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This article provides information on the various types of counterfeit semiconductors on the market, and methods to prevent counterfeits from ending up on finished assemblies.
George Karalias, Rochester Electronics
As the semiconductor industry has grown, so too has the sophistication of counterfeit semiconductors. The fraudulent manufacturing, distributing, and selling of fake and substandard semiconductors reflects negatively on reputable component manufacturers and distributors. The counterfeit industry also causes purchasing dilemmas for component buyers, problems for equipment manufacturers, and trouble for equipment operators. In worst-case scenarios, counterfeit incidents can drive manufacturers out of business, or result in catastrophic equipment failure disasters.
The Semiconductor Industries Association (SIA) anti-counterfeiting task force has defined counterfeiting as a substitution or unauthorized copy of a product; a product produced by someone other than the original manufacturer in which the materials or the performance has been changed without notice, and/or a substandard component misrepresented by the supplier.
The Supply Chain
Any product that is not supplied directly from the original manufacturer or their approved distribution channel is subject to quality questionability. This applies specifically to components that are purchased through unauthorized sources. Because they are unauthorized, these sources provide no product traceability, no approved quality control, and no manufacturer's guarantee. OEMs in need of critical semiconductors, especially end-of-life components, can be tempted to procure parts that show an initial cost savings or shorter lead times. However, these components are prone to have a high failure rate.
Even incorrect handling of potentially "good" semiconductors can introduce weaknesses and early failure due to contamination or electrostatic discharge (ESD), as well as assembly problems due to incorrect dry packaging. The original manufacturers and their authorized distribution partners understand these problems and take steps to prevent them. The original manufacturers choose their distribution outlets carefully and, from time to time, audit them to ensure their storage and handling protocols are up to date.
Dollars and Sense
The cost of active products supplied from an unauthorized source is sometimes less than it would be from the original manufacturer, except, perhaps, during an original product shortage or in the case of end-of-life products. When purchasing critical semiconductor devices, consider "total cost" instead of pricing. If the purchase price is a bargain, it is probably too good to be true. In the end, the use of faulty counterfeit devices can cost significant manufacturing downtime and/or end product failure. In a safety-critical operation, consequences may be disastrous. These potential end-cost scenarios significantly outweigh any front-end savings.
Figure 1. Component inspection and test will help determine validity.
In addition to monetary losses from production downtime or recalled equipment failures, counterfeit component problems also damage the reputations and credibility of genuine semiconductor manufacturers as well as the OEM. Future business partners seek alternative opportunities when troubles arise.
Types of Counterfeiting
The semiconductor industry is a global industry with worldwide manufacturers, subcontractors, distributors, and customers. There are many ways counterfeit devices are produced.
Total counterfeiting. Semiconductors are manufactured by a counterfeit operation to look like and function in the same manner as the genuine devices. Quality and proper handling are not priorities.
Manufacture at subcontractors (product "skimming"). Semiconductor companies that are fabless rely on subcontractors for device fabrication, and/or assembly and testing of devices. Subcontractors may over-produce or claim a lower production yield than their actual output. The extra devices are then introduced through unauthorized brokers and distributors across the gray market.
Inadequate control during disposal of scrap and rejects. Rejected devices are identified at various stages throughout the manufacturing operation. The rejected devices are sent to recycling or reclamation companies for precious-metals salvage. These operations provide certification to the original manufacturer that scrapping was accomplished. However, salvagers sometimes provide the certification without scrapping the devices, which they then sell into the counterfeiting chain.
Reclamation of used components. Vast quantities of electronic equipment are scrapped each year — dumped in landfill sites or processed through salvage operations for their precious metals. This equipment, however, still contains working semiconductors, some of which are removed for sale on the gray market prior to the final recycling operations.
Figure 2. The package encapsulant is not an ideal surface for complex marking, but processes are improving.
Re-branding to sell at higher cost. Certain counterfeiters target components that are highly priced because of performance requirements and/or the need for stringent testing operations in the manufacturing flow. Examples are devices that must operate at extended temperature ranges, such as in industrial or military applications; or the higher speed versions of memories and processors. Counterfeiters obtain the lower-cost, lower-specification versions, re-mark them, and sell them at the higher price.
Falsely claiming conformance for legislative standards (e.g., RoHS). Legislation such as RoHS in Europe and China bans the use of certain hazardous materials. Counterfeiters provide paperwork stating that devices are compliant with the legislation when, in reality, the devices are non-compliant.
Counterfeit products enter the market supply chain through the sales brokering networks that exist to source and supply difficult-to-find products. It is extremely rare for counterfeit devices to be supplied by an authorized manufacturer or distributor.
Size and complexity make identifying and detecting counterfeit semiconductors increasingly difficult. The encapsulation of many devices is too small a surface to allow sophisticated marking techniques, and counterfeiters find it relatively easy to replicate the original manufacturer's markings on older, larger-packaged devices. It is virtually impossible to screen every device for high-reliability, high-performance, and high-temperature qualifications. In addition, paperwork intended to guarantee compliance can be easily forged.
Figure 3. Counterfeiting can occur when the supply chain is not secure and assemblers look to the gray market to match their demand. Non-authorized distribution can be discouraged by a strong procurement process.
Three types of testing are required to check for counterfeit product. In visual checking, people inspect the device paperwork/documentation, device packaging, and device marking and appearance. Initially, this can be carried out by the buyer, but, if there is any inconsistency or uncertainty, the original manufacturer must be involved. Some disassembly of product may be necessary to check the last two items. Electrical testing typically requires help from the original manufacturer. While there are independent test houses that can check electrical performance, they are unlikely to be able to test a device exactly the same way it was tested by the original producer. Finally, reliability testing is a complex exercise and one that takes considerable expertise, equipment, and time.
Development of identification technology is an emerging process. Original semiconductor manufacturers are working on various sophisticated techniques for semiconductor device marking. One example is hidden encrypted, on-chip performance designation and more sophisticated coded marking. Another example is radio frequency (RF) tagging of devices and packaging.
There are ways that manufacturers and customers can address the problems of counterfeiting and legally protect themselves from the counterfeit operations. Original component manufacturer's (OCM's) can legally register their trade and product branding marks. Technologies can be patented, and chip designs can be registered. Counterfeiters will ignore all of these legal entities unless they see registrations being enforced, prosecutions being successful, and sufficiently punitive penalties being imposed. In addition to only purchasing directly from the original manufacturer or their authorized and franchised sources, OEMs must create and manage an effective procurement process. Historically, there has been reluctance from both OCMs and OEMs to report instances of counterfeit activity. Until the industry openly admits the problem is occurring, makes the enforcement authorities aware of the problem, and works together to address the problem, counterfeiting will continue to grow. More recently, both original and contract manufacturers have revealed specific instances of counterfeit part usage in an effort to work together to identify counterfeiting instances and prosecute offending sources and manufacturers.
In the U.S., the SIA now recognizes counterfeiting as a major threat to the sustainability of their industry. In 2006, they established an anti-counterfeiting task force to address the problem, raise awareness, and develop countering methods and procedures. Recognizing that they cannot achieve success through their efforts alone, they proposed working with other trade bodies such as the National Electronic Distributors Association (NEDA), and legal authorities such as the Department of Defense (DoD). Since the counterfeiting epidemic is a global phenomenon, it is vital for trade associations and legal authorities worldwide to communicate and support the fight against counterfeiters.
Semiconductor counterfeiting damages the industry by destroying the credibility of the legitimate manufacturers and distributors, as well as the OEMs that unintentionally use counterfeit devices and experience equipment failures. To date, there have been few cases of successful counterfeit prosecutions.
Only with global cooperation between industry members and governments will anti-counterfeiting efforts be successful. If devices are procured from a questionable source, the risk of receiving damaged or counterfeit devices is high. Without continuous traceability, a device must be subjected to the fullest extent of comprehensive, supplier-approved testing, especially if the devices are to be used in mission-critical situations. Ultimately, there are only two fail-safe ways to ensure that the components being purchased are legitimate: buy directly from the original manufacturer or enlist the help of authorized distributors and manufacturers. SMT
George Karalias, the director of marketing and communications at Rochester Electronics, may be contacted via email@example.com.