COTS in space: overcoming the counterfeit barrier

Aerospace organizations have to traverse a road full of barriers on their journey to use commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components in space systems. Although they’re not always in full control, the responsibility for the outcome lies with them. Consequently, they have to be aware of each barrier to find an educated way to overcome it and benefit from the use of COTS.

COTS in space: overcoming the counterfeit barrier
COTS in space: overcoming the counterfeit barrier

By Dan Friedlander
Retired following 44 years in components engineering

Aerospace organizations have to traverse a road full of barriers on their journey to use commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components in space systems. Although they’re not always in full control, the responsibility for the outcome lieswith them. Consequently, they have to be aware of each barrier to find an educated way to overcome it and benefit from the use of COTS.

It does not matter who is actually raising the specific barrier and what arguments are used, space organizations have to follow the uncontrollable road, in a controlled way, to survive. They have to realize that adaptation, rather than resistance to change is the way to go.

"The art of life is a constant readjustment to our surroundings." — Kakuzo Okakaura

The transition to the use of COTS in space is not free of risks. However, the biggest risk is non-availability of electrical, electronic, and electromechanical (EEE) components needed to build systems. Risk is manageable, if you are aware of it.

COTS in space: overcoming the counterfeit barrierCOTS in space: overcoming the counterfeit barrier

"Risk comes from not knowing what you're doing." — Warren Buffett

Each barrier is associated with its own risks. One of the more tricky barriers is EEE components counterfeiting. The lucrative counterfeit industry cannot be defeated, among other things, because:

a. Big money is involved.
Worldwide counterfeiting of electrical products is estimated to range anywhere between US$11 billion to $20 billion annually (ref: The Holography Times, Vol. 8, Issue 24).

b. Those that fight it, in parallel, help them.
Developed countries are interested in having reliable products. Nevertheless, they export e-waste (a fruitful source for counterfeit), they outsource manufacturing/design (a fruitful source for counterfeit), etc. Then they buy on the open market counterfeit, "shiny as new" and attractively priced EEE components "made" from the exported e-waste, from rejected outsourced components, or based on reverse engineering based on technical knowledge obtained from the outsourced production lines. Then, they use them in reliable products. This is a vicious cycle.

Around 80 percent of the total global amount of e-waste ends up in Asia – with around 90 percent shipped to China, despite the fact that the import of e-waste into China has been officially banned since 2000, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reports.

c. The EEE components counterfeit is a type of crime.
History testifies that crime is invincible(never say forever).The above win-lose situation is well known to the authorities. For example, the Committee on Armed Services, United States Senate reports (MAY 21, 2012 Investigation Team Report, 112–167):

"Conclusion 4: The use of counterfeit electronic parts in defense systems can compromise performance and reliability, risk national security, and endanger the safety of military personnel. The investigation uncovered dozens of examples of suspect counterfeit electronic parts in critical military systems, including on thermal weapons sights delivered to the Army, on mission computers for the Missile Defense Agency's Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile, and on a large number of military airplanes."

COTS components in space: the storage barrierCOTS components in space: the storage barrier

The same report states: "With respect to counterfeit semiconductors, the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) estimates that counterfeits cost U.S. semiconductor companies more than $7.5 billion annually in lost revenue, a figure SIA says results in the loss of nearly 11,000 American jobs."

Obviously, the above report addresses use of counterfeit EEE components in military equipment. However, the civil world counterfeit problem is even bigger and no less critical. For example, a fly-by-wire passenger airplane containing counterfeit EEE components is more critical than a military airplane, in terms of mission, human lives, and cost. An Airbus A380 is a fly-by-wire passenger airplane carrying more than 500 passengers, priced at approximately US $400 million.

What can be done to mitigate the risk?
The name of the game is risk management. Critical application designs have built-in redundancy to mitigate risk and avoid single-point failures. In addition, proactive anti-counterfeit measures are of paramount importance, especially in the COTS area.

The main way organizations proactively avoid receiving counterfeit EEE components is to control the supply chain through careful selection and/or proper inspection/testing (as applicable case by case).

Two widely accepted standards dealing with the avoidance of counterfeit EEE components are:
a. SAE AS6081 – Fraudulent/Counterfeit Electronics Part: Avoidance Detection, Mitigation, and Disposition Distributors

This standard sets forth practices and requirements for use by distributors of EEE parts purchased and sold from the open market, including purchased excess and returns.

b. SAE AS5553B – Counterfeit Electrical, Electronic, and Electromechanical (EEE) Parts; Avoidance, Detection, Mitigation, and Disposition
While AS6081 covers distribution of components, the similar AS5553B is intended for manufacturers.

Following are some detectable anomalies of counterfeit EEE components. Detection methods are also presented.

Detection: External Visual Inspection, Marking Permanency, and Blacktop Examination

· Misspellings on the manufacturers’ labels.

· Verification that the date code on the label matches dates codes on the parts.

· Date codes that are not possible; for example, 0657.

· Date codes that are in the future.

· If parts are moisture-sensitive, they require a dry pack and a humidity indicator card. Often the counterfeiters forget some piece of the moisture sensitive parts requirements. Part specific requirements can usually be found on the datasheet.

· Mold Indents: Most plastic integrated circuits have cavities purposefully made during the mold process. The indents are always clean and uniform from the manufacturer. Counterfeiters sand down the parts to remove the old markings and then they resurface it with a process called “blacktopping”, which often fills shallow cavities.

· Sanding marks.

· Evidence of blacktopping.

· Bent leads.

· Replated leads.

· Markings and logos alteration of the originally occurring features on a component.

· Marking permanency.

· Mold texture: Plastic electronic components are typically made with a mix of fine glass and plastic. The surface of the molded package is textured when it is removed from the mold. Never should you see two different textures on one area of the part.

Detection: X-Ray Inspection

· View into the internal structures anomalies: die layout, wiring, die presence, wiring presence, die marking. X-ray inspection is made even more effective when suspect components can be compared to a known authentic part.


· Decapsulation involves the destruction of a sampling of parts. Decapsulation can be accomplished by mechanically or chemically removing the lid or top layers of the component body to expose the die and internal structures anomalies of the component.

Detection: Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM)

· Microscopic internal structures of components. Like X-Ray, SEM examination is benefited by direct comparison to a known authentic part.

Detection: X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF)

· X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF), like EDS, is used to identify elemental constituents of materials (e.g., finishes anomalies).

Detection: Electrical Inspection

· Identify performance noncompliance. Counterfeiters "uprate" components by false marking.

The user, especially the one dealing with high reliability products (e.g., space applications) cannot ignore the counterfeit threat. The issue becomes acuter when dealing with COTS. Risk management is mandatory and comprises:

a. Implementation of adequate component/component manufacturer selection process.
b. Selection of reliable supply chains, namely procurement from manufacturers or their authorized/franchised agents/distributors.
c. Procurement personnel awareness of the counterfeit existence. Too cheap components shall be suspected. Quality shall be an integral part of the procurement process.
d. Mandatory requirement of components authenticity documentation, Certificate of Compliance as minimum.
e. Components authenticity testing, if found necessary.
f. Keep out of the gray market.

Components obsolescence is detrimental to the users, but is beneficial for the counterfeiters. Components obsolescence raises the appetite of the counterfeiters for more profit.

Components counterfeiting is a profitable business. Not everybody knows the involved risks. Not everybody wants to know the involved risks. Not everybody is concerned about involved risks. Everybody cares for profit.

The transition to use of COTS in space shall not be stopped by the components counterfeit barrier. There are enough known, experienced, available tools to overcome this barrier. The counterfeit may be a good copy of the original, but it is more likely to be defective and even dangerous.

COTS in space: space heritageCOTS in space: space heritageAuthor biography
The author has graduated ENGINEERING SCHOOL/TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY, physics 1965-1969. He has 44 years of experience in Component Engineering at MBT/ISRAELI AEROSPACE INDUSTRIES, 1969-2013, as Head of Components Engineering. He was responsible for all aspects of EEE Components (policy making, standardization at corporate level, approval, etc.) for military and space applications. Retired/Consultancy: 2013 - present. Further details of experience: see

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