News surfaced in late 2012 that the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) wanted to reduce the risk of counterfeit parts in its supply chain and issued an authentication-marking requirement for electronic microcircuits. “Implementation of this new requirement will reduce the risk of counterfeit parts entering the DLA’s supply chain,” said Chris Metz, chief of the Technical and Quality Policy division for DLA Logistics Operations.

The goal was to brand electrical components with a unique, botanical SigNature DNA mark that combines both structured and unstructured data and that would identify parts to a specific supplier or manufacturer. This month, the DLA came out with more specific procurement guidelines for parts identification and authentication.

“The good news is that the government stepped in with new legislation for the aerospace and defense sectors and that will better protect war fighters,” said Mark Snider, founder and president of ERAI, which monitors, investigates, and reports issues affecting the global electronics supply chain.

Snider recalled the early days of NASA, when every electrical component was custom built and highly reliable and dependable. “After that, the semiconductor industry recognized that commercial off the shelf (CTOS) parts could perform the same function,” he said. “As a result, today we have many readily available components with only a minimum of customization.”

A minimum of customization makes it easier for suppliers to counterfeit parts and tougher for manufacturers, distributors, and retailers to know beyond a doubt that the components they use are built to the latest levels of technology and specification. “In some cases, if you x-ray a component, you can see that the outer body of the part looks right, but the x-ray reveals that there are no connections inside of the component, so it doesn’t work,” said Dr. Richard McDermott, CEO of SignaKey.

The new digital-bio signatures on parts, a product of big data, combine standard and Internet of Things (IoT) unstructured data into unique part “signatures.” These parts identifiers flow into analytics databases that manufacturers and parts distributors can use to detect counterfeit parts.

“With the technology, you can do a visual inspection of a batch of chips and then laser-etch each chip,” said McDermott. “Then you can x-ray the chip and perform an electrical test.” At every step, documentation and the results of the step are recorded on the encrypted label that is lasered into the component. This allows anyone in the supply chain to see exactly who touched the part and what was done to it and when.”

The advantage of capturing all of the documentation for a component and putting it into a central database is that the easiest thing to fake in a part counterfeiting operation is the paperwork. “With the capture of documentation and results at every stage of component handling throughout the supply chain, you have a master record of your chain of custody,” said McDermott. “This makes counterfeiting that much more difficult.”

Equally exciting is the hybrid use of both biotech and digital technology. SignaKey uses this and so does Applied Data Sciences.

“We already have 29 suppliers signed up with us on this process,” said Mitchell Miller, Applied Data Science’s director of communications. “The beauty of DNA is that it can’t be copied.”

Miller says his company extracts DNA from plants and then re-engineers it into a unique DNA that is combined with digital technology into a “mark” that is placed on an electrical component such as a microcircuit. “The mark contains information showing who produced the component, or on what node of the supply chain it was sourced,” said Miller. “It contains information to show that the part has passed the standards and testing thresholds, and the mark can’t be copied or reverse-engineered like other technologies that have been used in the past….We keep a master database that houses all of the information on these parts, and that our clients can use in their component research.”

The arrival of new digital encryption and biotech technologies for parts identification and authentication can’t come soon enough. “Between 10 and 15% of parts in the U.S. military supply chain are suspect when it comes to authentication,” said Miller.

These new parts authentication technologies are prime examples of big data at work. If we can get to a point where traditional and non-traditional data are optimally combined into a dynamic mode of tracking and tracing parts, the dollars saved by companies in mitigating counterfeit parts and the safety improvements they will be able to deliver to their customers are virtually inestimable.