By Michael Ford, Aegis Software
In any group of components of the same material, they may all look identical, but some will perform better than others. The selection of the best components, the “elites”, for use in critical areas, such as space and defense, is a major process within the industry, which elevates their material value. In this world where counterfeit materials are prevalent, where most electronic components are small and quite generic in appearance, with no unique marking possible, how can one ensure that when you pay for elites, you actually get what you paid for?
The term “materiel” refers to materials that are assigned to an organization, that is for a specific application, used widely, but not exclusively, by military organizations. Going back many years now, it was always a shock to learn the price that electronic components commanded when used in critical applications. A completely different set of part numbers were once used to differentiate higher value components from regular components. The whole supply-chain was geared to provide higher level specification materials for military use. The reason back then was clear, in that there was considerable variation in the quality and performance of components, and applications such as military and aerospace could not tolerate any risk of premature failure or unexpected result. The elite components were therefore sold separately, having been tested, filtered and screened at source, and then sold typically directly to the point of utilization.
Today, this practice has largely disappeared, as the variation in the quality of material components is far less, due to improvements in manufacturing techniques. For a wide range of applications, industries in critical areas can now make use of regular materials. There are still however, certain applications that demand only the best materials. Satellites, nuclear power station controllers, and anything related to space travel. In most of these cases, the quantity of elite materials required, is quite low. The testing, filtering and screening process continues, but now the responsibility is with the end-user of the materials, who can perform the work themselves, or, request the service be provided by their trusted material suppliers and distributors. Where this is applied to specific, high-value materials, such as batteries, processors, memory cards and data storage devices, each can be identified by a serial number, which is marked on to the physical package. The proof of authenticity is quite simple to confirm at the point of use, using a smart digital MES solution that includes exact traceability as part of its included Material Management solution. It is very difficult to make the mistake of using non-elite materials, either by accident or even deliberate action.
This is not the case however for smaller, common, passive components that can be as critical to a product function as the higher value components. Once the elites are tested, filtered and screened, that is, turned form material into materiel, there is little that can be done to physically differentiate the groups apart. The differential in the value of the selected materials over the others however, is quite significant, which covers the cost of the selection process and handling, as well as being reflective of the value that the use of the elite materials provides. That exact same differential in value is, however, also the motivation for some who might misrepresent, or substitute, regular materials as being elite. With the ingress of counterfeit materials at an all-time high in the industry, this is also a form of counterfeit.
In order to move forward, there has to be a way in which the elite materials, when presented at the point of use, will be genuinely the components that were created during the selection process. The identification of outer packaging can be fabricated or copied, materials moved from package to package, so the risk of supply-chain contamination is high, unless the elite materials can be uniquely identified, and thereby differentiated from regular materials. Putting a mark onto small materials, such that it is easily readable at the point of use is expensive due to the fact that it is very difficult to action reliably, requiring specialist technologies. SMT electronic components these days can be the size of dust particles. Though the volume of materials in these highest of quality applications is relatively small, there are still a very wide range of different part numbers to consider, each with their own specific physical attributes. Quite a lot of work potentially.
A very interesting new technology has come along, in the form of “FeaturePrint” (trade-mark of Alitheon: www.alitheon.com). Using the latest “AI” software technologies, and just a “simple” Smart-phone, any individual component can have a digital fingerprint recorded as it is found to be elite, such that it can then be uniquely identified and verified subsequently anywhere in the supply-chain, and specifically, at the point of use. There is no physical alteration or impact on the material whatsoever. From the digital MES perspective, reading the FeaturePrint at the point of use is exactly the same as reading the unique identification of a high-value part. When the material is called for at the production process, the ID is read, in this case by a Smart-phone, the ID verified, and the material authorized for use. This process assures that any risk in the use of non-elite materials where only elite should be used, is eliminated. All with standard off-the-shelf hardware and software.
Though a lot of thought would have to go into the process to automate the reading of hundreds or thousands of materials every day, the immediate use in truly mission-critical applications is available today for critical applications. In the future, this technology could feasibly be incorporated into equipment such as SMT placement or AOI machines using existing cameras, with verification data passed through the CFX interface. Where anyone needs proof of authenticity of materials, that cannot practically be conventionally marked or labelled, the FeaturePrint technology provides the ability to ensure that investment in elite materials is not compromised, nor is the quality of the finished product. Combined with the latest digital MES technology, it engenders an unprecedented peace of mind.