Since the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) announced plans to implement authentication marking, there has been a flurry of articles published in the media about the DLA’s plans and its selection of botanically-generated DNA marking produced by Applied DNA Sciences. This announcement also stimulated a great deal of discussion among electronic component producers, distributors, and users.
One of the more balanced articles on this subject appears in AOL Defense— “DLA Demands Chip Makers Tag Products With Plant DNA; A War On Counterfeiters” (8 October 2012). The author describes this as an innovative approach to avoiding counterfeits, but also recognizes that this is one piece of the answer.
Here are implementation concepts to consider …
A proactive approach …
This sort of tagging technology is one of the most proactive approaches to anti-counterfeiting and brand protection discussed among industry and user stakeholders. Having engaged in combatting the counterfeit parts problem for the past several years, I observe that reactive approaches, such as counterfeit detection methods, seem to have received the most attention from the component suppliers and users. Industry organizations have established a number of committees that either focus exclusively on counterfeit detection testing, or expend a great deal of time and resources in devising counterfeit detection protocols. When browsing the booths at various conferences and symposiums, detection service providers tend to outnumber those engaged in truly proactive approaches to avoiding counterfeits. It is both refreshing and promising that more attention is now being given to proactive countermeasures such as DNA marking.
Authentication: OCM adoption is key …
When used as an authentication technology, DNA tagging and other anti-counterfeiting technologies are most effective when applied by the original component manufacturer (OCM). Though DNA tagging has benefits when applied further along the supply chain (more on this later), its application by other than the OCM or its assembly contractors loses its power as a method to identify authentic product. The further from the point of manufacturer such tagging is applied, the less it offers toward assuring that marked product is authentic. If OCMs were to adopt this sort of technology, the user community could more readily identify authentic products beyond the point of transfer of goods from the OCM to its immediate customer.
In cases where users must acquire products outside of the authorized supply chain, the presence of this sort of mark applied by the OCM would reduce the burden of verification to (1) detecting damage induced by inadequate storage and handling, and (2) detecting abuse associated with used parts presented as new. Those who have taken a deeper dive into the science of DNA marking are also aware of how attempts to tamper with or forge this marking can reveal the presence of a counterfeit.
Provenance: Benefits when applied further along the supply chain …
The AOL Defense article asserts that “DNA tagging does nothing about all the components already out there that were not tagged at the moment of manufacture.” This is not entirely true. Though its application by other than the OCM or its assembly contractors loses its power as a method to identify authentic product, the use of DNA tagging and other anti-counterfeiting technologies does have benefit to record provenance. For example, if DLA were to require this marking when purchasing product from other than the OCM or the OCM’s authorized suppliers, DLA and its customers will be able to efficiently and definitively trace the product to the specific supplier that furnished it and, therefore, identify how a product entered DoD’s supply chain. Regardless of whether the problem is discovered upon receipt or by a user who acquired the part through DLA, because the part carries the identity of its supplier one can forgo recovering the trail of breadcrumbs through the circuitous route the part follows through its distribution and use. This scenario would also help Independent Distributors and users who acquire parts from Independent Distributors by resolving disputes over the sourcing of counterfeit or otherwise non-conforming parts; I speculate there are many who have dealt with a supplier who demands proof that they were the supplier of specific parts when product integrity issues arise.
Another useful implementation is worth consideration by distributors. A recent press release discussed the use of DNA marking technology by an Independent Distributor with captive inspection and testing capabilities. The presence of the DNA mark in this case would identify a provenance that includes this Independent Distributor and the performance of specific inspections and tests intended to intercept counterfeits. Though this implementation does not reflect the authentication mark applied by an OCM, it does reflect a specific level of due diligence previously performed within the supply chain.
Another useful implementation would apply to 3rd party logistics providers who perform testing, refinishing, repackaging and other services for consumers of electronic parts, or by authorized distributors who also provide these services. The use of DNA marking or other anti-counterfeiting technologies would be an effective means to record and maintain provenance.
DLA should be applauded for its plans to implement DNA marking within its four-part plan to combat counterfeiting. DLA responds to material requirements defined by DoD departments. As long as those requirements continue to include a demand for obsolete products or circumstances occur where authorized suppliers will not support a requirement, DLA will be confronted with a potential counterfeit parts risk. The implementation of DNA marking or other technology is an important tool within DLA’s plan to prevent counterfeits from entering the DoD supply chain and identifying sourcing paths associated with the sale of counterfeits.
The user community should encourage electronic component producers to assess and implement this sort of technology; without encouragement from the user community, electronic component producers may be slow to assess and adopt this proactive approach to anti-counterfeiting and brand protection. This assessment and implementation should also include the tamper-proof and forge-proof labeling for reels and other carriers, protective packaging and containers; this is a powerful compliment to marking parts and particularly useful for consumers of electronic components. The user community should also encourage electronic component distributors to establish business practices that foster the use this sort of authentication technology by OCMs and to apply it themselves for a number of applications to maintain provenance.