The Underground Parts Store: Identifying Counterfeit Computer Chips
Supply chain management is among the hardest problem for engineers, and no where is that more apparent than the vintage synthesizer market. The chips running the show inside vintage arcade machines and old computers have long been out of production and are very much in demand. Prices have gone through the roof as a result.
The counterfeit and out-of-production chip industry is estimated to be a billion dollar industry, and with so much money on the table there are certain to be unsavory characters.
Counterfeit chips are a big problem in the engineering community, and it’s a huge problem for anyone designing vintage-flavored audio equipment. The chips that make these sound cards and synths run — the Yamaha YM3812, and famously the MOS 6581 ‘SID’ chip — are in extraordinarily high demand.
The SID chip, the ‘synthesizer on a chip’ originally found in the Commodore 64, originally sold for a dollar or two. Now, a single chip could command upwards of fifty dollars. They’re not making these chips any more, and demand is only increasing as the years go on.
David, CEO of Plogue, a manufacturer of vintage synth ephemera and expert on synths-on-a-chip, has a lot of experience sourcing vintage supplies of ICs and sorting the good from the bad. This experience is valuable, and to share that knowledge David has an excellent mini-documentary on fake, counterfeit, and rebranded chips:
Although you can buy YM3812 chips direct from eBay and AliExpress right now, the supply chain behind these chips is opaque. There are three options where these chips come from, in a decreasing order of likelihood:
- The chips never went out of production. While some manufacturers can keep a line running, or at least a warehouse full, for decades it’s extremely unlikely Yamaha is still making musical chip from thirty years ago. In some cases, the company might be defunct.
- New old stock. It is possible a massive number of chips were produced during the initial run, bought up, and stored in a warehouse. This happens with every kind of manufactured good, and it’s not unheard of for it to happen with consumer electronics. The Elektron Sidstation, first built in 1998, only exists because a cache of New Old Stock MOS Technology 6581 chips were found. Production continued over the next several years as more New Old Stock chips were discovered and purchased.
- Chip counterfeiters. There is a cottage industry in China of making counterfeit chips. The process begins by taking piles of e-waste, removing the chips over an open flame or pot of liquid solder, then carefully rebranding the chips with a laser engraver. The Chinese government has cut down on this practice recently, but there’s still re-manufactured stock sitting in storefronts.
This most likely means these counterfeit chips made it onto the market by rebranding other vintage chips. Although it’s possible counterfeit chips might get through your supply chain, David has a wealth of experience in telling the real chips from the fake ones. He’s even got a few tips on how to identify those iffy components:
- The process of relabeling a chip begins with sanding off the existing markings. This must be repaired somehow, and chip counterfeiters do this with a black epoxy. From there, the chip is re-marked with the desired chip markings. If the finish of the top side and bottom side of the chip is different, it’s likely this was a re-marked chip and counterfeit.
- In keeping with the process of remarking chips, the artificial black coating on counterfeit chips may be modified with chemicals. If the top of the chip comes off with acetone, you’ve probably got a fake chip.
- Obviously, all the date codes should be from the 80s or 90s (or whenever the chip was originally manufactured).
- ICs coming from the factory do not have solder on their pins. When a chip is picked, placed, and sent down a production line, each pin of the chip gets a small coating of solder. Solder is exceptionally hard to completely remove, but the counterfeiters have a solution: they just add more solder. This hides the existing solder in plain sight. If the pins on a suspect chip have solder or flux traces, odds are it’s counterfeit.
These are just a few short tips on how to identify counterfeit chips. David has years of experience with this problem, and sometimes he doesn’t get everything right. Still, with a few short tips it is possible to differentiate between the obviously fake and possibly real chips.