Keeping electronics safe

IECQ: the best tool for tackling counterfeit and hazardous substances

By Claire Marchand

The global market for electronic components has shown strong growth for many years. This is a real success story, achieved as a result of consistent technological and industrial innovation. In recent years, electronic manufacturers have had to address new concerns: national and regional endeavours to pass legislation restricting or forbidding the use of hazardous substances in components, and the emergence of counterfeit products

The original component is on the left, the fake on the right
The original component is on the left, the fake on the right

Moving fast

The rapid growth of the electronic components sector comes as no surprise, since the scope of electronics today reaches most consumer goods – from kitchen appliances to computers and entertainment centres – and industrial equipment – telecoms gear, motor vehicles, aerospace goods and instruments.

Technology in this field is also moving fast. Components have reduced in size while their performance measures have increased sharply. Manufacturers have had to react quickly and adapt their assembly lines to new designs and specifications provided by their engineers. This is particularly true for complex devices such as printed circuit boards, which may contain several thousand individual components.

Electronic component manufacturers rely increasingly on automation at all stages of the manufacturing process. The size of the components, their sheer complexity and the high production output required make it difficult for human hands to handle them. Highly specialized automated assembly lines, on the other hand, can ensure the utmost accuracy and speed (see e-tech July 2011).

New concerns

Today, electronic component manufacturers also have to address the issues of hazardous substances and counterfeit parts. To be considered legitimate and trustworthy, they have to ensure that their products meet the strictest safety and reliability requirements.

To help them react to and solve these problems, the IEC has put in place a conformity assessment system dedicated to the testing and certification of electronic components: IECQ, the IEC Quality Assessment System for Electronic Components.

IECQ: Testing and certification of all types of electronic components

IECQ is a worldwide approval and certification system that covers electronic components and related materials and processes, providing a business-to-business supply chain management system. It uses quality assessment specifications based on International Standards prepared by the IEC.

IECQ offers a modular approach to its certification schemes to cover electronic components and related processes, for example ESD (Electrostatic Discharge) management, IECQ HSPM (Hazardous Substance Process Management) and IECQ ECMP (Electronic Component Management Plan).

Issue No. 1

One of the issues associated with electronic components is that many of them contain hazardous substances such as lead, cadmium or mercury. Such substances may be dangerous for workers manufacturing the components as well as for end-users.

0An additional problem comes at the end of the product life cycle: how to deal with waste. Manufacturers are under great pressure to produce "clean" products in order to comply with legislation that restricts the use of hazardous substances in electronic products and components. The pressure is even greater as the life cycle of electronic components shortens.

Many countries have passed, or are considering, legislation limiting the use of hazardous substances in electrical and electronic products. The European Union’s RoHS (Restrictions of Hazardous Substances) for electrical and electronic equipment and WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) took effect in July 2006, and a revision of those directives is currently underway.

Solution No. 1: IECQ HSPM

The IECQ HSPM is a technically-based management systems approach to implementing and maintaining hazardous substance-free products and production processes. IECQ HSPM was developed in response to component manufacturers’ need for giving suppliers the means to demonstrate, through third-party assessment, that their electrical and electronic components and assemblies meet specific hazardous substance-free local, national and international requirements.

Issue No 2: Counterfeit

Rapid growth of the electronic components market in the past two decades and the increasingly short product life span has led to the emergence of a parallel market, prompting unscrupulous manufacturers and suppliers to make easy money peddling substandard and counterfeit components. Counterfeit integrated circuits, capacitors, batteries, connectors, power-management devices and other electronic parts are making their way into electronic goods, equipment and systems, ultimately endangering the lives of those who use them.

Safety, reliability and performance issues are particularly crucial in transportation where substandard electronics can have dramatic consequences. Malfunctioning, non-responding electronic systems are often responsible for car or train accidents.

The consequences may be even worse for the aerospace industry, which depends heavily on electronics. Electronic components can be found in almost every system, including those that are primarily mechanical, hydraulic or pneumatic.

Solution No. 2: IECQ ECMP

IECQ has a specific scheme for the aerospace industry, IECQ ECMP (Electronic Component Management Plan), covering the component and assembly supply chain for avionics. This allows the aerospace industry to control the quality of the components it uses. IECQ is planning to use this Scheme in other high-reliability sectors such as railway and automotive industries.

Know your sources, have your products tested

The best way to avoid buying substandard parts is to track their production source, make sure they are legitimate and have gone through testing and certification that ensures their quality and safety.

Wafer assembly line Wafer assembly line
Lead-free soldering wire for printed circuit boards Lead-free soldering wire for printed circuit boards
The original component is on the left, the fake on the right The original component is on the left, the fake on the right