Proof of Concept for “The 3D Printer Problem”
3D printers are a wonderful manufacturing paradigm shift. They offer the potential to manufacture almost any 3D shape in plastic, resin, metal, or any combination. As the technology advances, the number of potential products that can be made using this method exponentially increases as does the number of materials that can be used.
3D printers have another massive advantage over traditional manufacturing means: They don't have to reside in dedicated manufacturing centres. A 3D printer in the home is already fairly normal amongst users of the technology, and you don't ultimately need a special license to own one either an existing high-end 3D printer can print all the parts to make a new one, which the user then assembles, and can start using immediately. The only costs being materials and power.
This then directly leads us into the potential problem with 3D printers for established manufacturers. It allows for the first time, the potential for anyone to manufacture anything they so desire, rather than commercially buying it. A pair of exquisite Reebok shoes exactly tailored to your own foot size and shape is perfectly doable when you make them yourself. They'll be identical to actual Reebok shoes, so you could even print a few more pairs and sell them. Nobody need ever know they are fakes...
This is the 3D printer problem. If anyone can manufacture anything, then anyone can manufacture a company's own proprietor y goods, just as good as the original company, and without paying them a penny. It is a counterfeiter's dream. Methods to limit what the printer can print, have been completely unsuccessful, and will remain so. As long as the printer can print electronics, it can print another printer without the restriction. Prevent it from printing electronics and you cripple thousands of potentially invaluable legitimate uses of the technology.
In order to provide a solution for existing company profit margins other than banning a potentially revolutionary technology that changes the way we manufacture forever, a way of telling the IP owning company-made products from the non-IP owning company or private made products must be found.
Any solution based on limiting or altering the products made by individual users will be bypassed. It's not a matter of if, but a matter of when. So that idea is a non-starter. If a solution is not found, the companies with the most to lose are very likely to start pressuring governments into banning the technology, the same way record companies have been doing with various digital data distribution methods. So, a solution is in our best interests if we wish the technology to stay.
The only logical avenue left to explore, is to alter the original products in some way that cannot be easily duplicated. Perhaps in a way that 3D scanners will not be likely to pick up upon when they are scanning an object to be duplicated.
That's what the proof of concept created last month by a joint research team from Carnegie Mellon University and, Microsoft Research actually does. The same 3D printing process used to create a 3D object can also be used to create a hopefully-invisible tag completely inside the object. Only the company knows where it is or what it is, and the tag can later be dug out to prove the item is genuine or not. Even if the tag were to be discovered, changing it on a regular basis every few runs would not impact those who wished to make things for their own use or their own 3D printed products to sell,. But would make passing a forgery off as an original, much, much harder.
The method the proof of concept uses is to embed a terrahertz radiation source in almost any pattern within the 3D object. This source produces an extremely faint, unique pattern which can be read on a terahertz reader. Unfortunately for the counterfeiter, there's no way to reverse-engineer the precise shape of a tag from the pattern it produces and a single element out of place marks the copy as a forgery.
This concept doesn't come without a cost however; terahertz radiation studies are in their infancy, and terahertz imagers are still extremely costly. Very few firms can afford them, and the imagers are necessary to prove a tag is genuine.
Implanting the tag carries no actual extra cost, as the material is just another 'ink' the printer has to lay down in a 3D pattern inside the object it is assembling, alongside all the other 'inks' that make up the physical structure.
The proof of concept tag has been dubbed the InfraStruct by the research team structural information coded directly inside an object, invisible to the naked eye or scanner. They hope that InfraStructs could eventually be used in all manner of commercial products, to prove they really came from that manufacturer.
One strong advantage terahertz radiation has over other possible means of identification, is it carries almost no risk to biological matter. Terahertz radiation can penetrate most plastics, ceramics, and almost all papers, but has no discernible effect whatsoever on living cells. It falls between microwaves and infra-red light on the electromagnetic spectrum, with similar penetrating power to microwaves, and similar damage potential to infra-red light, so it is potentially the most ideal solution this method of tagging could use.
The method was presented at SIGGRAPH 2013, and only time will tell if the larger manufacturers will use it as a viable method of protecting their IP.