The Hidden Dangers of Chop-Shop Electronics – IEEE Spectrum

Photo: Adam VoorhesOn 17 August 2011, Boeing warned the U.S. Navy that an ice-detection module in the P-8A Poseidon, a new reconnaissance aircraft, contained a “reworked part that should not have been put on the airplane originally and should be replaced immediately.” In a message marked “Priority: Critical,” the company blamed the part, a Xilinx field-programmable gate array (FPGA), for the failure of the ice-detection module during a test flight.

How could this have happened? Xilinx, based in San Jose, Calif., is a highly respected manufacturer of FPGAs, and Boeing bought the ice-detection module containing the suspect part from BAE Systems, a reputable British defense company. The trouble occurred somewhere in the supply chain upstream from BAE, which wound through companies in California, Florida, Japan, and China. However, retracing that FPGA’s path led not to Xilinx but to a Chinese company called A Access Electronics. It apparently had turned a quick profit by selling used Xilinx parts as new. BAE ended up purchasing about 300 suspect FPGAs, many of them untested. Fortunately, most had not yet been installed on planes.

To a suspicious buyer, a number of clues might have suggested that the parts were not brand new. For example, parts stamped with the same manufacturing lot code had different ceramic package shapes and four different date codes. Some of the pins were shorter than the length specified in the manufacturer’s data sheet. Some packages themselves were chipped. But somewhere along the supply chain, someone accepted used parts as new, and they ended up on U.S. Navy airplanes.

This incident, described in a hearing held by the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services in November 2011, is only the tip of the iceberg. The global trade in recycled electronics parts is enormous and growing rapidly, driven by a confluence of cost pressures, increasingly complex supply chains, and the huge growth in the amount of electronic waste sent for disposal around the world. Recycled parts, relabeled and sold as new, threaten not only military systems but also commercial transportation systems, medical devices and systems, and the computers and networks that run today’s financial markets and communications systems.

Usually, it’s good to recycle electronics products. Ethical recycling companies properly dispose of the toxic ingredients in discarded computers, printers, mobile phones, and other systems and harvest the precious metals they contain. But not everyone in the electronics recycling ecosystem acts ethically.

In theory, with proper screening, electronics components could be safely reused in some low-cost applications, such as calculators and remote controls, where tolerances aren’t particularly demanding. But given the low cost of electronics parts for those products, such reuse wouldn’t usually be worth the trouble. There’s far more economic incentive to use recycled components as replacement parts in more expensive systems with long service lifetimes.

But sometimes old components are misused. Some companies have built a business model based on pulling old parts from cast-off products and reselling them as new. Relabeled or otherwise altered parts masquerading as new can fail prematurely in critical systems, such as those in airplanes and cars, with potentially catastrophic results.

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