Tracking counterfeits from 3D printers might soon become much easier: According to a recent study by several US universities, 3D printers leave unique patterns on the objects they print, comparable e.g. to human fingerprints. In future, the so-called PrinTracker technique could make it possible to use these traces in order to establish definite connections between printed objects and the corresponding printers.
The new identification method takes advantage of the way 3D printers work: To produce a three-dimensional object, moving print heads apply substances such as plastics in multiple layers. This process creates tiny wrinkles in each individual layer of the printed object, which together form a complex pattern. According to the study, these patterns show small irregularities that are unique and reproducible for each 3D printing device. The resulting variations in the design of the printed products can be compared against each other via specially developed algorithms. Using a database of such patterns, the researchers estimate they might be able to match individual objects to their respective 3D printers with an accuracy of 99.8%.
A practical application for this could be the tracking of fakes produced in 3D printing. As the researchers note in their study, 3D printers are increasingly being used to produce unethical or illegal products such as counterfeits due to their growing general accessibility. “3D printing has many wonderful uses, but it’s also a counterfeiter’s dream,” says the study’s lead author Wenyao Xu, associate professor of computer science and engineering. The study, which was written by researchers of the University at Buffalo, Rutgers University, and Northeastern University in Boston, also deals with the control of 3D-printed weapons.