In tacit recognition that patents and copyrights may be impotent, or that IP enforcement may be cost-prohibitive, in the face of widespread 3D printing “away from control” (which means making products without anyone knowing about it or being about to control it), many companies and researchers are developing technologies to attempt to prevent unauthorized 3D printed copying, or to enable 3D printed products to be identified as genuine.

Anti-Copying Efforts

Many companies and researchers are developing technology to attempt to prevent unauthorized 3D printing. One approach is to manage the entire pipeline of the 3D printing process from the initial design phase to manufacturing. San Francisco-based Identify3D has developed a suite of software tools designed to secure the 3D design-to-manufacturing process end-to-end. Identify3D’s “Protect” software encrypts designs along with a fixed manufacturing policy that gives a design owner the ability to allow a fixed number of builds on particular hardware with a defined expiration date. This manufacturing policy travels with the design and limits its usability. Once the design is encrypted with its manufacturing limitations, the design owner can specify whether to limit the distribution channel of the design. For example, digital blueprints can be limited to a secure, cloud-based system, or more freely distributed as stand-alone encrypted digital blueprints. Identify3D also has a “Manage” software package for overseeing the use of the digital blueprints’ rights and an “Enforce” package that verifies, decrypts the digital blueprint, and provides build instructions to the end user. Identify3D is collaborating on this system with 3D printer makers Renishaw and SLM Solutions.

Boeing is using a similar platform, provided by Assembrix, to secure its digital thread for 3D printed parts.

Danish company REAL ID is working to create an analog to the DRM system used in the digital music realm, but for 3D printing parts and products. Using this system, the design owner encrypts the digital blueprint and the end-user’s system must “phone home” to an encryption server to verify rights before the 3D printer is allowed to print.

In a less-restrictive alternative, online digital blueprint-sharing platform Treatstock has proposed enabling design owners to embed a watermark in digital blueprints that can be digitally verified by users who upload designs.

In 2015 Authentise released 3DIAX, a platform for storing, modifying, and 3D printing files where the portal restricts access on a pay-per use basis.

Lithuania’s CGTrader has developed an online marketplace for 3D printable digital blueprints where the user can download a non-printable version of the design to review and validate before paying for the fully printable version. CGTrader hopes this two-phase model will minimize post-payment returns. Without such an approach, any platform that allows returns may have difficulty confirming that the user has destroyed the 3D printed object.

In Germany, a consortium of companies known as the Secure Additive Manufacturing Platform (SAMPL) is working to implement blockchain-based protection for 3D printable digital blueprints. Canadian company Kabuni also intends to blockchain-enable 3D printers, to secure the digital thread and prevent unauthorized 3D printing. Link3D also plans to use blockchain to prevent unauthorized 3D printing. The U.S. Navy is also investigating the use of blockchain technology to authenticate and control the 3D printing design and manufacture process.

Scanning and Reverse Engineering

An Achilles Heel of anti-copying technologies is high-resolution 3D scanning. Companies like Shining 3D have developed such scanners, which can be used to create reverse-engineered digital blueprints for physical parts. Disney hopes to foil such 3D scanners by using anti-scanning materials on the head or face of its cartoon figurines. The hope is that when the figures are scanned, the scanner will be unable to pick up critical details, rendering the scans useless. Industry-watchers have pointed out that the anti-reflective coating might be easily defeated by first spraying the figurines with a light coat of dulling spray paint.

Sound could also be the downfall of anti-copying solutions. A research team at the University of California Irvine used a smartphone to record the operation of a material extrusion printer as it printed a part. By reverse engineering the recorded sounds, the team recreated the part with almost 90% accuracy.

Authentication Efforts

Other companies and researchers are developing technology to attempt to assure that 3D printed parts and products are authorized copies. For example, Rize Inc. has introduced a system for ink jetting voxel-level QR codes onto 3D printed parts, such that a user could scan an embedded QR code to reveal and verify the part’s provenance.

Some companies are embedding supposedly unscannable physical or chemical signatures to verify 3D printed parts’ provenance. For example, Karlsruher Instiut Fur Technologie (KIT) and Zeiss have suggested embedding tiny microstructures to foil 3D printed counterfeits. Such microstructures are on the order of 100 microns and must be read by a machine because they are not visible to the naked eye.

Germany’s Nanoscribe has developed a “multi-level diffractive optical element” (DOE), essentially a nano-scale light prism that refracts laser light into a desired pattern, such as a logo or serial number. Nanoscribe’s DOE can be printed with a maskless 3D printing process more quickly than the traditional method of manufacturing masks to create a DOE.

UK-based Sofmat developed a 3D printable barcode with a 0.4-micron feature size that is printable directly on to certain drugs to allow for later authentication.

InfraTrac adds taggants by directed energy deposition to leave a chemical fingerprint on a 3D printed part or product. InfraTrac has shown that on titanium samples, x-ray fluorescence can clearly reveal a printed tag on a physical part that is invisible to the naked eye or a 3D scanner.

Quantum Materials Corporation has acquired technology from a lab at Virginia Tech that will enable chemical signatures 3D printed as embedded quantum dots.

In his book, 3D Printing Will Rock the World, co-author John Hornick suggests using botanical DNA inks produced by Applied DNA Sciences to mark parts as genuine, as does the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency.

Another approach to ensuring that parts are genuine is to embed design flaws that result from printing a digital blueprint without authorization. Researchers at NYU embedded design elements into a digital blueprint that rendered a 3D printed part flawed unless the part was 3D printed using precise printing parameters, which would not be known to would-be digital blueprint thieves.


Companies and researchers are developing unique approaches that strive to strike a balance between design owners’ rights to control their IP, users’ confidence in the provenance of a 3D printable digital blueprint or 3D printed part, and everyone’s ease of use and access to 3D printing. It remains to be seen what approach will succeed, if any. In the end, the market and particular use-cases will decide which method best strikes this balance. The best solution may incorporate elements from multiple models.