Forensic Drama in the Supply Chain

May 13, 2011
If you like to watch CSI, that CBS series about crime scene investigators, it may be because, as a supply chain professional, you relate to their problem solving techniques. Many of the show's fans do, and their enthusiasm has resulted in a hit series ...

If you like to watch CSI, that CBS series about crime scene investigators, it may be because, as a supply chain professional, you relate to their problem solving techniques. Many of the show's fans do, and their enthusiasm has resulted in a hit series and a couple spinoffs (CSI Miami and CSI New York).

But while most of the shows' fans can only dream of being part of such investigations, many supply chain professionals in the show's vast audience have to sift through clues of their own every day. Indeed, an industry has been built from the need to track and trace items through the food and pharma supply chains, for example.

Now, we at MH&L get a lot of press releases announcing automatic data collection and labeling solutions. Most of these announcements don't involve the kind of stuff that inspires network melodramas, but every once in a while I'll get a new product announcement that puts me in a Walter-Mitty-like dream.

Last week I got one from Applied DNA Sciences Inc. (APDN), which announced it was working with the U.S. Government to prevent the use of counterfeit microchips in mission critical hardware. Such counterfeiting “can lead to potential life-threatening equipment failures,” the announcement stated.

Here's where my inner Walter Mitty was awakened. The release told how Robert P. Ernst, the head of the Naval Air Systems Command anti-counterfeiting team, investigated the case of a counterfeit microchip found in a night-attack Marine Corps fighter jet. The chip didn't contain lead in its solder joints, which could cause the jet's controls to fail.

After Ernst called the chip's suppliers, it became apparent the military had been duped into purchasing fake chips. On the other end of the phone he heard children playing in the background. Turned out this was a small business operated out of someone's home and these people were just two of many such home businesses that get tricked into buying from inscrutable sources. Needless to say, these mom and pops don't do product screening. Apparently, 15% of the chips sold to the military are fakes.

Ernst found out about APDN and is now working with them on a solution. It saw an opportunity to have the microchip vendors tag their chips with unique strands of DNA that can't be replicated. If such DNA is applied during the manufacturing process, by a reputable supplier, it validates the product's authenticity.

I called Janice Meraglia, a spokesperson for APDN, to see if this kind of forensic process was applicable in other industries represented by MH&L readers.

“It's transferrable to a host of other areas away from electronics,” she told me. “It can transfer to the food and pharmaceutical chains. In pharma we can be part of the packaging process which is where most anti-tamper solutions go, but because our DNA is a green product [taken from daisy DNA], it can be on the dose itself. We are not doing that yet, but the amount of DNA we use to mark a product is so infinitesimally small it's in parts per billion. All we need is one molecule.”

So in a supply chain scenario, if this DNA is part of a process, it can be used to verify a product went through all the appropriate points in a chain. The product can be tested at different points.

“Let's say there's a company with one general distribution channel but five different manufacturing plants, and somehow something is going awry and they can't figure out how,” Meraglia explained. “If you're putting on a mark in two locations and only one of those marks is on the product you know where your weak link is.”

This process has already been used to put currency counterfeiters in the klink. It's happening in the U.K., where cash is transported by unarmed guards. This DNA is put into a degradation dye, and that dye is part of an exploding pack that goes into a case with the money. If this case is broken into or taken off course the dye explodes and the DNA marks everything it comes into contact with—the money, the person who took it, the car he was in when he took it, the shoes on his feet, etc. Each cash box has a unique DNA code. When a criminal is picked up in relation to a crime, they put the UV light on them and see the DNA marker. They then swab the evidence and the DNA marker is authenticated in a lab. That ties the crook to a specific crime. If they have markings from more than one robbery, that ties them to organized crime. If two people are brought in with the same marker, the cops know they worked together on that crime.

Meraglia says they helped mete out 22 convictions and 120 years of jail time that way. Her company even received an excellence in policing award.

I may have to book a trip to Hollywood and make my pitch to CBS for “SCI—Supply Chain Investigation.”

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Photo by David Adams U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Baltimore District
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