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Written by Mike Buetow   
Friday, 31 October 2008 19:00
Caveat Lector For some time, we’ve been writing about problems related to counterfeit components. Mainly, the issue was one of gray market parts, whereby obsolete assemblies were shipped as e-waste to third-world or emerging nations that were more than happy to take large checks from the West in exchange for accepting boatloads of our trash. The used PCBs were then chopped up, generally by hand, with the parts removed, cleaned (occasionally), and sold in buckets in outdoor market stalls across southern China. By hook or crook, they would make their way back into the supply chain, where some unwitting or unscrupulous dealer would procure and resell them to a likewise unwitting or unscrupulous user.

The path by which these parts are returned to the mainstream has traditionally been low budget, labor-intensive transactions. But somewhere along the line, someone recognized the potential to go big-time with the scam. As has been disclosed to Circuits Assembly by persons who have visited these sites, some manufacturers now operate the “fourth-shift,” whereby counterfeit parts are produced in the same factories as legitimate ones. These vendors, it seems, operate lines in one room producing parts for big-name component suppliers, while simultaneously running other lines that produce almost-impossible-to-detect knockoffs. The problem has evolved from one of the hustlers trying to make a buck into a systemic, industry-wide contagion. The local pot farmer has become a narcotics dealer with a worldwide distribution channel.

Again, the best solution for now is to trust no one. As Benchmark Electronics’ Kim Sharpe explains in this month’s cover story (starting on pg. 26), use of XRF can mitigate concerns at several places in production. He suggests its use “at a minimum, at incoming inspection, during process monitoring (soldering materials) and in shipping.”

These problems, unfortunately, don’t stop at the component level. Some two years ago, we noted in these pages how pick-and-place users were beginning to get burned by fake feeders. As with their component brethren, the knockoff artists are taking their cons to new heights (lows?). Certain Asian factories – in some cases, the same ones that produce legitimate lines – are being used to roll out cheap copies. And users looking to save a few bucks are unknowingly snapping up those copies, only to experience jarring blowback in the factory.

I have heard of one assembler that was burned to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars in damage to a placement machine caused by a counterfeit feeder that malfunctioned. I don’t think they are alone. At other sites, fake nozzles, robotics and other spare parts are turning up. In some cases, the fakes are marketed as factory-made replacements, not copies. Mispicks, components sticking to nozzles, and a rash of other defects are being recorded.

Insofar as I am aware, the warranties of every major placement equipment machine are voided should the customer fail to comply with the user documentation. That includes the use of unapproved replacement parts.

In a down economy, companies will want to cut corners. And yes, feeders are expensive. But no more so than the cost of replacing a line whose warranty has been voided by use of an illegitimate feeder. Buyers beware, and stick to authorized distributors or reps.

Virtual a reality. More than 2,400 registrants from all over the world signed up for the followup show of February’s debut Virtual PCB, the industry’s first online trade show and conference for the PCB design, fabrication and assembly markets. The followup show takes place next February. This time around, we are working with the SMTA to provide more Webinars and other technical programming to complement the vendors showing their equipment, materials and software. Registration is now open for the fully interactive, Web-based event at virtual-pcb.com. Please check it out.

Goodbye, Sean. I’ve known Sean McShefferty less than a year. I feel like I’ve known him my whole life.

Upon our first meeting, Sean spent a solid 60 minutes – unprompted and uninterrupted – delineating the entire story of his battle with cancer, intertwined with stories of his kids, people he had met, surfing, and various other escapades. That the rest of us were nearly falling off our chairs from red wine and fatigue didn’t matter. He had something to share and he was going to share it.

That was Sean: Always sharing.

The next day, and the next several times I saw him, he apologized for his monologue.

That was Sean, too: Considerate, sensitive and sincere.

As my friend (and Sean’s colleague) Tom Forsythe said to me, “Sean lived the saying, ‘A stranger is a friend you’ve never met.’ ” And did he have friends. Sean had a knack for inspiring blind trust from those he met. His sincerity carried him a long, long way. Sean never publicly complained about his bad luck. In fact, I suspect he never looked at the hand he was dealt as bad luck at all. It was just one of God’s challenges, and he was going to face it.

I’m sorry Sean is gone. I’m sorry for his family, for his colleagues at Kyzen and in the industry, and for his friends. But I’m also sorry for all those strangers who never had the chance to become his friends.

 

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