How One Company’s Detective Work Roots Out Counterfeit Electronic Parts

The proliferation of bogus electronic parts is relatively new, and the problem’s cause is unique compared to most other aircraft components. Fortunately, the aviation industry can turn to labs such as at Integra Technologies.
by David Jensen

Although counterfeit, or bogus, parts have long plagued the aviation industry, their existence in airborne electronic systems is relatively new—and unique. Counterfeit parts commonly emerge once the original part is no longer manufactured thus becoming obsolete. Driven by the mile-a-minute changes in the consumer electronics market, components such as integrated circuits (chips), connectors and resistors can become obsolete even before the airborne system that incorporates them is produced—indeed, even before the system is developed and certified. The U.S. Department of Defense refers to the parts obsolescence issue as DMSMS (diminishing manufacturing sources and material shortages).

Not surprisingly, when a system such as a radio, radar or display is fielded and needs support, the production of the original parts it encases likely is long past. Small orders, say, for fewer than 100 parts, often indicate a maintenance requirement.

When the primary sources of electronic components run dry, the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) of avionics must seek other parts providers, either to continue producing their airborne systems or to support their systems or both. At the same time, they also must brace for the possible infestation of bogus parts.

One way to avoid bogus electronic components in the supply chain is to have them thoroughly examined and tested. To learn about the bogus electronic part problem, Aviation Maintenance traveled to Wichita, Kan., to visit Integra Technologies. Nestled inconspicuously among shopping plazas in the city’s bustling northeast quadrant, it is one of the world’s largest labs equipped to evaluate electronic components. Mark Marshall, vice president of engineering, tells us about the sources of bogus electronic parts and how his company detects their inauthenticity.


When Parts Run Out

The manufacturing cycles of most electronic parts are “driven by their use in commodity-based, consumer products,” says Marshall. He notes that the turnover of items such as laptops, computer tablets and smart phones has reached a fever-pitch pace compared to that of airborne systems, which must be tested extensively, certified and potentially used for many years. And while the industrial and automobile markets may be large enough to entice electrical parts manufacturers to lengthen their production runs on some components, the aviation industry is not, Marshall asserts. “For them, the aviation market is just too small.”

The only recourse for avionics OEMs is to stock up. An electronic component manufacturer commonly issues a product change notice (PCN), announcing when it will no longer produce a certain part. OEMs that incorporate the part in their systems usually then make last-time buys (LTBs), purchasing the part in large quantities.

So crucial is the need to stock up adequately that most manufacturers of critical electronic systems supplement their supply-chain management expertise with the forecast services of the Center for Advanced Life Cycle Engineering (CALCE), which exists within the University of Maryland’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. Among other offerings, CALCE has developed algorithms used to predict the date for an electronic part’s obsolescence.

However, with all input and calculations made, electronic systems manufacturers’ parts inventory still may fall short. “And sometimes overzealous [inventory] managers decide prematurely that they don’t want their inventory, and they get rid of it,” Marshall adds.

At this point, an avionics manufacturer must look to “secondary sources,” or parts brokers, for obsolete components. Generally, brokers buy up unused parts from the manufacturers, “probably for pennies on the dollar,” says Marshall. “They stock the inventory, hoping that someday somebody will need the components.”

In some cases, the broker does not stock parts but serves as an agent who can find sources for components. “Brokers can range from very sophisticated, very capable organizations to, literally, one person with a phone,” says Marshall.


Made in China

Determining the true source of an electronic part may be tricky, and counterfeit parts can inadvertently enter a supply chain. The primary sources of bogus parts are in China, where companies have found a lucrative business selling components meant to be destroyed. The illicit process works as follows.

In the past decade, many of the used-up computers, industrial electronics and consumer devices have been considered junk and sent to China for demolition to recover recyclable materials. According to Marshall, recycling electronics is a “messy process, involving hazardous materials,” that many western countries would rather avoid.
The Chinese companies will accept electronic junk, also called “e-waste,” but instead of presumed demolition, they strip off the electronic devices and attempt to resell components.

Although he admits it is difficult to say where bogus parts come from, Marshall claims that most suppliers “are almost all overseas [non-U.S.],” and he estimates that “80 percent, and perhaps more, of the parts come from China.” He bases this high estimate on the fact that most counterfeit parts sources have been traced back to that country. Chinese companies have “built an industry” around bogus electronic parts, he states.

A U.S. congressional study completed in 2012 confirms Marshall’s assessment of the counterfeit parts problem. According to the daily newspaper Wichita Eagle, the study reports that in 2009 and 2010, 1,800 cases of bogus parts were reported in the United States, totaling more than one million electronic components. It also claims more than 70 percent of the bogus parts came from China. Marshall says about five to 10 percent of the electrical components his company tests from broker sources are found to be counterfeit.

At first, according to Marshall, the illegitimacy of bogus parts was easy to detect. The counterfeiting entity initially “would simply sort out the parts by pin count and package, regardless of what was inside them, then sand the top of the part and remark it to look like something else,” he explains. “Even if you failed to detect them as counterfeit, as soon as you put the part on a [circuit] board, you knew it was wrong because it didn’t work.”

But the Integra vice president warns that counterfeiters have become much more sophisticated. “They’ve gone from parts sorting to numerous methods of counterfeiting,” he says. “More often, you will now get the right part or device function, but it may be used or have been modified.” The counterfeiters have also begun refurbishing used parts, cleaning and recoating them to look like new.

In fact, according to Marshall, electronic components can sometimes look too new. “It’s a red flag,” he says. Unused parts that have been in storage over time usually appear less than new. “Things oxidize,” he explains.

Paperwork accompanying an order for parts assures no protection against counterfeiting. “Original paperwork is usually lost anyway,” says Marshall. “And the counterfeiters can falsify paperwork, too.”

He says the obsolescence problem that bore counterfeiting “certainly has accelerated over the past 10 years.” He sees the problem worsening, though perhaps at a somewhat slower pace.

Lab Detective Work 

The counterfeit problem has prompted avionics OEMs to seek out the services of companies such as Integra Technologies. Although many electronics test labs exist worldwide, they remain rather exclusive to certain niche testing requirements. Marshall estimates there probably are “fewer than 50 labs in the U.S.” With 200 employees, Integra is one of the largest labs and among the select few that specializes in electronic parts.

A tour of Integra’s facilities reveals an environment as clean and orderly as a hospital operating room. Occupants must wear smocks made of conductive fibers to dissipate static electricity, which can damage components. The engineers and technicians also must wear wrist straps and shoe covers. For some tested product types, hairnets must be worn. Room temperature and humidity levels are scrupulously controlled.

Integra Technologies tests electronic components for various reasons. Most tests are for parts qualification and/or acceptability, testing for a certain application requirement. A tested part may be an application-specific integrated circuit, or an ASIC, which is custom made. For, say, aviation or military use, a part generally must be tested to operate in temperatures ranging from -55 to 125 degrees C.

The company employs temperature-forcing units to test parts in various physical environmental conditions. And, using automatic test equipment (ATE), Integra’s electrical engineers design conditions meant to simulate the operational environment in which a part must perform. Extreme conditions may be employed to accelerate the part’s life. Given that ATE such as the Teradyne J750 and Verigy/Advantest 93000 can cost up to a million dollars and more each, the company gets all possible use out of its equipment, performing tests on electronic parts 24 hours a day seven days a week.

Integra Technologies has some 400 customers, including all major avionics and aircraft equipment manufacturers. “The biggest drivers of the qualification work are space and military users,” says Marshall. “NASA and its subcontractors are the most exacting customers, often requiring extended testing flows that can entail many months of environmental stressing and analysis.”

For counterfeit parts detection, we saw Integra technicians viewing computer screens hooked to microscopes and X-ray machines. They work like detectives searching ever deeper for clues to determine authenticity.

An integrated circuit, for example, first will be examined under a low-magnification microscope to check its overall condition and for suspicious anomalies. From there, the part may go to a person using a high-magnification (1000X) microscope to see, for instance, if the identification inside the package matches the identification on its outside. To examine its internal construction, the integrated circuit may then be X-rayed. Commonly, a number of parts in a batch are X-rayed to assure consistency in their construction, according to Marshall.

Counterfeit detection is not all black and white. “There may be gray areas,” says Integra’s vice president. “If we’re not certain a part is counterfeit, we may say it is ‘suspect’.” Any uncertainty is counterbalanced by thoroughness. From its tests, Integra will submit to its customers copious reports—sometimes 50 pages with both copy and photographs—and initiate conference calls to go over the details of its testing. “Usually, we have fairly high confidence [that counterfeiting has or has not been detected],” says Marshall. “But occasionally, the evidence is just not overwhelming, so we end up on the side of caution.”

Bogus part detection represents a significant part of Integra Technologies’ business. Since the issue of obsolescence and parts counterfeiting is showing no signs of going away, the company expects continued growth in this area.

For the foreseeable future, the aviation industry will no doubt require the services Integra provides. “Even a company like Fokker, which hasn’t made aircraft in years, is still supporting their planes,” says Marshall. “And we are there to support them.”

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