Theft of any sort can cause a lot of damage, but when that theft involves ideas and designs, the damage can be costly. In 2008 Mattel sued a rival toy manufacturer for intellectual property theft that could have resulted in a 100 million dollar award if not for an unexpected legal technicality. And money isn’t the only asset at risk; IP theft also poses a significant threat to corporations’ health and even national security.
With the need to transmit data to get a printed circuit board built, there is always the chance that the sensitive data included in the PCB design could be at risk. Worse yet is when design data or actual hardware is copied or reverse engineered to steal intellectual property. Let’s look at some tips for protecting your PCB intellectual property and keeping valuable designs safe.
The Problems for PCB Design that Result from Intellectual Property Theft
Data exchanged through the internet is often vulnerable to corruption or theft. Printed circuit board design data sent to offshore manufacturing facilities where security is not high is especially at risk. Sensitive design data can end up stolen and sold to competitors to duplicate the engineering work. The same problem can also happen if portions or entire products are stolen during production or shipping. In the wrong hands, this hardware can be reversed engineered to mine the design data. In either case, IP theft like this can seriously undermine a company’s ability to compete with its new products and remain profitable.
Now that remote work is becoming more commonplace, another risk to intellectual property is through collaborative work done online. Design teams that are not centrally located will share design data among the group, which can put sensitive information at risk without proper precautions. These can include version and password controls on the tools used to keep track of design change history and prohibit unauthorized access. Let’s look next at some of the methods to protect your PCB intellectual property.
Methods of Protecting Your PCB Intellectual Property
The design of a printed circuit board involves the use of different types of data, and intellectual property can be found in the following:
- Schematics: Often transmitted in a PDF format, schematic designs usually contain component types and values and connectivity information.
- Netlists: These text files will detail all of the connectivity of the board.
- Bill of materials (BOM): These files will list all of the parts used in the design along with their reference designators, values, and part numbers.
- Component symbols: These files can either be separate or embedded within the design database. Although most symbol information can be easily accessed from part vendors and other sources, some application-specific parts could yield proprietary data.
- Constraints and stackup information: This data contains high-speed design information, such as the configuration of the PCB layers used in reverse engineering a design.
To keep this sensitive data secure, you either need to control how the information is sent out or remove the ability for thieves to access it:
Controlling data by putting security practices in place
From advanced tools and networking architectures to robust processes and procedures, you can add a lot of security to how you transmit your sensitive data. You will also want to make sure that your employees are fully trained on the processes you put into place. The world’s best security won’t help if someone sends some design data that is not adequately protected.
Selectively removing sensitive data
Stripping sensitive information out of the design, such as constraint information, can render the design useless to those looking to steal IP. There is a danger here in restricting your manufacturer’s ability to do their work if too much information is left out. For example, the procurement team at the assembly plant won’t be able to buy parts for the board without the proper component information in the bill of materials.
Another approach to protecting your PCB intellectual property is choosing a contract manufacturer that you can trust and demonstrates a commitment to security.
A PCB CM Will Work to Keep Your IP Safe
For a contract manufacturer, protecting intellectual property is one of their highest priorities to serve their clients. To maintain this level of security, the PCB CM will typically be able to offer the following:
- A manufacturing partner that has a solid history of expertise, quality, and ethics that you can trust.
- Located near high-tech centers of business to avoid the potential data security threats associated with off-shore manufacturing, as well as global shipping of finished products.
- Secure data and documentation control procedures set up in accordance with ISO 9001 quality management systems.
- Tight control of personnel and visitors to the production facilities to ensure that your products and sensitive IP are not exposed.
At VSE, we have been serving the electronics manufacturing needs of Silicon Valley for over 30 years. We’ve made it a standard operating procedure to treat all of our customers as if they’re working on highly confidential projects so that everyone gets the same high-level of IP protection. As a certified ISO 9001 manufacturer, we have strict quality processes that govern how we document each project. As such, we have an excellent track record of protecting our customer’s data, and that same level of care and protection is available to you.