Pentagon stirs up semiconductor industry with its requirement to mark parts with unique DNA

By John Keller
Posted by John Keller

A new anti-counterfeiting requirement from the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) at Fort Belvoir, Va., is triggering pushback from semiconductor manufacturers, who claim the new requirement is not an appropriate cure for electronics counterfeiting, does not adequate authenticate legacy semiconductors, has not been tested adequately, and will increase semiconductor manufacturing costs.

The DNA-marking mandate, which became effective on 15 November requires all semiconductors sold to the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to be marked with DNA-based materials unique to each government contractor.

The intent is to prevent counterfeit parts from entering the DOD supply chain by authenticating each piece with a unique DNA-based signature. Using DNA -- sort for deoxyribonucleic acid, or the biological building block of all life -- is intended to provide a fool-proof fingerprint for each semiconductor the DOD buys to rule out the possibility of counterfeiting.

Use of counterfeit parts, which often are substandard, defective, or simply empty packages, can lead to critical system failures in military equipment, or even to foreign manipulation of electronic parts without traceable pedigrees.

Despite this intent, however, the semiconductor industry is telling DLA officials that this DNA-based marking approach will not succeed in keeping counterfeit parts out of military systems, and ultimately threatens to undermine established practices for screening out counterfeit parts, industry officials say.

In addition, confusion in the semiconductor industry -- at least for now -- is causing semiconductor suppliers to avoid bidding on DLA semiconductor contracts, and eventually could cause shortages in the DOD of replacement electronic parts.

In a lengthy letter to the DLA dated last August, the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) in Washington said "the Defense Logistics Agency proposed DNA marker solution will not solve current counterfeit, reliability, or performance problems faced in procurement. It significantly burdens manufacturers and does not reduce risks to people, systems, and missions."

The SIA, which represents the U.S. semiconductor industry, has asked DLA to postpone implementing the DNA-marker program until more testing has been conducted, and until more questions are answered in response to semiconductor industry concerns.

Nevertheless, Christine Metz, Technical & Quality Process Owner in the DLA, and the agency official overseeing the DNA marking program, said in an e-mail on 19 Nov. that DLA has "not postponed implementation" of the program.

The JEDEC Solid State Technology Association in Arlington, Va., which oversees global standards for the microelectronics industry has formed the JEDEC JC-13 Committee -- a DNA Marking Task Group -- to look into industry concerns about the DLA program, and has posed a list of questions to the DLA's Metz.

Members of the JEDEC task group will meet in January in San Antonio, Texas, and say they expect DLA to provide answers to questions on DLA's overall intent, on company liability, marking of legacy semiconductors, and other issues. JEDEC formerly stood for Joint Electron Device Engineering Council.

JEDEC officials also are concerned about whether the DNA marking program meets all military specifications for permanency; non-nutrient to fungus; minimum and maximum storage temperatures; outgassing; and conductivity.

As of now, only one supplier is authorized to provide DNA marking material to meet DLA requirements -- Applied DNA Sciences Inc. in Stony Brook, N.Y. -- and the industry has voiced concerned about competition as well as about the threat of counterfeiting the counter-counterfeiting DNA material.

"We believe this type of authentication is easily circumvented because a counterfeiter need only mimic the material of the marker when counterfeiting a product," reads the SIA letter to the DLA.

Among the most serious fallout from the DLA semiconductor-marking requirement involves the cost and difficulty of implementation. "If Applied DNA's process were to be implemented by semiconductor manufacturers for all of their products, they would be required to modify longstanding qualified manufacturing flows installed in existing billion-dollar facilities," reads the SIA's letter.

Until now, as a result, many semiconductor manufacturers and licensed electronics distributors are choosing not to bid on DLA contract opportunities, some industry officials say.

If manufacturers and licensed distributors opt out of bidding DLA solicitations, this would leave only electronics parts brokers, which are considered to be among the highest-risk companies for allowing counterfeit parts to slip into the Pentagon's supply chain.

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The Mil & Aero Bloggers

John Keller is editor-in-chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronic and optoelectronic technologies in military, space, and commercial aviation applications. A member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since the magazine's founding in 1989, Mr. Keller took over as chief editor in 1995.

Ernesto Burden is the publisher of PennWell’s Aerospace & Defense Media Group, including Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence and Avionics Europe.  He’s a father of four, a runner, and an avid digital media enthusiast with a deep background in the intersection of media publishing, digital technology, and social media. He can be reached at ernestob@pennwell.com and on Twitter @aero_ernesto.

Courtney E. Howard, as executive editor, enjoys writing about all things electronics and avionics in PennWell’s burgeoning Aerospace and Defense Group, which encompasses Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence, the Avionics Europe conference, and much more. She’s also a self-proclaimed social-media maven, mil-aero nerd, and avid avionics geek. Connect with Courtney at Courtney@Pennwell.com, @coho on Twitter, and on LinkedIn.

Mil & Aero Magazine

December 2013
Volume 24, Issue 12
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