The Defense Logistics Agency is working with commercial manufacturers and independent distributors to determine whether DNA marking could prevent counterfeit parts from entering the military supply system.
Altera Corporation, a microcircuit manufacturer, and Applied DNA Sciences completed a six-month, DLA-sponsored pilot program last year that proved botanical DNA can be used to authenticate microcircuit chips.
“In this limited demonstration, we wanted to show that microchips could be marked during the production process, which includes high heat and other stressors, and that those marks could later be read,” said Chris Metz, director of the Technical and Quality Policy Division for DLA Logistics Operations.
The microchips were manufactured and marked with botanical DNA at an Altera production plant, then moved to an independent distributor without interrupting standard supply-chain processes, said Janice Meraglia, vice president of military and government programs for Applied DNA Sciences. APDN invented the use of botanical DNA for forensic authentication. Their SigNature DNA product is already being used to prevent counterfeiting of such items as wine, textiles and currency.
The APDN process embeds botanical DNA in the ink used on products, and a hand-held laser reader can detect that mark. The item can be swabbed and the swab sent to an APDN facility to forensically determine the unique DNA characteristics applied to a specific product.
Metz said the demonstration was so successful that DLA added a second phase, in which it is currently working with Altera and SMT Corp. to determine the functional, technical, and business viability of botanical DNA throughout DLA’s microcircuit supply chain.
“Microelectronics is where a lot of counterfeit issues have been occurring. It’s also where, if things go wrong, they could really impact system performance and lives, because microelectronics are used in everything from cars and airplanes to weapons systems,” Metz said.
Unlike many independent distributors, which sell and distribute items from numerous manufacturers, SMT has a long history of testing the parts it sells to ensure they’re not counterfeits, Metz added. SMT expects to begin DNA marking the items it inspects and sells in February.
“This phase allows us to test a different type of authentication process because the items are already at the distributor,” Metz said, adding that the risk of receiving counterpart parts is higher with independent distributors, who typically don’t invest time and money to inspect the items they sell.
While some say the solution is to buy from original equipment manufacturers, Metz said that’s not practical for DLA and other DoD agencies because the parts they require are often obsolete and no longer in production. Military systems may be in service for decades, but the components may be manufactured for only two years.
“And the fact that we frequently buy in small quantities doesn’t make it economical for larger manufacturers to continue producing the parts,” she added.
Problems with counterfeit parts in the military supply chain became widely known in 2008 with the release of a Business Week news article detailing how counterfeit computer components were getting into aircraft and ships.
“It got the attention of everyone who worked in the quality-assurance area, and we realized the problem was bigger than anybody had imagined,” Metz said. “Since then, DLA has worked hard to detect counterfeits and stop them from getting into the supply chain.”
In 2009, DLA created the DoD Counterfeit Parts Integrated Project Team to help develop anti-counterfeiting guidance. DLA’s Electronic Product Testing Center in Columbus, Ohio, has also increased testing of high-risk commodities. And in March, Metz’s team expects to release a one-hour, computer-based course that will help DLA employees with certain job specialties recognize counterfeit parts.
Metz said DLA is one of a handful of defense organizations, which include the Missile Defense Agency and the Navy, that are leading the effort to eliminate counterfeits from the military’s supply chains. During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on counterfeit electronic parts in November, defense manufacturers were criticized for not being proactive against counterfeits. Since then, Metz said, large manufacturers like Northrop Grumman and Raytheon have teamed up with DLA to discover how they, as system integrators, might also benefit from DNA marking.
“If we’re going to be successful, it’s because industry has picked it up and said they want to use it voluntarily,” Metz said, adding that while botanical DNA is easy and inexpensive to apply, more testing is needed.