Expect the Unexpected
Fake chips can ruin your day! No, we aren’t talking about questionably edible crispy snacks that leave a bad taste in your mouth. The electronic variety of Fake Chips tend to leave a bad hole in one’s project budget and perhaps in the electronic circuit board on one’s bench. These imposters should be avoided at all costs in most cases.
What do we Actually Mean by “Fake Chips”?
First of all, an electronic “chip”, more properly known as an Integrated Circuit, or IC, is a miniaturized electronic device which acts as a convenient and cost-effective building block in an electronic product. Some chips perform simple functions like adding two numbers, while other chips perform very complex functions such as running an entire computer system.
One can imagine, then, that Fake Chips are electronic chips which, when sold, fail to adequately perform their promised function or are otherwise non-genuine.
How do Fake Chips Actually Affect Industry?
Here at ENA Electronics we often come across fake chips when we reverse engineer electronics and perform circuit board repair in our Hamilton, Ontario, Canada facility. Much of the time we need to find replacement parts and we often prefer to buy exact replacements.
Especially when repairing industrial control electronics we often find the need to source obsolete chips in order to keep the customer’s critical processes up and running.
When the supply of these old chips dries up and demand such as ours continues to exist, actors enter the market to snap-up the dollars of the desperate. Some of these players will provide genuine original new-old-stock (NOS) parts for an inflated price. Others play the gray area and sell “clones”—that is, non-original—chips that provide the same (or very similar) functionality while appearing quite close to the real deal. The most truly Fake Chips are often blatantly non-functional and only the most brazen would intentionally supply them. Utter fakes are usually marked and manufactured to look very similar to the real deal. The result is that sometimes the Fake Chip peddler will provide very convincing items to unsuspecting buyers.
When a Fake Chip is used in a product, the ramifications may be minimal or may be quite devastating. If the chip in question is a “good” fake, it may perform well enough in the application to not be noticed. One may even save money if they buy a cheap fake that works well enough. On the other hand, if a non-functional or poorly functioning Fake Chip is used, the results can be disastrous. Consider a high-power electronic module. In the best-case scenario a Fake Module would simply result in a non-functional product. In the worst case scenario, however, such a fake could be a dangerous hazard, potentially causing fires or even exploding if it is under-rated for the application. In terms of dollars and cents, this could ruin an entire production batch, wasting thousands of dollars and destroying customer confidence at the same time.
Avoiding the Use of Fake Chips
Many of the tools for reverse engineering, troubleshooting, and electronic repair are comfortably applied to the detection and rejection of Fake Chips. One of the best ways to avoid Fake Chips is to compare the chip in question to a known-good unit both visually and in terms of electronic performance.
At ENA Electronics we go the extra mile to identify and avoid fake chips. This helps us ensure that we only ship out high-quality repairs and reverse engineered products to our customers.
Fake Chip Examples
Fake Motorola Chips
Once we purchased some obsolete “Motorola” chips from an online supplier. When we tried to use them, we found strange behaviour on the circuit board. We used our skills as electronic repair professionals to identify the problem: every pin on these chips is short-circuited together! This makes the chips completely non-functional, while they are supposed to work as computer processors. We note that these “Motorola” chips look very similar to the real deal, complete with the Motorola logo and other part markings on the exterior.
We decided to go one step further and (literally) crack one of these Fake Chips open. What did we find inside? We expected to find a piece of metal connecting all pins together. Unexpectedly, the internals look like a real Integrated Circuit under the microscope:
Perhaps this chip is a genuine but factory-rejected part. It even says “MOTOROLA INC” on the silicon die:
We still consider these as Fake Chips since the supplier misleadingly sold us a blatantly non-functional product.
Fake Infineon Chips
Can you spot the differences?
These Integrated Gate Bipolar Transistor (IGBT) modules are used in high-power motor drives. One of them is a fake. Can you guess which one? If you guessed the one with the paint chipping off (on the left), then you guessed correctly.
This specific Fake Chip (or Fake Module) is more of a true fake, a “clone” to be specific, since the creator went to great lengths to make it appear quite similar to the real deal. Nevertheless you can see obvious differences when we place them side-by-side.
The reality is that we pulled this Fake Module from a customer’s unit that came in for repair. We were again able to use our electronics troubleshooting and repair talent to identify the Fake Module as a problem. In terms of functionality, we detected that the Fake Module does perform to a certain degree but fails to live up to the electrical ratings of the genuine part.
Fake Chip Lessons
First of all, don’t use fake chips, avoid them at all costs.
Second, don’t blindly trust your suppliers. Even big-name electronics distributors have been known to (likely unintentionally) ship out fakes.
Third, and finally, if you suspect you have a problem with Fake Chips, don’t hesitate to call us here at ENA Electronics. We are always happy to help our customers solve challenging problems.
That’s all for now, stay tuned for the next one…