In this day and age, we rarely build our own computers anymore. Some hobbyists do, but for the most part, people who use computers purchase them pre-assembled. This puts the responsibility of ensuring all the parts are genuine and working properly in the companies that make the computers. There are many ways to detect fake electronic parts, so let’s dive in and see how electronics manufacturers keep the public safe from faulty components and inferior tools.
One of the most common ways an electronic part can be counterfeit is if it is a salvaged or refurbished used one sold as brand new. Used parts are especially dangerous, because they bear the labeling and appearance of genuine parts, as they ARE genuine, but may not work as well, and possibly not work at all. Companies who buy parts often have multiple distributors, so each batch needs to be tested to ensure authenticity.
Particularly sophisticated counterfeit operations will salvage used parts and sand away any evidence of previous use and then coat them with something to make them look new, such as blacktop polymer in the case of chips. Experienced inspectors can use advanced techniques to detect signs of when these things happen. They employ a series of tests to determine how likely a part is to be real or fake.
The first test which can be employed by just about any screener is a simple visual test of a sample from the batch of parts. A trained eye can often tell when something looks off about a component. While this isn’t definitive, it’s a good start the series of tests. Sometimes chemicals and microscopes are used, and depending on the facility, it’s important to have people who are excellent at this job. Sanding marks, blacktopping, reworking, bent wires, serial numbers, names, logos, and ink are all examined closely in this phase. The ink and material the chip is using are especially useful markers, and chemicals can be used to test them both.
After the visual examination, the samples are put through an electrical inspection. Depending on the part, different tests will be run, but they all test whether the part can do its job or not. Voltage, resistance, and capacitance can all be tested in this inspection. In particularly complicated cases, though, such as when the parts are going to be used in machines for incredibly important purposes like military and medical operations, more sophisticated tests are needed. Special hardware and software are built for this purpose, and diagnostics can run for very long amounts of time, sometimes weeks to months.
Samples may also be subjected to x-ray inspections that allow screeners to see what’s inside and make sure that everything is arranged in the proper order. These are always compared to x-rays of known genuine parts which are kept as controls for counterfeit inspections.
Finally, decapsulation is when the sample parts are destroyed to examine the insides directly. Sometimes the part is destroyed mechanically using precise tools, and other times it’s taken apart by tiny jets of acid, which melt away plastics and expose the insides. Special machinery is built for decapsulation, much like many other specialized tests. There are markings on the inside of chips that refer to the manufacturer and the revision level, as well as some other information. These can be compared to data from the manufacturer (and the company’s own records) to ensure authenticity.
There are, of course, many other tests that can be done to test whether an electronic part is genuine or counterfeit. If you’d like to read more, Incompliance has an in-depth view of counterfeit component detection here.