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Tracking down fake modules in Shenzhen’s Huaqiangbei District

Shenzhen's Huagiangbei district

Shenzhen’s Huagiangbei district is a Mecca for makers – amateur inventors, hardware hackers, and do‑it‑yourself enthusiasts who think, breathe, and sleep electronics. Also known as the “Silicon Valley of Hardware,” the streets of Huangiangbei are busy urban canyons lined with high‑rises and multi‑story buildings. Enter the 72‑story Saige (SEG) Electronics Market Plaza, one of the district’s more emblematic towers, and you’ll find yourself in a labyrinth of electronics shops that extends over the building’s first eight floors.

From the aisles between the small two‑by‑two meter stalls, you can watch vendors pack their goods into boxes for their Aliexpress customers to the constant cracking of packaging tape being peeled off its roles. And looking around the stalls, each dedicated to a single product type, from cables to connectors, from mechanical parts to maker boards, from LEDs to PCBs, you’ll see every rule in the book on handling fragile electronics components broken: people sleeping on counters, vendors counting parts or connectors by hand out of big plastic bags, others manually bending leads from connectors with pliers.

Shenzhen's Huagiangbei districtBut if you’re a maker, you’ll probably overlook the chaos and get right to haggling for parts for your next project.

On a double mission

I was in Liuxiandong, 20 kilometers away from Huagiangbei, in early November, 2017, to meet with representatives of Seeed Studio, a Shenzhen based distributor of microelectronic components for the international developer and maker communities that also develops hardware and offers manufacturing services. We were wrapping up discussions on two of their new maker boards, both of which use u‑blox technology. The first combines two u‑blox modules – one for GNSS, the other for dual NB‑IoT / LTE Cat M1 connectivity – into a wireless asset tracker. The second is a Raspberry Pi LTE Hat for LTE Cat 1 connectivity.

Since I was nearby, I decided to take some time to head to the Saige building, not for a maker project I had in mind, but in search of something else Huagiangbei is known for, something that can take a toll on companies such as u‑blox: knockoffs.

Until our NEO‑6M GNSS module took the drone industry by storm, we, as a company, had been relatively spared by knockoffs. Now, fake NEO‑6Ms are all over the Internet. You can find them on eBay, Alibaba or Aliexpress. Typically, they are sold at submarket value, sometimes on preassembled maker boards. While some manufacturers of knock‑offs clearly lack copying capabilities, others go the extra mile to make their fakes as close to the real thing as possible. Either way, the result for companies like u‑blox is the same: low quality modules with subpar performance gnaw at the company’s reputation and are sold in place of genuine components.

Three degrees of faking

Broadly speaking, we’ve come across three degrees of faking. In the first, pin‑compatible modules by third parties are sold as “u‑blox compatible.” Here, there is no branding violation as the modules, which are either based on u‑blox or third party technology, can be easily identified as a non‑u‑blox product by their label (or the lack thereof). The second level of faking involves relabeling older generations of products to make them look like new ones. While these are based on genuine u‑blox modules, they do not have the performance, the quality, and the features of the u‑blox components advertised on the label.

The third level is the most pernicious: modules that look almost identical to genuine ones – label and all – but that contain third party chips. They are hard to distinguish at first glance, but their silicon, their software, and their interfaces are not fully compatible with those of authentic modules. Also, they aren’t compatible with u‑blox software and services, including firmware updates, and their performance is often sub‑par. While they can usually be identified by one of several common giveaways that I won’t reveal here, it takes a trained eye to spot them. Even then, a final verdict can only be made by plugging them into our u‑center evaluation software or dissecting them in the lab.

Fake ublox module in Shenzhen's Huagiangbei districtAs I was wandering through the aisles in the Saige building in Huagiangbei, a board the size of a large postage stamp caught my eye. On it, a u‑blox logo. I bought the GY‑NEO6Mv2 GNSS board for 35 renminbi, or around $5.30 – a bargain, considering that the NEO‑6M alone is more expensive. The module on the board looked convincing. The label was well done, though the ink did come off a little too easily. I decided to take the module back to Switzerland for testing.

Some initial investigation confirmed my suspicions: the knock‑off contained a chip that was clearly not the UBX‑G6010‑ST chip used in the original. Plugging it into u‑center – our in‑house GNSS evaluation software – further strengthened my conclusion. The startup messages put out by the chip didn’t match those of the NEO‑6M.

Fighting back

So what can we do to keep the number of makers that are disappointed by knockoffs down? The maker community, especially those that source their components from Huagiangbei or online shops such as Ali Express, have a part to play. By filing a complaint and demanding a refund or a genuine component each time they receive a knockoff, vendors selling fakes will be forced to check the authenticity of their products to avoid bad ratings and destructive comments online. Our online shops and distributors are obviously reliable sources for genuine parts. And we believe that our partnerships with Seeed Studio, Arduino, and Particle, some of the top suppliers of makers around the world, is another step in the right direction, by making maker boards based on genuine u‑blox components available to a broad community at an attractive price.