Aerospace and defense electronics suppliers in the U.S. are doing a better job of screening out counterfeit components coming mainly from China, and these gains will be reflected in more public cases of flagged parts, according to one electronics contract manufacturer. “You’re going to see incidences going up because we’re finding them,” said Robert Toppel, president of Axiom Electronics of Beaverton, Ore. “We are all looking hard at this. From my standpoint, I think we’re actually getting better.”
Toppel and Joseph Ruggiero, vice president of electronic components distributor North Shore Components, spoke on the topic of counterfeit parts at the Unmanned Systems North America conference in Las Vegas on August 8. The problem was highlighted most recently in May when the Senate Armed Services Committee released the results of an investigation into defense supply chain transactions that revealed 1,800 cases of suspected counterfeit electronic parts, representing more than 1 million individual parts.
In more than 100 of those cases, investigators traced the source of the suspect parts, and 70 percent of them came from China. Examples included electromagnetic interference filters used in forward-looking infrared systems of Navy SH-60B helicopters; memory chips in display units of Air Force C-130J and C-27J transports; integrated circuits in an ice-protection module on the Navy’s P-8A Poseidon; and flash memory devices in mission computers of the Army’s Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system.
In another report released in February, the Government Accountability Office said that it created a fictitious company and joined two Internet platforms that provide access to vendors of military-grade electronic parts. The agency requested quotes for 16 parts and received responses from 396 vendors, of which 334 were located in China. It selected “the first of any vendor among those offering the lowest prices that provided enough information to purchase a given part.” By those criteria, all 16 parts came from vendors in China. All were determined by an independent testing lab to be either suspect counterfeit or bogus–supplied in response to faked part numbers.
Toppel said the problem stems from the discarded computers sent to China and India in recent decades. “The source is a lot of old components that we sent offshore for recycling. In some cases they’re recycling the raw material but in many cases they’re pulling the expensive parts off and using numerous techniques to turn them into higher-value counterfeit parts,” he said. Since the manufacture of electronic components outpaces the design and development of aircraft, many such components are obsolete by the time an aircraft is procured, creating a market for counterfeit parts, Toppel said. Fifty-seven percent of counterfeit parts incidents from 2001 to 2011 involved obsolete components; 37 percent involved parts that were still actively manufactured, according to IHS.
Ruggiero described several advanced destructive and non-destructive testing techniques–including removal of coatings using heated solvent, “decapsulation” of encapsulated die surfaces of integrated circuits, X-ray verification of differences between die frames, scanning acoustic microscopy–that his company uses to flag counterfeit components. “The counterfeiters are constantly getting much smarter,” he said. “As we advance, they advance.”