Electronic fingerprint to make microchips safer
1 million euros in funding from the federal initiative “Reliable Electronics”

Ulm University

Any digital system is only as good as the hardware built into it. Here the reliability of the electronic components, such as chips, printed circuit boards or programmable circuits, plays a key role. With its flagship initiative “Reliable Electronics”, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung, BMBF) hopes to increase the safety of electronic components and systems. Scientists from the Institute of Microelectronics in Ulm are involved in two projects that are being funded through this initiative. A total of around one million euros in funding has been allocated to help them develop an electronic “fingerprint” for electronic components which will enable unequivocal identification of individual components and integrated systems.

Electronics are taking on an increasing number of functions that are critical to safety issues, whether in the area of automated driving, medical technology or robot-supported industrial production. “Day after day, we trust that technology will work flawlessly. But how can we be sure that the respective technical parts deserve our trust? After all, individual components could be counterfeit, manipulated or even simply defective”, Professor Maurits Ortmanns points out. The head of the Institute of Microelectronics at Ulm University is involved in two joint projects that are receiving over 22 million euros in funding within the framework of the BMBF flagship initiative “Reliable Electronics”. The focus of this initiative is on ensuring authenticity, functionality and security of supply, with the long-term goal of securing the technological sovereignty of the German economy and German science.

The project VE-VIDES concerns developing a complete security strategy for electronic systems to protect against attacks, manipulation and product piracy. The team of researchers is working toward developing a fingerprint that will enable electronic components to be identified. Applications for the areas of autonomous driving and Industry 4.0 are being explored. The aim is to transfer the results to the fields of medical and communications technology as well as aerospace at a later point in time. A total of twelve partners are involved in the project, which is being coordinated by the semi-conductor manufacturer Infineon. Partners include renowned industrial companies such as VW, Bosch and Siemens, as well as multiple industrial and academic microelectronics and semi-conductor research institutes. In addition to Ulm University, Chemnitz University of Technology and the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits are also involved. A total of 16.3 million euros is available for the participating companies and institutes over the three-year duration of the research project.

Ulm University is involved in a second joint project with a similar focus that is affiliated with the flagship initiative. Under the abbreviation of VE-FIDES, this project also deals with the production of digital identity. The focus is on developing methods for tracing individual components as well as whole systems along the entire production chain. Authenticity verification is intended to prevent counterfeit electronic parts or parts of inferior quality from entering circulation and being used in products. Siemens is the coordinator for this research project, and the other partners include the Technical University of Munich, Ulm University and the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied and Integrated Safety, as well as the companies Continental Automotive, Infineon and Bischoff Elektronik. VE-FIDES is receiving around 6 million euros in funding, which will also be available for a 3-year period.

The team of scientists from the Ulm Institute of Microelectronics has the task of developing a fraud-proof physical “fingerprint” for electronic conductor plates, programmable circuits and integrated circuits (FPGA and microcontrollers). The purpose of the electronic fingerprint is to help determine whether or not a component is an original piece. Has it been modified to compromise its use? Is it a counterfeit part, or has it been illegally copied? “The key to more reliability and trust lies in the ability to unequivocally identify electronic components” believes Professor Maurits Ortmanns. And how does one go about creating an electronic fingerprint such as this? “When components are being produced, there are inevitable process fluctuations which lead to the slightest deviations at the nanoscale level. A first raw fingerprint is created by capturing these numerous random differences. Methods of signal processing, coding and encoding improve the raw fingerprint, and the subsequent hardening makes the fingerprint more robust against temperature fluctuations and aging processes. This makes it possible to identify the part throughout its entire service life” explains the engineer from Ulm.

“Germany is a land of innovation. It is important that we hold our own in international competition with key technologies such as digitalisation” stressed Federal Research Minister Anja Karliczek in the BMBF report presenting the flagship initiative “Reliable Electronics”. Ultimately, the aim of the federal government’s high-tech strategy is to achieve technological sovereignty and establish cost-effective electronics production in Germany and in Europe. The scientists from Ulm are proud to be able to make a contribution to these efforts.

Text and mediacontact: Andrea Weber-Tuckermann



Micochip befor eye
The focus of the flagship initiative “Reliable Electronics” is on the safety of electronic components. Pictured here: a microchip (Photo: Frank Hagmeyer, assembly: Sabine Geller / Uni Ulm)
Tagging electronic parts with an electronic fingerprint to make them more secure. Pictured here: a housed microchip (Photo: Frank Hagmeyer / Uni Ulm)
Prof. Maurits Ortmanns
Prof. Maurits Ortmanns