Like the weather, everyone talks about the problem of counterfeiting but few really do anything about it. That’s why the government is stepping in with its call for a solution backed by millions in investment.
The electronic supply chain is plagued by counterfeit parts, and even the US military is not immune. That’s why in February 2014 the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched the SHIELD program. Unlike in the Marvel universe, the acronym does not stand for Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division but for Supply Chain Hardware Integrity for Electronics Defense.
The program’s goal, according to the title of the announcement and call for proposals, is to find a “tiny, cheap, and foolproof” solution for authenticating electronic components. When they said cheap, they really meant it. Kerry Bernstein, DARPA’s program manager, was quoted as saying that the cost should be “less than a penny per unit” while functioning well enough to provide a thorough disincentive for counterfeiters. It was to be no less than “an on-demand authentication method never before available to the supply chain.”
Bernstein expanded on SHIELD’s vision for the “dialet” solution:
"SHIELD aims to combine NSA-level encryption, sensors, near-field power and communications into a microscopic-scale chip capable of being inserted into the packaging of an integrated circuit. The 100 micrometer x 100 micrometer [that’s 0.004 inch by 0.004 inch] "dielet" will act as a hardware root of trust, detecting any attempt to access or reverse engineer the dielet. Authentication of the IC will be achieved through the use of an external probe that can provide power to the dielet, establish a secure link between the dielet and a server as well as verify the provenance of the IC."
The sensors themselves have to work without power, though they would have to be able to communicate with “a full encryption engine and advanced near-field technology.”
Though the cost of the individual units was to be very economical, the cost of developing the dialet is substantial. In 2015 DARPA awarded 3 contracts, totaling $23.2 million to companies to work on finding a way to make nearly microscopic parts that can help identify counterfeit parts. The lion’s share of that money – $12.3 million – was granted to Northrop Grumman Corporation.
That investment would represent the first phase of three that Bernstein identified for the SHIELD program, that of “research and development efforts for the technologies,” which was slated to extend to July 2016, and amazingly enough appears to be running on schedule. On May 4, 2016 RFID Global Solution, under contract from Northrop Grumman, announced that it had developed “an enterprise-class electronics parts authentication application” that was showcased at DARPA Demo Day on May 11.
It is now going to proceed to the second phase, which is go on to “design and manufacture” the dialets with 1,000 units to be put into parts by January 2018. The last stage to be reached by 2019, is “to demonstrate the SHIELD concept of operation in an electronics supply-chain environment.” At that stage, Northrop Grumman will put dialets into a range of components that are targets of counterfeiters.
RFID adapted its Visi-Trac software platform to the authentication problem and came up with chip that work based on a number of key parts, as explained in RFID Journal: Each dialet is to have an encrypted ID number and a sensor that can determine if the item has been through particular processes based on the environmental data it picks up. The dialet would have to put in the right part of the component, and an external tool is required in the form of a “near-field RFID reader.” That would give the dialet the amount of charge it needs to provide the tracking information on its authentication as well as the sensor data.
If it really makes it to market at the anticipated cost of less than a penny a piece, there’s no reason why the solution would not be embraced by everyone who depends on the electronic supply chain. It may not eliminate counterfeiting altogether, but it will doubtless reduce the number of parts that pass through undetected.