Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Impressive tour, depressing tale

Posted by John McHale

Last week Tom Sharpe, vice president of SMT Corp. -- a privately-held electronics distributor in Newtown, Conn., gave me a damn nice tour of his secure and clean facility -- from the electro-static discharge (ESD) monitoring device and state-of-the-art electronic part testing equipment right down to the snazzy Starbucks coffee machine and hundreds of vintage World War I and World War II posters.

The poster pictured here was painted by Fred Spear in 1915, depicting a woman passenger on the British cruise ship Lusitania drowning with a baby in her arms after the ship was torpedoed by the Germans. Spear reportedly read a detailed newspaper account about bodies recovered after the attack and it inspired him to create the poster. The poster was published by the Boston Committee for Public Safety and is very rare.

Sharpe's facility is quite striking as similar posters line every wall but the slides he showed me of Shantou, China, were striking for much different reasons. Shantou is home to the counterfeit electronic parts industry, which is becoming an expensive and painful headache for defense electronics suppliers.

Sharpe was there on business, but managed to get into Shantou for a tour. The main industry here consists of individual families ripping apart computers and integrated circuit (IC) components then putting them back together and reselling them to brokers. The small families typically perform the work out of their living room.

One might think this business would be lucrative, but the families slapping together the counterfeit boards and ICs are living in squalor.

The entire town is one big electronic component dumping ground -- in the rivers, on the streets, and piled up in backyards. Sharpe says the rate of cancer and other diseases are quite high as chemicals from the eroding parts seep into the soil and water supply.

Quality control is non-existent out there -- sometimes they wash the parts in the rain and let them dry in the sun. What's scary is once these products are finished they look just like any other part to the untrained eye and many slip into batches of good parts that are not counterfeit.

Sharpe says he has spent considerable money for test equipment to spot them, showing me different examples. Many times they will change the date on the part, but sometimes they mess up and send out a part with a date in the future. Sharpe says he saw one that was labeled as designed in late 2009, but it was still 2008.

Many companies do not have SMT's equipment at their disposal and defense suppliers and integrators are quite concerned that one of these parts may find its way into a mission critical system and result in a lethal system failure.

The counterfeits are very available. Just do a Google search for a part number you are liable to pull up something similar to the Chinese IC Mart or sites like it.

Many of Sharpe's vintage posters caution against spreading secrets in case the enemy is listening. In this case the secret behind the parts needs to get out as does the tale of the human waste piling up in Shantou -- a futuristic slum.

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