Despite the best efforts of component makers, distributors and equipment manufacturers, counterfeit electronics still enter the supply chain. Counterfeiting has cost the semiconductor industry as much as $7.5 billion related to brand damage, product replacement and repairs, according to the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA). No single solution has evolved that definitively combats counterfeiting in electronics.
The authorized supply chain has promoted buying and selling components through franchised partners as an industry best practice. Authorization, in effect, helps prove a component's authenticity. But tracking a component from the factory throughout its lifecycle can be problematic. TruTag Technologies believes microtags may be part of the solution.
“Any component manufacturer is going to have a host of anti-counterfeit and security solutions in place,” said Lucas Scholl, director of business development for TruTag. “We agree that there should definitely be more than one solution, both hardware and software solutions are prudent as well, but some of the valuable characteristics of TruTag’s solutions are seen both individually and in combination, which speaks to our advantage over other solutions,” he said.
Microtags are very small tags that are not visible to the human eye. They can hold a significant amount of customized data, according to Scholl, including product images for visual verification; provenance and traceability; expiration dates and lot numbers. TruTag’s microtags are made of silica which is biologically inert and environmentally safe; they measure the width of a human hair; and are completely customizable, said Scholl. They even meet FDA PCID guidance standards, making them safe for human consumption and useful in medical technology.
Additionally, the tags can withstand temperatures over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, are chemically inert, and don’t react with processes or products. The data is accessed by hand-held spectrometer-based optical readers and use technology that is not replicable, Scholl said.
“Even in the event of reverse engineering, assuming [counterfeiters] could find the microtag, they would not be able to replicate what we have done and alter or apply a false microtag,” he explained. “Counterfeiters today are sophisticated and most existing technologies are fallible in some way. Microtags can be added in concert with visible solutions like holograms and other markings.”
A number of tagging technologies have been examined by the electronics supply chain, including RFID tags and inks containing plant DNA. Each have been found to have shortcomings. Ink-based DNA, for example, can be applied at any point in a component’s lifecyle. Microtags are attached at the factory.
“We are completely flexible as to when in the manufacturing process the microtag application can take place – there is no adjustment necessary to existing manufacturing operations,” said Scholl. “We therefore minimize the impact of the microtag installation by going into an existing process and not adding additional time or manual installation processes.”
DNA tags only provide limited information, Scholl added, and require specialized equipment for reading. “Broadly speaking, many tagging products are yes/no, binary products, as opposed to having the ability to specify down to the batch level and provide detailed product data that goes onto the product themselves,” he added. Microtags can be read in the field with a hand-held reader -- unlike solutions that demand off-site, third party reading or verification labs that add cost to the authentication process.
Even at the price of pennies per tag, RFID is considered too expensive for the supply chain. Additionally, said Scholl, RFID tags are visible to the eye and can be spotted by counterfeiters. “With holograms, UV, pigments, and similar solutions, the level of security is frankly not at the level of microtags,” he said. “There is an ability to counterfeit with these solutions as increasingly sophisticated counterfeiters have imitated these solutions.” For example, some counterfeiters remark components to increase their value. “In remarking situations, the chemical processes used remove these visual tags and the product can no longer be authenticated,” Scholl said. “TruTag microtags are not destroyed or altered by chemical processes.”
Ultimately, anti-counterfeiting measures in the electronics supply chain will have to keep pace with shrinking architectures, provide customized tracking and authentication data, offer permanent traceability and product-history options and meet the challenges of sophisticated attempts at remarking. Scholl admits the best anti-counterfeiting solution for any industry is a multipronged approach that includes hardware and software. “There are many individual benefits to TruTag solutions,” Scholl concluded, “but we see our real advantage as a holistic solution and the ability to work in concert with existing solutions as a necessary additional layer of security.”