Counterfeit Parts Infiltrate Aerospace Projects

April 28, 2009

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Electrical, military and aerospace industries face a dangerous resurgence: the unintentional use of counterfeit components in place of certified parts.

Counterfeit components can often be identified before use, but their accidental application in critical military and aerospace projects can yield devastating results. The inadvertent use of substandard parts is by no means a new phenomenon, but as markets change, counterfeiters have found new ways to push their products.

The problem is huge in scope because nearly anything can be counterfeited. In a recent report from Boeing (Powerpoint), parts such as bolts, nuts, rivets and fluid bolts are all listed as components that can easily be replicated and sold. But the list doesn't end there. Electronic components, such as capacitors and integrated circuits, as well as materials like titanium and composite chemicals, are also commonly counterfeited.

"It's not just the high-value items [such as] semiconductors. It can be connectors, resistors, anything that can turn a good profit, anything that's on allocation, anything that's in high demand," EDN recently quoted Robin Gray, executive vice president of the National Electronic Distributors Association (NEDA), as having said.

Military applications have been hit especially hard. Significant changes since the 1990s have led the military to move toward commercial manufacturers for parts, unfortunately granting counterfeiters a new way in. Because the military "has moved away from mil-spec components and now relies almost exclusively on commercial manufacturers for parts," it's even easier for counterfeiters to pass off uncertified products as the real deal, Military and Aerospace Electronics reported in mid-July 2007.

When such parts are substituted for their safe and certified look-a-likes, the results are both expensive and harmful. "Although it's impossible to know for sure, industry experts estimate counterfeiting costs at $100 billion to $200 billion annually, or nearly 10 percent of all electronic components sold worldwide," according to EDN this month.

You don't have to know the exact cost of industry counterfeiting to understand just how damaging it can be. According to a Houston Chronicle report last month, NASA's acting administrator Christopher Scolese experienced first-hand the ravaging effects of counterfeit components. A few months ago, the identification of a counterfeit part on the Kepler aircraft delayed the project, which has since experienced a "20 percent project cost overrun, which [has] driven the project's total costs to up to $595 million," the Houston Chronicle reports.

The identification of counterfeit components in the Kepler project is far from an isolated incident. In correlation with the rise of counterfeiting, although no one can say for certain that counterfeit parts are the sole reason, many of NASA's projects have exceeded cost and deadlines.

In a recent hearing before the Committee on Science and Technology's Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, results of the Government Accountability Office's (GAO) investigation of NASA's projects were presented. "According to the GAO's review of 18 of NASA's large-scale projects, the agency had difficulty meeting cost, schedule and performance objectives for a majority of those projects," says the Committee on Science and Technology's Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics.

The Chronicle states:

NASA has been trying to weed out counterfeit parts for years, Scolese said. But the problem has been growing, with foreign firms and counterfeiters manufacturing equipment that ends up in NASA's supply chain... .

In an effort to address the counterfeiting issue and increase industry awareness, the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) has formed a Counterfeit Parts Integrated Project Team. Because many aerospace systems and components are designed to last a long time, it can be difficult to procure the same part from a manufacturer to replace the original — a dilemma that makes aerospace applications an especially desirable target for counterfeiters.

"Aerospace, space and defense products are targets for counterfeiters because the systems are intended for use over extended time, leaving them vulnerable to obsolescence of parts, materials, subsystems and technologies," according to a statement from the AIA.

Standards for independent suppliers can be inconsistent as well, allowing counterfeits to slip past inspection. However, because of part unavailability from the original manufacturer, many industries find they must turn to independent distributors. "As the time of use for a system increases, a substantial number of the products required to support aerospace, space and defense products are no longer available from the original manufacturers or through franchised or authorized suppliers," the AIA statement continues.

Solving the problems surrounding counterfeiting is no small task, but the AIA aims to bring together "government agencies, original manufacturers, industry associations and independent distributors" to begin tackling the issue head-on.

Resources

NASA Official Says Counterfeit Parts a Growing Problem by Stewart M. Powell Houston Chronicle, March 5, 2009

Subcommittee Investigates Causes, Solutions for Recurring Problems of Cost and Schedule Growth at NASA Committee on Science & Technology's Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, March 5, 2009

Counterfeit Components Find New Markets by Rob Spiegel EDN, April 9, 2009

An Unnerving Reality by Heather Tunstall Aerospace Manufacturing and Design, January/February 2009

The Counterfeit Parts & Materials Challenge (Powerpoint) by Lloyd Condra, Tony Marino, Art Mester, Bill Procarione and Bill Scofield (Boeing), March 2008

The Scourge of High Tech by John Keller Military & Aerospace Electronics, July 2007

AIA Counterfeit Parts Integrated Project Team Statement Aerospace Industries Association

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