The Free Flow of Fakes

While it’s true that counterfeit parts are pervading all aspects of the electronics supply chain (not to mention consuming all amounts of oxygen from industry pundits such as yours truly), is it possible our sense of fear is overblown?

By fear, I don’t mean “risk” — that’s the inherent chance of failure taken by, knowingly or not, using a fraudulent part. Rather, I mean the “if I do this I might get someone hurt and/or lose my job” feeling.

Yesterday, the SMEMA Council, a group of electronics assembly equipment OEMs, admonished customers to use only authorized channels for replacement parts and service. By using fake parts, SMEMA said, the risk (there’s that word again) users take is that the assembly equipment OEM could void their warranty. That’s a tough nut to swallow, considering the price tag of new placement machines, testers and screen printers.

The question I have is, why would SMEMA even feel compelled to issue such a statement? Faked parts (one old friend says in China, copyright means the “right to copy”) are ubiquitous and systemic. Two US senators this week accused China of blocking a probe into counterfeit electronics by refusing visas to investigators, but it’s hard to know whether the US is truly wants to stop the flow of knockoffs goods or just put pressure on China in order to exact other reforms or negotiating leverage. Indeed, so-called fourth shifts are not only common, they have been for years. So forgive me for being cynical when a few bureaucrats say they want to do something about it now.

In my opinion, there’s no end in sight to the free flow of fakes because, in fact, America and Europe don’t really fear the potential outcome. For a decade, manufacturing programs have been shuttled en masse to China. And while OEMs pay lip service to the notion that their IP is their livelihood, they aggressively seek out the manufacturing partners of their competitors, thus simultaneously ensuring their IP will be shared and that their products will be commoditized.

Let’s put it another way. If company ABC contracts to China and learns a few months later that every Chang, Wang and Li is walking around with a cheap duplicate of their widget, ABC may snort and snarl a few times, but will it fire the folks involved in outsourcing? Highly unlikely. But if that widget never gets built, or ships late because a machine is down or an oscillator is unavailable, heads will roll. Supply chain employee is thus naturally emboldened to take risks that they otherwise might be unwilling to contemplate. The wheel is set in motion.

SMEMA is trying to reorient customers as part of a much-welcome attempt to demand accountability, and I wish them luck, but I don’t think it will make much difference. The corporate buyer culture has changed.

Don’t believe me? Just go to the EMSInsider group on LinkedIn and look at all the listings by members looking for spare parts. Utilizing only approved vendors is nice and all, but when product needs to be shipped before the quarter’s up, the AVL is an industry anachronism.

CyberOptics’ Coup

It’s always a good deal when you can simultaneously supply an end-product to end-customers and critical components from said end-product to competitors.

And that’s the situation CyberOptics now finds itself in after inking a deal last quarter to put its sensors in erstwhile AOI competitor Viscom’s solder paste inspection products. (CyberOptics acknowledged a deal in February but did not disclose the company until today.)

It’s a great move for CyberOptics, which continues to impress under Kitty Iverson’s leadership. The company, which by most accounts trails privately held Viscom in terms of annual revenue in the uber-competitive electronics assembly AOI market, has rebounded steadily from the market slide of 2008-09 and the tragic death of founder Steve Case. Sales doubled in 2010 to $57 million, and by becoming a supplier to its AOI competitors, CyberOptics triangulates its customer approach. Given that CyberOptics also supplies sensors to DEK for printers and Juki for placement machines, the modest company is positioning itself to become a true bellwether of the electronics assembly market health.

Out of Place?

I probably am getting ahead of myself — in fact, I hope I am — but the epic war over the world’s placement equipment business is more and more looking like it won’t include Siemens. The Munich-based OEM, which last year put its electronics assembly business on the block, today announced another difficult quarter.

On the bright side, the placement equipment unit narrowed its first-quarter loss, but sales for Siemens’ discontinued businesses (of which electronics assembly equipment makes up the major share) for the period ended Dec. 31 fell 69% year-over-year.

Perhaps worse, the loss was €15 million on €62 million in sales. Obviously, that’s not sustainable.

I know lots of people at Siemens, and I have tremendous respect for CEO Guenter Lauber. But with only modest improvement expected in the sector this year, it doesn’t look good.