandise.

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X-Rayted Files: Why Do We Break Stuff? Intelligence From Teardowns

05-20-2020

The impulse to break a new gadget to "see what's inside" and to “learn how it works” is often the first sign someone will become an engineer. We’ve learned a lot in over a decade of teardowns, which have helped us to understand how the SMT industry has changed over these years. Bill Cardoso investigates.

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X-Rayted Inspection: Manufacturing in the Eye of a Pandemic

04-08-2020

Dr. Bill Cardoso usually writes about X-ray inspection, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and how it all connects to Industry 4.0. This month, however, he shifts gears and shares some of the things Creative Electron has been doing during the COVID-19 outbreak.

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X-rayted Files: X-ray and AI—A Match Made In Heaven, Part 2

03-18-2020

In Part 1, Dr. Bill Cardoso covered the basics of the relationship between X-ray inspection and artificial intelligence (AI). In Part 2, Cardoso takes a step forward to cover some of the practical ways we use AI to improve the efficiency of our X-ray inspections.

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2019

X-Rayted Files: Will Radiation Damage My Electronic Component?

12-17-2019

Before I start talking about radiation damage on electronic components, let me warn you: if you are looking for a simple “yes” or “no” answer to the question, "Will radiation damage my electronic component?" stop reading now. Things will get complicated. You may feel like I did not answer the question at all, and you would be correct. There are whole conferences dedicated to this question (check IEEE’s Nuclear and Space Radiation Effects Conference), so the goal of this column is to give you some background to guide you to the right answer for your specific situation. Ultimately, the best way is to ask an expert.

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X-Rayted Files: The Currency of Technology

11-11-2019

In the ever-moving tide of technology, the need to innovate requires a constant shift in vision, and this need has never been more evident than in PCB manufacturing. In fact, innovation has become so valuable that PCBs are quickly becoming the currency of technology. Dr. Bill Cardoso explains.

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X-Rayted Files: The Risk of Installing Counterfeit Parts

10-02-2019

In high-tech manufacturing, the use of sub-standard components can be catastrophic. There is no greater need for quality control than in PCBs, as they are only as good as the components installed on them; therein lies the problem. Some components shipped to manufacturers are counterfeit!

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X-Rayted Files: Just Because You Can't See the Problem Doesn't Mean It's Not There!

08-20-2019

In this new column, Dr. Bill Cardoso will cover everything related to X-rays from cool historical facts to the latest in technological advancements, starting with the discovery of X-rays in 1895.

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