Working in the electronics industry is like sailing on the broad sea. No matter how skillfully crafts are guided, they are subject to overwhelming environmental factors, to wit: the last recession.
Two powerful currents move through our industry. As they wash by our businesses they cause change; disrupting and disturbing the old ways. They also provide opportunity; for growth, for career change, and for slight of hand (counterfeiting). Those forces are globalization and RoHS (the Removal of Hazardous Substances - especially as it relates to lead-free components).
Three times this month (I think that constitutes a trend) customers and consultants have enlisted our opinion on the condition of components they purchased as new. At some point they came to believe the components they bought were not what they were advertised to be. They were looking for answers. With help from our friends at Custom Analytical Services (a full service testing and analysis lab) you can see how we began to understand the necessity of certifying the component supply chain.
Two of the suspect component groups were BGAs and one was a gull-wing surface mount part. Each group's unique features led customers down different paths of discovery but ultimately to the conclusion they were being misled in one way or another.
Let me tell you the story of the BGA groups and then get into a little more detail on the surface mount components.
As many of you know, the supply train for components can be long and circuitous. Pick up any industry magazine these days and you'll find someone expressing frustration regarding component labeling or tracking. An assembler may get a series of components from a distributor, or a broker, who gets them from???? And this is just one of hundreds or thousands of parts that go into an assembly. You have to ask yourself, "Do I really know what's inside these components?"
In our first case, a U.S. broker was sending BGA components to a customer in Japan. We didn't know where the broker got the components, but the components were supposedly new and manufactured by a reputable house (at least that's what the label said). When the Japanese company received the components they rejected the lots because some of the component balls were stained with residue as in Figure 1.
Does that look like an original part to you? When everyone was done looking, the conclusion was that most of the component lots sent to the customer were pristine, but one lot was "tampered" with. Were the rejects touched up or carelessly reballed? Were these recycled parts? Hard to definitively say. Queries down the indecipherable supply chain produced nothing; no one seemed to have a clue. Of course the component manufacturer was adamant that these lots were not "tampered" with at their facility. We were inclined to believe them. After that, who knows? The broker had a dent in his bank book, dirty components and a nasty argument on his hands.
The next case occurred on populated boards. Drawing a fishbone diagram to represent the sources of component elements as they flowed to the final consumer would give me a headache. Suffice it to say a customer ended up with boards in his hands that had one component, a BGA, that was not functioning. Why? It turns out the assembler had difficulty getting this one component's solder to flow. The assembly was tin-lead soldered. This component eventually soldered (sort of) at a higher temperature.
I know what you're thinking, "It's a lead-free component." Sure ,that's what we thought too. Logical enough, but things weren't that simple. Calls to the component manufacturer produced insistent denials. So now, the customer had to prove it was lead-free.
And once he had done that, then what? The component manufacturer would still deny it. Aye, yai, yai! What's a body to do?
In the early stages of understanding where these mis-labeled components are coming from, it's important to firs understand what we're dealing with. To that end, there are resources available to find out what's going on with mis-identified components; reputable third party analysis labs. In the case of the surface mount components, we'll see how they may be utilized.
The IPC, bless its international heart, has been working to help us transition to an RoHS world. Coming soon to a web site near you is the IPC 1750 series of Materials Declaration Forms, standardizing the way vendors report RoHS compliance. Just what you need, another form, right?
Now, wait just a gol-darn minute! Considering the fact that this lead-free thing is going to happen anyway, wouldn't it be nice to have a standard or two that enables us to speak the same language? On top of that, we can push these forms down the line, to make each vendor, at least consider, the constitution of the components he's selling or putting into your board.
There's more. As part of the Due Diligence clause of life, the IPC is helping to assemble the IEC-TC-WG 3, Procedures for the Determination of Six Regulated Substances in Electrotechnical Products. That may be a mouthful but it's also a helpful reference beacon that will provide guidance in determining if a component is what it says it is?
It's hard to say where all this leads. For the large manufacturers, qualifying components may be an annoying but necessary exercise. On the other hand, the raft of small to mid-size assemblers and OEMs may find this a little difficult in the early going. On top of the paperwork, there are sampling and testing requirements that may require expensive equipment a small company doesn't have on hand. Some test equipment, like lead test kits and XRF (x-ray florescence) may be within a company's budget, but these technologies have limitations in what they can measure. In order to be sure about the elemental make-up of material, more advanced testing is required. That's when we refer to a fine local analysis laboratory, Custom Analytical Services for help and guidance.
In the case of a certain gull-winged surface mount component, the customer with the suspect parts was conducting a cursory inspection prior to selling these components and got suspicious when he saw a component or two that looked like Figure 2.
Not good of course, but sometimes a handling mishap will cause issues like these. However, the problem parts were randomly dispersed throughout the lot causing the customer to scratch his head.
He called down the supply chain which led into an East Asian firm and guess what. That's right, no one knew anything about any old, altered or re-used components being shipped to him. Well, the customer was not going to take this lying down and knew that if he proved his case he might get a refund on his parts. But he didn't have the equipment to test the material and establish his case so he turned to Custom Analytical.
Don Trenholm, the President of Custom Analytical took the case and analyzed the problem stem to stern. To start, he looked at the components, very closely.
"The exteriors of the devices were closely examined with up to 400x optical magnification for detail of workmanship, exterior markings indicate that these are "Specified Manufacturer" parts.
The marking on both the front and back was good and legible. What was unusual was to see that the marking on the front was in ink (see Figure 3) and the backside was in laser (see Figures 4 and 5). We have always seen component bodies marked; laser top and bottom, or ink top and bottom; we haven't seen a mix of marking systems on components before. Also the package body had the bright and shiny finish to them that you might see when they are reworked and that did not seem right. The devices appeared to be well constructed.
The devices were then opened (the tops were popped) to reveal the surface of the chips. Figure 6 is from the first device that was opened and does not show the "Specified Manufacturer" logo, this part as well as the second part indicate that these devices were made by "Other Manufacturer".
The general workmanship of the devices both exterior and interior was excellent. We looked closely for any signs of marking erasure (and didn't see any), but were unsettled at how smooth and bright the exterior surface of the component body was (in our experience, component bodies - straight from the mold - have a rougher, more textured surface). We also saw bent leads and upon closer examination we could see that the solder was rough and had the appearance of having been reflowed as seen in Figure 2.
Internally we could not find any ID logo that would show these parts to be made by "Specified Manufacturer", rather they show (Figure 6) as having been made by "Other Manufacturer". The condition of the exterior and the condition of the leads, in turn leads us to conjecture that these parts were reclaimed. We conclude then that these parts are not genuine "Specified Manufacturer" manufactured semiconductors"
Well it sure looks like someone had altered these components and put the counterfeits into the supply chain. The yellow tape of the crime scene was lifted as that case was solved and the customer was able to go to " court" with some damning evidence.
That's good, but in the short-term I'm afraid that's just the first of many crime scenes of this sort.
Around the country there are quality testing companies like Custom Analytical Services. They have the ability to support your testing needs with their experience and equipment. If you have questions about the authenticity of parts, or if components meet RoHS requirements, getting in touch with an analytical services company is a good place to start.
Several members of the Circuit Technology Center team contributed to this feature story.