Problems with Counterfeit Components

Problems with Counterfeit Components
We are learning about the infiltration of counterfeit components. How big is this problem, and how concerned should we be?
Board Talk
Board Talk is presented by Phil Zarrow and Jim Hall of ITM Consulting.
Process Troubleshooting, Failure Analysis, Process Audits, Process Set-up
CEM Selection/Qualification, SMT Training/Seminars, Legal Disputes
Phil Zarrow
Phil Zarrow
With over 50 years experience in PCB assembly, Phil is one of the leading experts in SMT process failure analysis. He has vast experience in SMT equipment, materials and processes.
Jim Hall
Jim Hall
A Lean Six-Sigma Master Blackbelt, Jim has a wealth of knowledge in soldering, thermal technology, equipment and process basics. He is a pioneer in the science of reflow.


Welcome to Board Talk this is Phil and Jim, the Assembly Brothers, who by day go as ITM Consulting. We're here to discuss your questions and problems and whatever is plaguing you in surface mount technology assembly.

Today we have a question that I'm surprised we don't get more often. The question says, we are just learning about the infiltration of counterfeit components. We are an EMS and we are very concerned. Is this legitimate? What can we do to protect ourselves and our customers?

Wow, where to begin? Welcome to the greatest scourge upon our industry in who knows how long. The four horseman of the assembly apocalypse, whatever you want to call it. Yeah, be very afraid. Be very, very afraid.

Basically, there's been all kinds of estimates. There was as many as $8 billion worth of counterfeit parts back in 2008. There's estimates of 12 percent of product out in the field are affected, but, Jim, nobody really knows.

People don't want to talk about it.

If I'm this EMS and I start saying, "I'm concerned about counterfeit components," how am I going tell my customers, unless I have something air tight to back it up.

My customers say, "Oh, my God," and my competitor down the street says, "Oh, no, we take care of counterfeit components, because we only buy from reputable suppliers."

Yeah, well, wow, where to begin? We know in spite of this, we hear a lot of incidents. Big companies small companies, OEM's, CEM's, all areas of products, and what surprises me, though, is there's an awareness.

People know about incidents, and yet there's a complacency to do anything about it. I think this is based on the myth that, we're going to let our component distributor take care of things. We deal with one of the big component distributors and they claim that they're clearing and certifying their parts. Therefore, how can we go wrong?

Well, there's a lot of ways they can go wrong.

The one that I've heard before is that a very competent and conscientious certified distributor has their inventory compromised through returns.

They sell good parts to Company A. Company A buys them, but they have a temporary large order so they have to go on the gray market and buy some extra parts of the same part number.

They mix their inventory. Now, an order gets canceled, so they have to return some parts to the registered distributor, but what happens is some of the gray market parts, which turn out to be counterfeit, get returned to the certified distributor, who does not conscientiously check the returns.

They're only worried about counterfeit coming in from the supply side. And unbeknownst to them, totally unconsciously, their inventory gets compromised.

There was a discussion held on the floor of Productronica about counterfeit components. One of the panelists said it's everywhere and you're never going to stop it. 

He said people are doing it because there are profits to be made. You can sell counterfeit components for regular prices and make a lot of money. He said once you introduce that, the potential for compromise is anywhere in the supply chain.

Consider the ordinary handling clerk in a stock room. You don't think about them. All of a sudden, this person needs to be a secured person. He cited a known example of a company that manufactured components, and some enterprising person within the company went to the scrap bin, grabbed some parts that were scrap, but still fully marked, so you couldn't identify them.

They had not yet been ground up. Takes them down to the stock room and substitutes them for good parts. Takes the good parts, goes and sells them. But now at the very manufacturing site, you've got a contaminated inventory. And when you think about shipping and handling and so forth, it's not something we typically think of as a controlled job.

When there are profits to be made, people will get bought off. The potential is huge.

Trust no one. We'll be talking about the counterfeit subject quite a bit in upcoming Board Talks.

That's it for this installment of Board Talk. In the meantime, this is Jim Hall and Phil Zarrow from ITM Consulting, the Assembly Brother of Board Talk, wishing you farewell.


To start off learning about the counterfeit components I would first read the Defense Industrial Base Assessment report issued in 2008, and second I would read Phil Zulueta AS5553 SAE report. See links below.

I could mention about 5 other good places to read but that would add another 500 pages more to read. I wrote and posted a white paper at Circuinet back in Aug 2010 tilted Guideline for Avoiding Counterfeit Components. Click the link to download a copy. IDEA and ERAI are also great web-sites to learn about training and counterfeit information.

My approach was to write about the best ways to avoid the Independent market were most all counterfeit component come from. Don't get me wrong the majority of Independents are committed to stopping counterfeit and are leading the way in how to avoid and inspect for counterfeit. My article focuses on two points avoiding the independents and if you have to purchase in this market guidelines for buying. This is a lot of information to digest but there is no easy way around counterfeit.
John P. Wilson
Phil & Jim - I just listened to your Board Talk on counterfeit components, and am interested in your thoughts on preventative measures that IC suppliers and consumers can take to help minimize exposure to counterfeit components.

The AS5553 standard is one document that provides some direction for avoiding counterfeit components, are there any other that you're aware of, or any additional avoidance techniques that can be suggested? I'm in total agreement that this exposure can't be completely eliminated, but steps can be implemented to curtail it.
Phil Smits, Travelers Insurance Co

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