What do I do for a living? I inspect electronic components in an attempt to validate their authenticity. Does that sound boring to you, or would you like to know more? Well, follow me on a magical journey through the land of counterfeit and refurbished electronics!
If you live in, say, China, and your uncle/brother/neighbor has somehow landed a contract to accept electronics waste from some far-off and fanciful sounding country, you’ve just got yourself a new job! Sitting over a barrel with a bonfire burning inside of it all day while prying chips off of old circuit boards may sound like fun at first, but I bet it loses its charm quickly. The fire actually helps to melt the solder that holds the components onto the board, and then it’s just a quick flip of the wrist to get those chips off and into a collecting tray of some sort. What does all of this have to do with what I do? Read on!
After you pry those chips off, they’re not in very usable condition, owing to the fact that you just pulled all of the solder off that makes contact with the circuit board. So your next step is going to be to put new solder balls on in place of the old ones. This may actually be done by machine, and in reality they do a pretty good job of this, making it very difficult to tell the difference between refurbished solder balls and ones done by the manufacturer. The thing that they can’t erase, however, is the scratches that they made on the underside of the chip board while they were prying it off of the old application. This is one of the things that I look for in my microscope.
Now, say that the chips that you just harvested aren’t worth a whole lot of money. Maybe they’re 10+ years old and not many people are using them anymore, or maybe they weren’t that great in the first place. You just wasted all of that time! But what if they’re the same size as another chip that’s worth a whole lot more? Well, get out your sandpaper, because it’s time for that chip to transform into cold, hard cash! By sanding off the original part marking, and then applying a layer of “blacktop” to the surface, then painting on the marking of a much more valuable chip, or maybe even the same chip but with a newer manufacture date on it, you’ve just made a bunch of money. This is another thing that I’m looking for all day, blacktopping, and it varies from very obvious to almost as good as the real thing.
So, my job is to detect these counterfeit components and prevent them from being sold as the real thing. Not all of the counterfeiters are as primitive as what I described above, some are actually quite high tech and professional, which means that they’re even better at making a part look legitimate. There are other things that I keep an eye out for too: Capacitors that don’t have anything inside of them, moisture sensitive parts that people have left out in the rain, parts that are dirty, corroded, damaged, you get the idea. Also high on the list is if the vendor has sent us the wrong parts altogether, which isn’t always as easy to figure out as you’d think, owing to the fact that some of the markings on these things are really teeny tiny. Now, all of these things don’t always happen at the same time. Maybe the part is just blacktopped, or maybe it’s only reballed, or maybe it’s a little rusty but not any of the other things. I have to keep a sharp eye out for all of these issues, and there are a whole lot of different electronic components out there, so it’s something new every day. It keeps things interesting!
Tune in next time, when I’ll let you know some of the techniques that we use to detect those rascally electronics counterfeiters!