DAILY NEWS Nov 30, 2012 7:01 AM - 0 comments

Testing for quality in the electronics supply chain

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By: Kirk Wehby, vice-president operations, Smith & Associates
2012-11-30

The importance of quality is a business truism that has not lost currency. However, the tools and techniques necessary to ensure quality can obsolesce as quickly as the components they are designed to test. The semiconductor and electronics industry supply chain is highly dynamic and requires not only continuous updating of testing and measurement techniques, equipment, and quality management procedures, but it also requires constant vigilance and technical knowledge to combat the ever-increasing counterfeiting problem.

Quality matters

That can be a rather tall order for a buyer to manage with confidence in the wide and vast global supply chain. There are guideposts and quality assurance landmarks in a supplier's qualifications that can help to quickly separate the wheat from the chaff. Among the important qualifications are industry recognized, appropriate certifications, standards, and accreditations that the supplier should have for their facility, laboratory, quality engineers, and operations and procedures (O&P) for quality management.

The reasons for requiring these qualifications of a supplier go beyond simply having a recognized check list to tick off when determining the best supplier for components, whether during just-in-time (JIT) events, or as part of a component roadmap sourcing plan. Certifications and accreditations coupled with on-site auditing of a supplier are the best ways to ensure that the parts you order are original and that they meet the specifications required of them. Choosing suppliers who are certified and hold industry recognized accreditations underscores the importance of suppliers participating in industry efforts to ensure quality along the supply chain and further reduces invasive counterfeit and substandard components Ensuring that suppliers meet quality standards ensures that the products passing through them will also adhere to standards; in this manner, we can directly combat the seeming ubiquity of counterfeit products today.

Although leading global suppliers do screen their respective sources, regardless of whether a distributor is franchised or independent, everyone is at risk of receiving counterfeit goods. Substandard and counterfeit products can and do enter the vast, global supply chain through multiple pathways such as reverse logistics, illegal production at manufacturers' facilities, among other means that expose everyone to these fraudulent threats. As a result of the perseverance of counterfeiters, the best means for verifying product is through rigorous, high-tech, physical testing processes.

High-tech combats counterfeiting

The existing industry standards, certifications, and accreditations are designed to uphold a collective quality level for facilities, products leaving these facilities, and for O&P that guide the handling of the products. Perhaps among the most recognized and widely used standards is the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) which accredits and certifies multiple business aspects, facilities, and professionals across most industries through third-party certifiers who perform the audits and assess the ability to meet requirements for being considered competent in accordance with ISO's standards.

In the case of the semiconductor and electronics industry, testing laboratories can be accredited under the ISO/IEC 17025 quality standard. The ISO/IEC 17025 is both a management and a technical facility quality standard and is importantly related to ISO 9001, Quality Management Systems. Businesses receiving ISO/IEC 17025 and ISO 9001 accreditation, therefore, have demonstrated not only that the O&P business and quality management procedures are well-established, adopted throughout the organization, and meet rigorous requirements, but it also means that the technical laboratories in which testing is performed is staffed by appropriately competent professionals and meets multiple levels of equipment, facility management, and performs standard, non-standard and laboratory-developed methods for testing and calibration of the products being handled.

This certainly sounds rather perfunctory and stiff, perhaps even obvious, but surprisingly, there are not as many accredited laboratories along the wider supplier base in our industry as one might expect. In part this is likely due to the lengthy processes involved for being competent in the ISO/IEC 17025 standards which not only require continual investment of personnel and equipment upgrades, but also the lengthy process of being audited and then accredited. What the purchaser gains though, is more than a simple value add. These truly high-tech laboratories are able to perform myriad tests and calibrations that enable detailed scrutiny of parts to ensure conformity to metrics (weeding out substandard and counterfeit product) as well as to ensure highly specific customized requirements are met.

Rigorous testing is the key to security

Electronic components today should follow a rigorous screening process from the moment of arrival at a distribution hub to the point of departure. During the time at a distribution hub's ISO/IEC 17025 accredited laboratory, the components will undergo a multi-step inspection, testing and calibration protocol to verify authenticity, to ensure full functionality, and thereby to do the utmost to eliminate counterfeit, defective or remarked products from the electronics industry supply chain.

The following flow-chart represents an overview of this multi-step inspection and verification testing process:

(*See Figure 1)

The specific tests and calibrations performed during the process will, of course, vary not only by the capabilities of the testing laboratory, based on their quality engineers and equipment capabilities, but importantly on the purchaser's customized requirements that can also vary depending on specific lots or orders.

However, regardless of the variability along customized requirements, the most important aspects of an accredited ISO/IEC 17025 laboratory include the scientific standard of repeatability within and across laboratories, and the adherence to stringent quality management standards in both management and technical realms.

Today's counterfeiters are no different than ever, but as the electronics industry has gained in sophistication of product, so too have the counterfeiters in their ability to keep pace with our valid improvements. In order to best ensure quality today, it is increasingly important that rigorous testing, vigilance, and expert examination be performed on product passing through the supply chain because counterfeiters are opportunists and they see no difference between supplier types, thus counterfeit product can be found anywhere along the chain.

Accredited laboratories can be found by searching The ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board, or similar accreditation board for specific capabilities and/or locations.

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High-tech combats counterfeiting.
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Caption: High-tech combats counterfeiting.
Kirk Wehby, vice-president operations, Smith & Associates
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