Procurement Puzzles

While I’m pleased to see IPC is taking a stand in urging the US State Department to take a harder line when it comes to the potential export printed circuit board design data, it must have been cause for no small amount of angst in Bannockburn over whether IPC should be involved at all.

To bring readers up to speed, IPC seeks to make clear that ITAR covers PCB designs intended for defense equipment.

While it seems patently obvious that PCB data should be on the ITAR list, it puts IPC in the semi-awkward position. The largest PCB supplier to the US DoD is TTM Technologies, with about $170 million in defense sales through the first three quarters of last year. TTM’s largest shareholder is a Chinese national. And TTM’s COO is on the IPC board of directors.

So does IPC support the continued DoD drive for COTS products, keeping with the Perry Initiative of 1994, which some cite as the beginning of the end for the US PCB industry?* (COTS in effect forces prices to their lowest common denominator, which gives certain offshore suppliers a leg up on their US competitors.) Does it seek to aid the competitiveness of a major member? Or does it put the interest of the multinational members that want the lowest prices, regardless of the potential security risks? What about the potential risk to the US PCB infrastructure? Which of these priorities should take precedence?

*I don’t agree, but that’s a different blog.

No Counterfeits, No Excuses

In a move that already is causing no small degree of consternation, President Obama last Saturday signed a new law that places the onus squarely on the Pentagon’s supply chain for ensuring all electronics components in all defense products are legitimate.

The bill, part of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, requires that the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security and their contractors  “detect and avoid counterfeit parts in the military supply chain.”

Counterfeits have been a known problem for years. (CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY has been warning of the issue at least since I came aboard in 2005.) I was personally told by a QA manager at one prime contractor that no less than a fourth of all the parts in some of its systems were suspected to be faked or otherwise out of compliance. And workshop after workshop told the tale of rivers of parts being shipped as e-waste to China, primarily the Shenzhen area, where they were separated and stripped from circuit boards, cleaned (usually in polluted water), sanded and remarked, and then resold into the supply chain. In a keynote at SMTAI in 2010, Tom Sharpe of independent distributor SMT Corp. noted some 29,000 incidents of counterfeits were reported to the US Department of Commerce between 2005 and 2008.

But the turning point, according to some analysts, was a Nov. 8 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing at which Congress heard compelling testimony on the sheer volume of fakes in the US military supply chain, including the results of a Government Accounting Office sting operation targeting electronics parts counterfeiters.

The evidence spurred Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) to lead a bipartisan effort to act. The result: legislation that establishes a program of enhanced inspection of electronic parts imported from any country determined by the Secretary of Defense to be a “significant source of counterfeit parts” in the DoD supply chain. The bill further requires defense contractors to establish policies and procedures to eliminate counterfeit electronic parts from their supply chains, and for the DoD to adopt policies and procedures for detecting and avoiding counterfeit parts in its own direct purchases.

Most important, the new law states those contractors that fail to detect and avoid counterfeits, or fail to exercise adequate due diligence, can be debarred. Furthermore, contractors can no longer charge the DoD for rework or related costs to remove and replace counterfeit parts, and they are held liable for any remedies required, regardless of where the counterfeit entered the supply chain.  The law affects all contractors at all tiers and is not limited to direct acquisition of parts. In other words, an EMS firm would be responsible for the counterfeit solder mask (yes, that happens) on a PCB it sourced from a fabricator in Asia (yes, that happens too).

Counterfeiting runs the gamut from the mundane to the highly sophisticated. In some cases, the trickery is performed by crude remarking and easily caught by a diligent inspector with an eye loupe. But at the upper end, it has evolved into a wholly systemic problem; again, we have been reporting on the “fourth shift” at various semiconductor factories, where workers build parts using legitimate materials and lines, but those parts are not subject to rigorous inspection and are sold “out the back” to unscrupulous third parties. In one egregious episode, VisionTech Components administrator Stephanie McCloskey was sentenced to prison and her boss, Shannon Wren, died of a drug overdose after facing similar charges for duping the US government in a long-running scam.

There is no question the supply chain has found counterfeit detection and prevention an expensive and difficult undertaking. XRF, chemical or laser etching and DNA marking are three of the more sophisticated means, although each adds time and cost to traditional inspection methods.

But the problem is too pervasive, and the risks too great, to whine about the costs. Counterfeiting has gotten completely out of hand. For those reasons, we welcome the bill and its well-conceived structure that puts the onus not on the taxpayer (via pass-along costs) but on the supplier, where it belongs. If this means contractors will have to start relying more on known-good suppliers, well, that’s not a bad thing either. I’ve seen far too many instances of high-level buyers at OEMs and EMS companies searching for parts on LinkedIn to be confident that the auditing many claim to have in place is being taken seriously.

Did DoD, State Faceoff on TTM Deal?

There is a rumor — and I strongly emphasize “rumor” — going around that claims the US Department of Defense sent a strongly worded letter to the State Department in opposition to the TTM’s pending acquisition of Meadville Group’s printed circuit board operations.

All of which makes yesterday’s news that the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US has no objection to the deal that much more interesting. The CFIUS is an interagency group whose members include Treasury, State, Defense, Homeland Security and other agencies.

I have contacts within the DoD acquisitions office. I’m trying to find out more on this. Stay tuned.