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.

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.

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.

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

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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