With China being the largest consumer electronics goods exporter, with South Korea no doubt sitting somewhere close behind it’s not surprising to see a huge growth in export of semiconductors globally. Research statistics are confusing as much of what is read on the net is either old or ambiguous. If we stick to what we see there are four electronic companies that appear to be the leaders: Apple, Sony, Samsung and LG. The reality is we only notice what we know, and knowing is the key, in other words: Brand awareness. Depending on where you live, this could be a traditional mud hut to a Star Trek space vehicle certain products fascinate certain users as much as the rich and famous gravitate towards their own specific niche manufacturer. One thing is certain though, as the electronics sector – digital and analogue, becomes more sophisticated the trend for manufacturing companies to seek out components based on performance and price becomes more important. In this though we also have the hidden dangers of batch failure and worse still, dodgy-rated components. Sony has a reputation for having an R & D division second to none but nothing stopped their laptop batteries from overheating and causing a huge recall. Ten out of ten to this company for having a strategy in place and accepting responsibility – many don’t. The question then arises, how many other companies are supplying dodgy components to the consumer market and here we look no further than semiconductors in general.
I was in the consumer electronic repair business for about ten years, in all, electronics for about twenty five in total, much of this being in the marine industry. Nothing like consumer products to boggle the mind when purchasing replacement parts to conduct a repair. Imagine purchasing a replacement part which causes more damage to the adjacent circuitry than the failed part. To tell the truth, nothing new. Many hours of trying to repair television receivers wasted because the new line chip was faulty. Trying another one produced the same results. Batch failure or deliberately bombarding the unsuspecting public with faulty components? A friend working at a scientific research station in my home town complained of similar incidents. Rebadged Toshiba transistors. The question then arises, just how infiltrated is the semiconductor market with bogus components?
The Truth Be Told
This is not a new subject, just a subject touched by my own experiences in the electronics field. Sadly the manufacturer of these bogus devices carry no remorse. There are few watchdogs monitoring this and if there are it’s a pity they haven’t become more transparent in their own research and findings. One thing is certain though – it’s not uncommon and parts procurement is becoming more difficult if we are looking for the perfect match. Asia, China in particular has become the scapegoat – possibly not without reason but unfortunately many resellers of counterfeit transistors or semiconductors in general are blatantly aware of their ‘bad’ behaviour – profit being the main driving force. As it always is. The sad part is that one buys a part to fulfill a specific purpose – in good faith you spend hours ‘doodling’ around a circuit which fails because not of your own doing but because of the unscrupulous supplier or manufacturer.
A certain power supply manufacturer had a high failure rate of a specific diode in the circuit – whom accepts liability for the unreliability of these power supplies? Remember the Fujitsu hard drive faisco in the early 2000s? Hard drive manufacturers certainly get credit for their unreliable drives, the manufacturer of the dodgy chip not. Ask any consumer which drive he prefers and they will tell you, based on the unreliability of a previous drive he had. Yet, sadly every drive manufacturer out there has brought out a certain drive which proved to be unreliable. This is never a deliberate thing – the two most popular drive manufacturers currently, WD and Seagate have both had their own set of unique issues and sadly is does no good to their reputation but yet we should never become biased. They both produce drives which will eventually fail like anything mechanical – the user just does not get it. Drives should be backed up. Then the consumer complains about the back up drive failing. Electronic components fail, more likely the parts that run the hottest or where value does not meet with design criteria. In a CRT television receiver most failure can be credited to the power stages, from line and frame outputs to the power supply. Colour drivers as well. But there is nothing worse than replacing a component with the same part number and it fails as well, only to find out after exhaustive testing that the component was just duff.
Toshiba or Tobisha
Semiconductors are now been exported in their millions – how many of those Toshiba marked components really come from Toshiba which by the way is a highly rated component manufacturer. The ‘Television’ magazine from the UK meant for the repair industry on occasion did warn about fraudulent components on the market but one would never be the wiser would one. I don’t recall an expose on any specific company but fear mounts when one realises that many such components may find their way into the aviation sector. In my ten years in the merchant marine, all components were supplied with batch number, manufacturer in sealed packaging. You would pay up to five times the normal electronic store price but the product worked. I tried to repair a Raytheon radar with equivalent diodes purchased at a TV store as a matter of emergency and it did not work, the 1000V PIV rating or current handling capacity just did not meet up to the design standards of the radar. The diodes tested fine, they were same switching speed, same current rating and same reverse voltage rating but it did not function in circuit. Guess what? They were the same part number. This not only proved to be very embarrasing but dangerous. Radar is a navigational aid but seafarers rely on radar, especially in poor visibility. What about medical usage?
Medical and Aviation Grade
I have only repaired two pieces of medical equipment and in both cases the manufacturers shipped the replacement components free of charge to my store. Again, like the marine radar or SSB transmitter the components were very clearly marked, batch number, manufacturer and sometimes serial number. There is a lesson to be learnt when moving from the marine, aviation, military and medical sector to the ever popular consumer sector – manufacturers carefully select specific components to fulfill a specific function. Repair personnel should never veer off this path and this is where I sometimes worry about the cheaper alternatives of today. Many years back one could ascertain quality by just looking at the packaging – this is not the case today. There are watchdogs and standards committees, there are people flying solo to bring companies bringing out fraudulent components to book but the fact is – dicey manufacturers are getting more clever. Critical components MUST be replaced by the original, stick to the original bill of material and stick to Engineering Change Notices. When it comes to consumer products Sony is a company that stands out for their stickiness in product design. Sony may be competing against companies producing goods at more competitive pricing but this is where paying more justifies the purchase. Likewise, why would Furuno be rated as one of the most reliable manufacturers in the world? R&D and learn from our mistakes.
The Chinese export market has grown in leaps and bounds over the last two years (this is the time span I have noticed the growth, not an accurate indicator but the time I have noticed the sudden and especially recent abundant release of documentation, schematics and application notes). I do believe that most Asian exporters are acting in good faith but do stick to the old adage, there is nothing like a free lunch. We at Parts-Ring feel that there is going to be an abundance of dodgy components been released onto the market – we had it before and we’ll just get more of it. Stick to well known manufacturers and don’t always trust the label. It would be great if all countries could also use their standards policies to these components as well, not just manufactured or finished goods. Release findings publicly and stick to an international measurement of grading. It is absolutely impossible for a class AB audio amplifier to push out 300W RMS/continuous per channel using just two 150W transistors per channel. It’s absolutely impossible for every transistor coming out of China carrying the Toshiba markings actually be a Toshiba. There is sometimes merit in paying more and forego that free lunch.
Further Reading: Elliott Sound Products