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Using Additive Manufacturing to Combat Counterfeits

Jan. 11, 2023
Here’s how some of the nation’s universities and research groups are working to drive counterfeits out of the manufacturing supply chain.

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Counterfeit parts pose a serious risk to the electronics supply chain, where products that don’t meet electrical safety standards and/or minimal specifications can degrade system performance, cause equipment to malfunction and create myriad other hazards. Even the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) supply chain is vulnerable to the risk of counterfeit parts and estimates that as much as 15% of all spare and replacement parts for military electronics may be counterfeit.

It seems that the bad actors behind these counterfeit parts are getting gutsier. In July, for example, a U.S. court charged one enterprise for selling counterfeit Cisco networking devices through 19 companies and multiple different online storefronts, Mirror Now reports. The operation was importing tens of thousands of fake Cisco devices from China and Hong Kong. It then resold those fakes to customers in the U.S. and overseas while falsely claiming that the products were both new and genuine. 

This is just one example of how quickly counterfeiters can gain a foothold in the electronics industry. In response, researchers from various universities are working with the SecureAmerica Institute (SAI) to find new ways to drive counterfeit parts out of the electronics supply chain. The Institute is a private-public research collaborative that brings industry, government and academia together to “integrate advancements in U.S. manufacturing resilience.” The additive manufacturing research is part of SAI’s broader mission of empowering a secure and resilient domestic manufacturing enterprise.

A Revolutionary Process

According to SAI, it’s working with Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station (TEES) researchers and their partners at New York University to develop “techniques that successfully embed markers into 3D-printed products so customers can verify that items received are not counterfeit.”

“The risk of counterfeit products for items like automotive parts, electronics, safety equipment and medicine are of particular concern, especially with increased MaaS technology use,” said NYU’s Dr. Ramesh Karri, who is principal investigator for the project. “Identifying techniques that reduce these risks will protect manufacturers, customers and consumers as we ensure product needs are met safely.”

Steve Kuhlmann of Texas A&M University College of Engineering says the university’s researchers have come up with a way to imprint a hidden magnetic tag—embedded with authentication data—within manufactured hardware during the part fabrication process.

“The revolutionary process holds the potential to expose counterfeit goods more easily by replacing physical tags—such as barcodes or quick response (QR) codes—with these hidden magnetic tags, which serve as permanent and unique identifiers,” Kuhlmann writes in “Using additive manufacturing to detect counterfeit parts.”

Real-World Implementation

Supported by SAI, the “Embedded Information in Additively Manufactured Metals via Composition Gradients for Anti-Counterfeiting and Supply Chain Traceability” project is focused on ensuring security and reliable authentication in manufacturing.

According to Kuhlmann, the team is implementing metal additive manufacturing techniques in order to embed the readable magnetic tags into metal parts. This can be done without compromising on performance or longevity, he says, and researchers use 3D printing to embed the tags below the surface into nonmagnetic steel hardware.

“Once embedded into a nonmagnetic item, the magnetic tag is readable using a magnetic sensor device—such as a smartphone—by scanning near the correct location on the product, allowing the designated information to be accessed by the user,” Kuhlmann writes. “While other methods exist for imprinting information, they primarily require sophisticated and costly equipment that introduces a barrier to real-world implementation.”

Adding Blockchain to the Mix

One professor from Louisiana State University is also working on new ways to use additive manufacturing to combat counterfeit goods. According to the university, Chemistry Professor Les Butler is “on a mission to secure the supply chain and pump the brakes on counterfeit products.”

Butler is developing an enhanced anti-counterfeiting measure protecting additive manufactured (AM) parts. The system protects against counterfeit manufactured components, such as automotive and aerospace parts, by connecting a physical part with a secure database safeguarded by blockchain technology. A “cyber-physical trust anchor” is placed in a component during the AM process.

Using blockchain, manufacturers can record information that cannot be altered or deleted. For proof of authentication, the imaging process is repeated, and data is compared to a blockchain data file, according to LSU. Inspectors then receive a yes/no response for component authentication.

“Our goal is to secure the AM supply chain from part print to part end-of-life, without change to part design and production workflow commensurate with the security needs for that part,” Butler said. “By leveraging blockchain technology to improve supply chain safety issues, companies will be able to protect intellectual property and public safety.”

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About the Author

Bridget McCrea | Contributing Writer | Supply Chain Connect

Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers business and technology for various publications.