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A blog for electronics professionals, amateurs, hackers, and anyone interested in the world of electronics.

17 November 2010

Fake and Counterfeit Components

As I have mentioned before, it seems to be increasingly common to experience IC supply problems, with long lead times becoming depressingly common. For example, I have three Analog Devices parts sat in my shopping cart with waiting times of 10, 11 and 15 weeks! This means that no matter how well meaning we are, it is massively tempting to look at the "grey" markets. Yeah, you know what that means. The risk of cheap, out of spec, and often totally unrelated components getting re-printed with the markings of much more expensive devices.

One example is the classic OPA627 op-amp much beloved of serious audiophiles around the world. This amp is expensive at the best of times, but last year the manufacturer and all the usual distributor stocks were empty. Conveniently, most op-amps have exactly the same pin-out and, unless you have the right test equipment, they are very difficult to tell apart. Search Ebay for them and see what a wide range of prices you get. Then consider that even in 1000+ quantity, TI prices them at $12:25.

Anyway, if you are contemplating sourcing from anything except the big distros, I would advise you read this article on counterfeit IC detection:

9 November 2010

Making, Blagging, Ranting, Hacking.... and other stuff that ends in ing.

I had a techy article in mind for this post, but I keep thinking of things to add to it, so it will have to wait a few days. Much of today's blog is inspired by the latest Amp Hour podcast ( available here ). It is always good to hear other engineers from around the world talking trade, but never ceases to amaze me how universal the engineering culture is. The words may sometimes be different, but the underlying ideas and attitudes are almost always the same.


I'm actually going to start with the British Broadcasting Corporation, good old 'Auntie'. Maybe it is just me getting older, but the main TV channels of BBC1, BBC2 and Radio 1 + Radio 2 seem to be increasingly unwatchable and unlistenable. Amazingly, I'm happy with that though. Radio 5, Radio 6, Radio 7, BBC 3 and BBC 4, despite being digital-only (except R5)  are now consistently producing some excellent output. We have just had a short series on the origins of the UK's national grid electricity system, and last night I was listening to what used to be called "Pods and Blogs" but is now called "Outriders". Erm, WTF Radio 5?

Accused of being London-centric (and it is, despite the inherently diverse nature of web content) they sent someone North (heavens no, they couldn't go themselves) to investigate Hackspaces and Maker groups around West Yorkshire, the home county of a certain Electronics Design Blogger (i.e. me).

They visited Scrap Creative Reuse down Kirkstall Road in Leeds. It is strange how people are seeing this as a totally new thing. When I was a kid in the 80s, childrens TV programmes were full of making-things-fromo-rubbish, and Arts and Crafts sales seemed to be on somewhere every weekend. It does feel a bit hippy circa 1973 though, and I'm not really sure how far the idea can go, beyond flogging stuff to the latest set of college Art students. Still, being in Art seems to pay better than engineering nowadays, so full respect to them.

Next, they visited Leeds Hack Space (at least I have heard of this one). I'm not sure how well they are doing, their web site doesn't seem to be updated much (not that I have room to talk there). This is a shame, because I think the idea of making resources publically available for a small fee is utterly briliant. Over on West Coast USA they have fully equipped engineering workshops available, stocked with high end professional equipment. With the decline of traditional industries here in Yorkshire, it is becoming the case that companies have to contract Mainland European / American / Chinese companies to do things that could previously have been done literally down the road. I think there is a sound commercial case to be made for a similar high-tech workshop with rentable facilities to be based around here. You can rent office space by the hour, even offices complete with networked PC facilities, I believe the same can be done not just for hardware, but for things like video production, digital photography, and even perhaps something like facilities for Ebay sellers. Local universities, colleges and schools are just not interested now, and in any case would probably hold a facility back from being used by business.

 They mentioned a local company I hadn't heard of before. Oomlout are a Halifax shop which sells Arduinos and related 'shields' (urgh, I still hate that word) plus all manner of related passives. they do seem to have quite a bit of content I have seen elsewhere, but I guess that's the nature of Open Source.

If you are interested, he full podcast is available to download here (11MB). Or listen online here for 7 days. The item on Hackspaces starts at 15 minutes.


Anyway, back to The Amp Hour. Dave was commenting on how engineers shouldn't rely on free samples, and really shouldn't use them at all. I'm afraid we disagree there. As a self-employed design engineer, I am in a very "big loop". That is to say, in order to get any approvals with respect to design or (especially) budget, I have to phone someone, email them, and wait for them to pass an spproval up the chain, and down again, and eventually get some finance in place to buy stuff. I rarely have the luxury of total freedom to buy stuff as and when I want. As an aside, I totally agree with Dave and Chris here, how come we professional engineers aren't trusted with money? It probably costs £50 in man-hours to get approval for something that costs £10.

Anyway, last week I ordered some samples from TI, they made it here from DigiKey 3800 miles away as the crow flies, 5800 as the plane flies, in 36 hours. I calculate that from the second I clicked submit, those parts averaged 161 mph from Thief River Falls to Wakefield. Shame a couple of components are on back-order, but then they are back-ordered everywhere. In these days of strained budgets, 50 bucks worth of samples can make the difference between 'go' and 'forget it'. Thank you TI. I, for one, appreciate it.

Okay, loads more stuff to say, but I reckon I have waffled on long enough. Take care!