Engineering Society Helps NASA Combat Counterfeit Parts Problem

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  Space News Business

Engineering Society Helps NASA Combat Counterfeit Parts Problem

By BECKY IANNOTTA
Space News Staff Writer
posted: 17 March 2009
04:35 pm ET






WASHINGTON
— NASA is turning to a group of professional engineers for guidance in combating a counterfeit parts market fueled by the shrinking number of legitimate
U.S.
suppliers of hardware and electronics components, space agency officials said.

By the end of March, the Society of Automotive Engineers is expected to release new standards aimed at helping the aerospace industry take steps to avoid buying parts that do not meet specifications. NASA intends to adopt the standards and work with its contractors to develop counterfeit avoidance plans, said Mike Sampson, co-manager of NASA’s electronics parts and packaging program. NASA considers a part counterfeit if its material, performance or characteristics are knowingly misrepresented.

The guidance, which will be called “Counterfeit Electronic Parts Avoidance, Detection, Mitigation and Disposition,” is expected to be voluntarily adopted by other government agencies, the military and commercial industry. It will provide guidance in the event they have to buy parts outside the pool of authorized distributors.

“In 2004 NASA issued an advisory warning projects that the rate of counterfeiting was increasing and that the best way of avoiding counterfeit electronics is to buy from original manufacturers or authorized distributors,” Sampson said. “The reality these days is that it’s hard to avoid buying from unauthorized distributors.”

The problem stems from rapidly changing technology and parts becoming obsolete before authorized companies can sell them, Sampson said, adding that obsolescence is a more serious problem for components in military hardware that have been around for decades. Many of the counterfeit electronics parts come from
China
, Sampson said.


China
seems to be the main source but it is by no means the only source. Counterfeit parts can come from anywhere on the planet,” he said. “A big problem is with parts salvaged from obsolete hardware or where the companies get rid of excess stock. At that point the paperwork is no longer with the parts and they are stripped of markings and remarked.”

In some cases, NASA has discovered that a component is not exactly what was ordered, but after testing determined the part would not adversely affect the spacecraft.

NASA’s Kepler telescope that lifted off from
Cape Canaveral
,
Fla.
, March 6, is one such example. NASA officials discovered in December that the titanium used to make parts installed on Kepler’s spider hub assembly holding the telescope did not meet the space agency’s specifications. But after a series of tests, NASA officials found that the titanium met the performance requirements.

The discovery of a counterfeit part by NASA or the U.S. Department of Defense triggers a federal investigation that can lead to criminal charges.

For example, four executives of Western Titanium, the
San Diego
company that supplied the titanium for Kepler, were indicted Dec. 8 by a federal grand jury in
San Diego
on fraud charges. In addition to Kepler, Western Titanium’s metal was used on U.S. Air Force F-15s, F-22s and C-17s, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego. The executives face up to 20 years in prison for each of the eight counts.

A search warrant for Western Titanium offices, issued in April but unsealed Dec. 10, revealed that investigators sought receipts from Kepler spacecraft builder Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo., NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and other aerospace and defense contractors including: Aerojet of Sacramento, Calif., Northrop Grumman Corp. of Los Angeles, Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md., and McDonnell Douglas Corp., now part of Chicago-based Boeing Co.

Nancy Luque, an attorney representing Western Titanium, said the company sold titanium for Kepler that met the specifications ordered by a Ball subcontractor.

“I don’t know what was required because we did not sell to NASA or Ball, but the titanium we sold was precisely what the customer asked for,” she told Space News.

Even if suspect components are eventually ruled safe for flight, the tests alone are adding costs to NASA programs, NASA Acting Administrator Chris Scolese told the House Science and Technology subcommittee on space and aeronautics March 5.

“We do inspections. We do all the things that you’re supposed to do. That adds cost clearly,” Scolese said. “But when you find out about them – if you don’t find out about them at receipt, you find out about it when you are in test or you find out about when you’re sitting on the top of the rocket or worse, you find out about it when you’re in space. And all of those have cost implications.”