Getting the upper hand on counterfeiters in a global supply chain

Global supply chains present challenges for OEMs as their ability to ensure that every component part and every product made by their suppliers is genuine, made to specifications with the approved materials and sub-components is authentic, has been reduced. Nearly every day we see recalls of products whose authenticity is called into question because of a consumer problem.

Global supply chains present challenges for OEMs as their ability to ensure that every component part and every product made by their suppliers is genuine, made to specifications with the approved materials and sub-components is authentic, has been reduced. Nearly every day we see recalls of products whose authenticity is called into question because of a consumer problem.

Is that UL label on that coffee maker made in China a genuine UL label? Or is the label fake and the materials in the coffee maker itself a cause for kitchen fires? This was the situation that a nationally known brand of coffee makers found itself in a number of years ago. From consumer products to automotive parts (remember the Aston Martin accelerator pedal arm) and toys, counterfeiting has taken on new levels of concern, with plastic materials being at the heart of many of these counterfeit products.

"It's no longer enough for brand owners to have a reactive approach to counterfeiting," said Sarah Skidmore, marketing manager for Plastics Color Corp. "While this is not a new problem, we're to the point with advances in technology that brand owners can transition into being proactive."

There are a number of strategies that companies employ to try to identify counterfeit components and products including better labeling, complex labels that are difficult to reproduce, holographic labels that can only be seen under black light, and better security within foreign factories and in customs.

Still, Skidmore noted that many companies continue to have reactive strategies when it comes to protecting their intellectual property. Some wait until a shipment is caught in U.S. customs, or until consumer complaints begin pouring in. By that time, the damage has been done.

Plastics Color Corp., a global supplier of colorants, anti-microbial additives, and other polymer additives such as taggants that provide inherent material authenticity, was a participant in the Global Secure Summit (GSS) last month in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. "The question we need to ask ourselves as a material supplier is how can we provide proactive approaches to hinder counterfeiting; to make it more difficult to counterfeit and easier to identify counterfeit products before they reach consumers," Skidmore told PlasticsToday. "That's what we do - develop unique material taggants that become part of the polymer's DNA at the raw material level so that products can be authenticated at the lowest possible level of the supply chain."

Craig Porter, president and owner of Plasticert Inc., noted recently in a company blog on "Resin Integrity" that the molder has a responsibility to do all it can to ensure that the raw material is exactly what it spec'd for the parts. "Manufacturers of plastic resins set out to deliver those resins in an 'as manufactured' condition to the processor; the processor needs to maintain that integrity," Porter said.

Porter noted that the base resins and composite resins used at Plasticert have myriad end uses, and impact the company's customers' business and the customers' customers as well. "As a processor we handle these resins on a daily basis and are responsible for maintaining their integrity from raw form until molded into a component or product," he said. "The designs of these products are based on the properties of the plastic resins, which have been specified for each end product. If these properties of the plastic resins are altered through contamination, the performance of the end use products may suffer."

Porter told PlasticsToday that being a small-sized molder makes the relationship with the company's resin suppliers critical. "We don't have the infrastructure to do hands-on supply chain management so we have to depend on the distributors and the resin producers themselves to get us the material we require," said Porter. "I come from the electronics industry and there we had gray market suppliers and black market suppliers. So unless you know what you're getting and who you're getting it from, you could have problems."

Plastics Color's Skidmore said that the GSS focused on the supply chain and the gaps that can occur in the supply chain. "There can be gaps at the production level where the OEM has spec'd the material that the supplier needs to use, but if the supplier doesn't get prime material from the resin producer, the product is now defective," she said, adding that Plastics Color's MiBatch material taggant additives can help brand owners catch where in the supply chain things went bad.

Additionally, brand owners can audit their products through the entire process through post production. "If it's a warranty issue and your material contains a taggants, you can audit the parts already on the market and identify products that are counterfeit or were not made by your supplier," Skidmore explained. "Sometimes there are counterfeit parts in authentic packaging. Taggants provide great warranty evidence."

Skidmore said that as the world becomes more connected and the supply chain more intertwined, all the companies involved need to take a strategic partnership approach. "It's about how the brand owners work with their suppliers on these issues," she added. "We can find a solution that meets these various needs but no one organization can stop the problem from happening. Everyone has to work together cohesively to close that gap."

For Porter, it is easier than that: "It all comes down to doing business with someone you trust."

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