Counterfeiting of electronic components has been rising rapidly over the past several years. Indeed, the problem has become so widespread that the U.S. Government was forced to address the issue; studies from 2011 indicated that as much as 40% of the Pentagon’s supply chain was impacted by counterfeit parts. As a result, Congress included a criminal penalty for trafficking in counterfeit goods in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2011. Counterfeit components pose a serious risk to reliability and functionality; authenticity analysis is one way to try to mitigate this risk.
Due to the multitude of different ways that counterfeit electronics are produced, performing authenticity analysis requires a versatile and diverse toolset; often, one tool or inspection procedure is not enough to determine authenticity to a high degree of confidence. Surprisingly, the authenticity analysis process is very similar to a failure analysis project. First, non-destructive testing like x-ray imaging or acoustic microscopy are used to look for bonding anomalies or evidence of “black-topping” (the act of sanding off the markings on a sample, then painting and re-marking it as a more desirable part). The same tools used for fault verification can also be used to create a functional test bench to ensure that a suspect sample performs to specification. Finally, ICs can be decapsulated to inspect the die, which may reveal markings that are inconsistent with those on the package exterior, casting doubt upon the part’s authenticity.
One of the techniques used by counterfeiters is called "black-topping" - identifying marks are sanded off of a device, then black paint is applied and new markings cut. This side-view photograph of a packaged IC shows evidence of black-topping (note the shiny top surface layer).
Two parts with identical dates of manufacture but different internals? Counterfeiters often re-label scrap devices to make them look like their more expensive counterparts. Notice the two circular mold marks on the lower device that are not present on the upper.
Almost all common electronic components may be a potential target for counterfeiters - and, therefore, for authenticity analysis. Ideally, the best protection against counterfeiting is to avoid grey-market vendors, but should that not be possible, authenticity analysis is a good way to verify that components are what they purport to be before assembling them into critical systems.
- Screening samples purchased from a third-party vendor
- Creating a “known good” parts database
- Minimizing risk as a components vendor