Do Cloned Parts Exist in the Market?
Mark Snider & Anne-Liese Heinichen
Let’s start with the definition of a cloned part. SAE Aerospace Standard AS6171 Test Methods Standard; General Requirements, Suspect/Counterfeit, Electrical, Electronic, and Electromechanical Parts defines cloned parts as one of seven counterfeit part types:
A reproduction of a part produced by an unauthorized manufacturer without approval or design authority that replicates the authorized manufacturer’s part. NOTE: Cloning eliminates the large development cost of a part. Cloning can be done in two ways: by reverse engineering or by obtaining design information and/or technical data inappropriately (such as by unauthorized knowledge transfer from a person with access to the part design).i
A recent Circuits Assembly article proposed that these dangerous counterfeits have already infiltrated the market and are not just posing a threat to product performance, but to cybersecurity as well.ii The obvious difficulty with clones is determining a product’s authenticity. Given that most currently-available means of counterfeit detection are cost-prohibitive on a large scale and lack industry-wide support and that support from original component manufacturers in determining a product’s authenticity is limited, do reverse-engineered counterfeit clone parts exist?
A recent alert issued by ERAI for an Altera part that had undergone testing in a laboratory cited the following as indicators that the parts were “clone material”:
We spoke to a few members to get their input about clones. Some individuals we spoke to believe that too much financial outlay and time commitment would be required for someone to justify the creation of a reverse-engineering process. Others have also stated that the existence of clones is uncertain as they believe that manufacturers do not disclose enough information, particularly when a manufacturer acquires the assets of another manufacturer providing limited or inadequate data via product change notices. Most individuals employed in the distribution side concur that, without more assistance and input from manufacturers, a product’s authenticity cannot be determined, thus, it is difficult to ascertain conclusively if cloned parts exist. Whether or not clones as defined in AS6171 are real or not may be an ongoing topic of debate. What we do know is the industry is starting to see a much higher quality counterfeiting process. So, are we seeing cloned devices or just highly sophisticated counterfeits? Again, difficult to answer with any certainty without cooperation from the manufacturers, who may be unwilling to even comment on the subject for a multitude of reasons.
Inconsistent font and grammar on all labels which had appeared to be tampered with.
Inconsistent part markings when compared to a known good device.
Inconsistent pin-one indicator cavities which varied in depth.
Solvent tests did not present signs to indicate the parts were not authentic.
A scrape test concluded no resurfacing material was present.
Radiological inspection revealed the lead frame, die size and placement and bond wire gauge and routing were inconsistent from the known good device.
XRF analysis found the leads contained Sn and Cu which did not match the factory label denoting RoHS compliancy code “e4” and varied from those found in the known good devices.
Decapsulation revealed the die layout was consistent between the samples but differed “significantly” from the known good devices.
SEM did not uncover any signs to indicate the components were not authentic.
The parts passed blank check.
In the end, clone or high quality counterfeit may be somewhat irrelevant to your organization depending on your business model. Keep in mind, when we address counterfeits there are primarily two distinctly different sets of stakeholders. The factories and authorized resellers that make their money from the initial sale after fabrication and the integrators and manufacturers that use integrated circuits bundled together with other items to create finished products which, in turn, are generally sold for profit. With this in mind, the two groups may look at the same problem entirely differently. For the IP owner, clones could pose a significant financial threat to their business. For the industrial manufacturing world, the primary concern may be quality, not just initially, but over time. For those of you whose mission or job is to keep counterfeits out of your supply chain, the terminology may be somewhat irrelevant. After all, if the existence of cloning is eventually acknowledged by the IP holders, in the end, cloning is just another form of counterfeiting, albeit much harder to detect than refurbished e-waste.
In closing, what we do know is there is evidence to show that, as expected, counterfeiting processes are evolving and improving, often making them more difficult to detect. With that said, collaboration and data sharing can go a long way in helping to keep the industry informed as new counterfeiting processes evolve.
Share your thoughts with us. Have you encountered a clone? Email us at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
i Fama, Joseph. “Attack of the Clones.” Circuit Assembly Online Magazine, 6 Nov. 2017, www.circuitsassembly.com/ca/editorial/menu-features/28360-attack-of-the-clones-2.html.
ii Aerospace Standard AS6171, Test Methods Standard; General Requirements, Suspect/Counterfeit, Electrical, Electronic, and Electromechanical Parts. SAE International, Oct. 2016
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