Not much has happened yet, but by 2018 look for 3-D printing to be the vehicle for counterfeiting US $100 billion worth of goods annually. That’s the prediction from research firm Gartner, and companies are starting to pay attention.
Also known as additive manufacturing, 3-D printing refers to the process of replicating an object from a digital file or creating such a file by scanning the original object with a 3-D scanner. The printer reads the file as hundreds of 2-D images stacked together and then creates the duplicate with layers of material such as plastic, metal, ceramic, or glass. These machines can copy almost any object imaginable, including toys, artwork, firearms, and packaging and boxes for products such as expensive pharmaceuticals.
With some 3-D printers costing as little as $500 and the needed materials to work with now sold in retail stores, it is fairly simple to create fakes. There are open-source libraries that contain thousands of computer-aided design (CAD) files, or blueprints, for brand-name products.
“When it comes to 3-D printing, we’ll be dealing with counterfeiting the same way we did with 2-D printing—which made it easier to print false documents and money—and that is not very well,” says Joshua Greenbaum, with Enterprise Application Consulting. Among other things, he advises companies on 3-D printing applications and will be a speaker at the IEEE Computer Society’s Rock Stars of 3-D Printing conference on 17 March in San Jose, Calif. “3-D printing will be virtually impossible to police,” he says.
However, there are ways that companies can start to protect themselves.
To distinguish their products from copies, manufacturers are adding unique, “uncloneable” signatures to their products. One of the newest techniques involves embedding quantum dots—nanocrystals made of semiconductor material—into products during manufacturing. Objects can then be easily be screened for authenticity. The dots can be chosen to emit any color of light when scanned. And by layering the dots to emit two different colors at once, a manufacturer can design a signature that’s even harder to copy.
Developed by a team from Virginia Tech, the signature is not foolproof, however. “If counterfeiters know what they’re doing, they can copy the signature fairly well,” says Greenbaum.
Another technique uses indelible ink, called ATE ink, to mark packages, which is usually easy to replicate. The ink, developed by researchers at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, helps manufacturers better track and locate their products. This can help them verify in their systems, for example, if it is their items being sold in an online marketplace such as eBay, or if the items are counterfeit. The special ink is also compatible with various types of industrial printers.
Other techniques in the works include shape-memory polymer labels, a material that when heated, reveals hidden shapes like letters and numbers. For example, one can flick a lighter over the label for a few seconds to make the code visible. The label can be placed on packages, such as glass bottles, and other items.
And DNA marking attaches a signature—which can be visible or invisible—to a product that when screened, proves it’s genuine. The technology can encode telltale information into inks, dyes, and resins as security markers. This can be done by marking a microchip with unique synthetic or botanical DNA sequences. Results from its testing have proven it to be 100 percent “uncopyable,” according to its developers.
Products could be screened using scanners similar to those that can read bar codes. There is also the potential for companies to design apps for smartphones and tablets that could read unique signatures on a product’s package.
“Companies will tend to tolerate one-offs, but they will crack down when items are produced for mass sale,” Greenbaum says.
Signatures will help companies separate authentic products from fakes and can provide proof of counterfeiting should legal action be required to stop the practice, he adds.