Asset Management

Counterfeits evolve from dangerous crap to Trojan horses.

By Paul Studebaker

As an engineer, I suppose I'm especially incensed by counterfeit engineered components. I’ve devoted much of my life to avoiding having to interact with and trust people, so I love the notion that you can write a specification and the object of your desire will arrive on the dock, ready to bring you joy and satisfaction. Or you can walk into an auto parts or electrical supply store, buy the brand you know, and install its inherent goodness with full confidence it will perform perfectly throughout its expected service life.

I first encountered counterfeits as nuts and bolts in the 1990s, when Chinese look-alikes invaded the market for high-spec fasteners, including those for nuclear reactors. It’s one thing when crap looks like crap; it’s cheap and good enough. But I was offended by people who would mark and market crap as good stuff, and casually threaten the world with nuclear disaster.

I've since been amazed by the effort some folks would go to to make fake Square D circuit breakers, and NGK and Denso spark plugs. For these, they had to fabricate sophisticated components, assemble them well enough to seem to work, put them in carefully reproduced packaging, and sneak them into the supply chain. All that has turned out to not be a challenge for counterfeiters, whose consciences are apparently not bothered by destroying engines and burning down buildings when their components work as designed.

I guess they hate the folks they dupe. To avoid being one of them, you can try to discern counterfeits by studying the small details—usually in packaging or marking or serial numbers—that distinguish them from the real thing. But the best way is to get components from well-known, trusted, local and reliable suppliers.

The traditional counterfeiter’s profit comes from stealing the value of a brand, whether it's the markings on a bolt or the reputation of a trusted manufacturer, by putting it on an inferior product and passing it off as the real thing.

The latest example is Yokogawa, which recently warned users about counterfeit field instruments bearing its brand that are “nearly indistinguishable, with a semblance of functionality and interface that mimics our product. A thorough investigation has confirmed that these counterfeit instruments are being produced by unauthorized manufacturers in China who have gone to great lengths to imitate Yokogawa products.

“Performance test results show that they are severely inferior in quality and performance, and they pose a serious safety risk. It's important to note that these counterfeit instruments carry tagging that indicates they are conformant, but they are not conformant for use in ExD and other hazardous areas. They also do not meet the stringent engineering and manufacturing requirements observed by FM and other regulatory bodies.”

My usual umbrage at counterfeits was piqued by a call from Joe Weiss, who recently pointed out in his “Unfettered” blog, “Counterfeit transmitters can be a common-cause failure mechanism, which is very dangerous. Moreover, they can be preprogrammed, defeating any cybersecurity program. Consequently, there is a need to have a program to identify counterfeit devices before they're installed as well as after, in case they get through the screening process.”

So, along with going to significant lengths to violate the human social contract and subject unknown numbers of people to uncalculated tragedy, counterfeiters can now also be inspired by the same motivations that drive hackers and cyberterrorists. They’re good at their trade, which means virtually everything you specify and buy might be produced in counterfeit versions that are at least inferior, possibly dangerous and may be Trojan horses for the darkest of dark forces.

To avoid them, you have to know who you’re buying from and have confidence they know the sources of their wares, right down to the chips.

In other words, you have to get to know, deal with and trust people. Rats.