I built a prototype using an NFC board I bought from Alibaba for 1$ (https://www.alibaba.com/showroom/rfid-rc522.html).
It claims to use the NXP MFRC522 IC, and if I look on the board the chip has that part number and even the little NXP logo. It works like a charm on the prototype so now I'd like to build the NFC antenna into the product and use the same chip (I'll go through the antenna tuning/matching process).
The problem is this: If I want to buy this IC on Digikey, it costs $5.36 for QTY 1 and $3.61 for QTY 1,500 (https://www.digikey.com/products/en/rf-if-and-rfid/rfid-rf-access-monitoring-ics/880?k=rc522). The whole board from Alibaba which comes assembled with other passives and a crystal oscillator, along with 2 NFC tags and some headers, is about 1$.
How can this be possible? Is this just a result of economies of scale (are they really making this many generic NFC boards?) or are the ICs definitely clones? I'd love to be able to use the IC only and make my own PCB antenna, but jumping from 1$ to even $3.61 has a very significant effect on the overall cost of the product.
Does anyone know what justifies this huge price difference and how to deal with it as an electronics designer trying to keep costs low? Any advice is appreciated.
[Edit] Clarification: Although I'm using these particular boards as an example, the question I'm really asking is broader and (in my opinion) useful to others: Is it possible for designers to keep prices low when upgrading from cheap Alibaba-like proto boards to legitimate ICs from suppliers? And if so, what tricks/techniques can we use?