As companies benefit from the global supply chain in terms of lower production costs and faster turnaround times, they are also exposing their intellectual property to third parties, including PCB design data. It’s easy to get complacent about this topic, but it’s important to remember that a company’s IP is often the basis for its competitive advantage.

As products are created, the manufacturing is commonly outsourced to electronics manufacturing services (EMS) companies. Without IP management or protection, your new product can be cloned by a competitor or an unknown third party. IP protection laws vary across the globe so the best approach is to protect your IP before it leaves your company.

PCB design data is one such area where users should be looking at protecting their IP. In the past, engineers and managers had to manually filter the design data by removing sensitive information prior to releasing it to a subcontractor or manufacturer. By itself, this could be a time consuming and error prone process with only marginal results.

Here are a few examples of potentially sensitive data that you might consider protecting:

Part numbers – rename part numbers so it is difficult to identify the part being used. Part data can be protected using some form of sequential or random generated part information. By creating random numbers or a sequence, the part can only be identified by the source engineering staff or the original design data.

Constraint information – hiding design constraints can make the design useless. Constraint information plays a significant role in today’s high-speed and miniaturized products. Hiding constraint information, which may be critical for the functional operation of the product, will render the design unusable.

Material information – Removing the material information may have a detrimental effect on the functional aspect of the product. Removing the material information from the design will impact signal and power integrity performance , which could introduce product quality problems. Disabling functions like data exchange and interrogation by other programs or tools would also limit IP exposure.

Making Unauthorized Functions Inaccessible

From the world of James Bond comes the final option, the time bomb. This is a method by which the design data can be rendered unreadable after a user defined time period. Similar to a software license, once the period has expired you would need to go back to the source for additional information.

By consistently protecting data that you consider IP it will make your new designs very difficult to reverse engineer. You can feel confident that your new product designs can be manufactured in a secure manner at the lowest cost with the fastest time to market.

IP protection has become a concern with the globalization of the supply chain. Make sure you are taking the necessary steps to maximize your product revenue while protecting your company’s intellectual property.

NIKOLA KONTIC is a business development manager at Zuken.


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