Scientists embed anti-fake features in metal parts

3D printing is often held up as a potential source of counterfeit metal parts, but could also the means to make these components much harder to copy.

UK researchers have developed a way to embed features such as taggants or QR codes into stainless steel parts during the 3d printing process (also known as additive manufacturing or AM) that they say could help fight counterfeiting of components used in industries such as aerospace, automotive and medical devices.

Writing in the journal Additive Manufacturing, the team from Manchester University used a powder-based 3D printing technique known as selective laser melting (SLM) to embed a copper alloy to serve as a tag within stainless steel that could be detected using X-ray imaging even when concealed 15mm below the surface of the component.

They also managed to use alternating areas of copper alloy and stainless steel to create QR codes on the surface of the part, with the copper areas showing up as red and the steel as blue on imaging.

The authors note that additive manufacturing of industrial parts is predicted to become a $21bn global market by 2020, with almost half accounted for by the aerospace, automotive, and medical industries, which are already suffering from a “significant number of counterfeited metallic products that not only have caused financial losses but also endanger lives.”

“The rapid adoption of AM technology makes the suppression of the counterfeit prevalence more difficult,” they write.

“The counterfeiters can copy generic products easily and quickly as long as they have the suitable 3D printers and 3D models that could be downloaded online or acquired through reverse engineering.”

While some researchers have experimented with embedding anti-counterfeit features made of polymers and other materials, there is a risk these could compromise the strength of a component as they create voids within the structure. The SLM approach doesn’t create any voids, note the scientists.

The resulting features are non-removable and detectable using a non-destructive method, and with refinement of the technique – for example by using taggants with higher density and contrast on X-ray – it could also be suitable for use with handheld scanners.

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