For any company relying on parts manufactured by third parties, the threat of counterfeiting is very real. Where there is money to be made with fake, substandard parts, there will be people willing to produce them. As a result, there is a lively industry for the detection of counterfeit goods and parts.
InfraTrac's method uses a small spot of compatible print materials as taggant, layered inside like peanut butter and jelly hidden in a sandwich. (Image source: David Ian Forbes)
At the consumer level, anti-counterfeit technology could include a holographic tag on a garment – an expensive collector’s football jersey, for example -- to reassure the customer shelling out big bucks that the garment is authentic. It might be about placing tiny, covert scanners inside the products themselves. In some cases, chemical signatures are used in the manufacturing process and then scanned to ensure all the parts of a product or machine are authentic.
The problem with anti-counterfeit technology has traditionally been that once a method for detecting counterfeiting becomes established, the counterfeiters determine how to get around it. This is particularly true of overt methods of counterfeit detection, such as holographic tags.
“Overt protections reassure the consumer that the football jersey with the hologram tag is likely to be authorized and authentic, but they telegraph to the counterfeiter exactly what to spoof, so those holograms, alas, are no longer trustworthy,” Dr. Sharon Flank, CEO of InfraTrac, told Design News. “You can buy your own in rogue marketplaces. Covert protections have the advantage of working behind the scenes.”
Anti-counterfeit Measures Are Failing
Unfortunately, even some covert methods are becoming easier to get around, particularly with the wide availability of 3D scanners, which means that techniques such as laser etching or tiny barcodes are no longer reliably covert. Manufacturers may be staking their brand reputation, and the safety of their customers, on the authenticity of parts and materials. Products produced via additive manufacturing are particularly vulnerable, since the printing is often outsourced, creating even more spots in the supply chain where trouble in the form of poor-quality counterfeits can slip in
Forensic measures – generally considered the most secure methods to detect fakes -- have historically required expensive lab equipment manipulated by expensive experts, but recent advances in photonics have enabled an explosion of new portable, easy-to-use instruments that put forensic-quality science in the hands of field personnel, with near-instant authentication capability.
New Measures to Protect Additive Manufactured Parts
As more complex parts are created with additive manufacturing, methods are required to authenticate parts created by multimaterial processes involving the laser bed powder fusion (LBPF) process. Maryland-based InfraTrac recently partnered with Belgium-based SLS 3D printer manufacturer Aerosint to ensure the integrity of multimaterial parts created with LPBF.
The partnership became possible when Aerosint recently debuted the first multi-powder SLS 3D printer. Since InfraTrac’s anti-counterfeiting technique embeds a different material -- preferably during the printing process – it can only be used in a multimaterial print processes. Until Aerosint’s innovation, LBPF was not a multimaterial process.
InfraTrac’s tagging model uses commodity taggants for scalability. A taggant is a substance with a chemistry that features unique codes that are nearly impossible to replicate. Optimally, taggant is placed in a small subsurface spot during the print. Selecting a single, highly detectable taggant and dispersing it throughout the product (in filament or mixed into pellets or powders) may seem like a good idea, but placing taggant everywhere makes it easier for counterfeiters to locate it and copy it. Instead, InfraTrac uses compatible chemicals as taggants, as part of the print process, and hides them in a small covert spot so they’re nearly impossible for counterfeiters to replicate.
Anti-counterfeiting Needs to be Integral to Additive Manufacturing
Flank stresses that the forensic counterfeiting detection methods must be easy to use if they’re to be reliable. As a result, the prototypes produced by the partnership between InfraTrac and Aerosint have chemical signatures are read with off-the-shelf handheld spectrometers: near-infrared spectrometers for polymers and x-ray fluorescence spectrometers for metals. The signatures are then checked for a match using chemometric algorithms, with support from InfraTrac’s partner Camo Analytics.
“Complexity is the enemy of security: difficult procedures invite work-arounds,” said Dr. Flank. “That’s what makes us reuse passwords even when we know we shouldn’t. Security procedures that align with existing processes are most likely to be adopted, and less likely to be circumvented. Applying taggant or codes should be part of the standard print or manufacturing workflow, not an add-on. Detection should take seconds, with inexpensive, portable, off-the-shelf equipment.”
Every Company with a Brand Needs a Security Plan
While many anti-counterfeiting technologies are focused on copyright and patent protections, there are far fewer focused on safety and supply chain integrity. While patent-related technologies generally authenticate the software and the printing processes, anti-counterfeiting for additive manufacturing needs to be integral to the final printed product, even if it’s a multimaterial part.
“In recent years, aerospace and defense, automotive, and heavy equipment manufacturers have all been looking for good security options for LBPF, especially for metals,” said Flank. “Every company with a brand and customers to protect needs a security plan, and as AM gains traction, they know AM security will be important as well.”
For now, the two companies are creating simplistic demonstrator parts made from polymer and metal that integrate “fingerprinting” sites based on a powder formulation developed by InfraTrac. Going forward, InfraTrac and Aerosint plan to create more safety solutions for more materials, more part shapes, and more printer types, guided by the needs of their customers.
Tracey Schelmetic graduated from Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn. and began her long career as a technology and science writer and editor at Appleton & Lange. Later, as the editorial director of telecom trade journal Customer Interaction Solutions (today Customer magazine), she became a well-recognized voice in the contact center industry. Today, she is a freelance writer specializing in manufacturing and technology, telecommunications, and enterprise software.
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