First published in 3D Printing Industry

Counterfeiting is expected to be a $1.7 trillion threat to world economies by 2015. 325% more counterfeit goods were confiscated from 2002 to 2012 than in the previous decade. NASA says counterfeiting is one of its biggest challenges. 3D printing is a perfect tool for counterfeiters. The democratization of manufacturing made possible by 3D printing has the potential to lead to counterfeiting on steroids. And, as 3D printers get better and better, faster and faster, and more and more consumer friendly, anyone can become a counterfeiter.

Intellectual property owners worry that their copyrights will not stop counterfeiters from making unauthorized STAR WARS action figures, that their trademarks will not block counterfeit TONKA trucks or CATERPILLAR toy tractors. Design patent and utility patent owners worry that their patents will be inadequate to prevent counterfeiters from making, well, anything.

But IP infringement is only a small part of the potential problem. 3D printing may lead to the counterfeiting of everything from silverware to cell phones, disrupting mass production with production by the masses. Will people buy genuine branded products, or even mass-produced generic products, if they can make (and customize) them themselves, or buy them more cheaply than the genuine product?

Maybe not everyone will print their own products, and almost certainly not soon, but never say never. And even if people want to buy the genuine product, how will they know it is genuine in a 3D printed world? If a bicyclist cracks his head using a counterfeit 3D printed bicycle helmet, or a child chokes on a counterfeit 3D printed toy part, how will the company or the victim know if it was genuine, or a perfect knock-off? How will they know who to sue, or if anyone should be sued?

And not all counterfeiting is illegal. As used here, it simply means a product is not genuine. Companies may find their products competing not only with their competition, but with counterfeits of their own products, or with customized versions of their own products, or with generic substitutes, or with customized generic substitutes. Such products could be made by professional counterfeiters, 3D print shops, customers, prosumers or consumers. Not only the product companies will have skin in the game. Insurance companies, product liability lawyers, IP lawyers, regulators and the tax collector will care whether a product is genuine or fake.

Because 3D printing lends itself to making products where they are bought and used, traditional business models may change. In addition to making products in centralized factories, companies may have products made by local 3D printing fabricators, or in their own local factories. Or the companies may sell "genuine" designs (specifying the 3D printer to be used, materials, post-production, etc.) for commercial customers or consumers to have printed by authorized print shops, or to print themselves. The companies will want customers to be confident that the product is genuine, or to be able to determine if it is genuine if a problem arises, especially if the product has changed hands.

Counterfeiting in the 3D printed world could involve:

  • Professional and semi-professional pirates selling knockoffs that appear genuine
  • 3D design files sold or shared peer-to-peer on the Internet, pretending to be genuine
  • Genuine 3D design files sold or shared peer-to-peer on the Internet and printed not according to the specifications for the "genuine" products; the products look real but are modified or deficient, possibly dangerously so
  • Consumers and prosumers printing and using products that appear genuine
  • Consumers and prosumers printing and selling products that appear genuine on Craig's List, ebay, at flea markets, etc.
  • Companies, print shops, prosumers, and consumers scanning and printing replacement parts that do not satisfy OEM specs.

Counterfeiters surely will invent more ingenious ways to make, use, and sell products that appear to be genuine. In a 3D printed world, what will genuine even mean.

To help combat these problems, maybe before they become really disruptive, here is a suggestion for adoption by industry: marking genuine products in a verifiable, reliable, and nonfeatable way. Connor M. McNulty, Neyla Arnas, and Thomas A. Campbell suggest selectively embedding nanoparticles in genuine products, to create product-specific or partspecific signatures.

A commercially available alternative, currently used in other industries, is DNA marking: This technology, developed by a Stony Brook, New York company called Applied DNA Sciences, uses plant DNA to mark genuine products with visible or invisible signatures that, when screened, identify the product as genuine. ADNAS has the necessary creds. After a couple of military disasters involving $2.00 counterfeit parts, the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency discovered that the U.S. defense supply chain is riddled with counterfeit electronic parts. In 2012, the DLA mandated that certain types of electronic parts must be marked with DNA signatures. ADNAS's DNA inks are also used to mark cash in transit, live copper rails in Sweden's national rail system (which have a pesky habit of disappearing because the high cost of copper makes them valuable on the black market), Japanese mackerel, and even entire burglary-prone neighborhoodsin London. The company's DNA inks are also marking cotton and wool fiber, to assure high-end carpet and textile makers, and fashion houses, that the fiber they are buying is genuine.

According to ADNAS,

"our scientists have developed a precision-engineered mark based on botanical (plant) DNA . The engineered mark has not and cannot be broken. The conventional process used to sequence ("decode") native DNA is not possible with the engineered mark. Additional layers of protection and complexity are added to the mark in a proprietary manner. This engineering "secret sauce" is shielded by a portfolio of 21 patents and other intellectual property protection."

gram of DNA ink can protect 100 billion DVDs. There is no evidence that DNA ink can be counterfeited with 3D printing.

Importing this technology into the 3D printing industry, products made by a company at its factories or by authorized 3D printing fabricators could be DNA marked there. The marking technology could be built into 3D printers, or applied to products separately. Products could be screened by authorized fabricators (or licensed verifiers) to verify their authenticity, or maybe by consumers with a smart phone app. Products not marked would not be viewed as genuine, even if printed according to specifications. Manufacturers would disclaim any liability for problems arising from non-genuine (unmarked) products.

But marking only deals with telling the real from the fake. How can counterfeiting itself be curbed? One answer may be a web-based marketplace for 3D design files for genuine products. In other words, iTunes for things. Watch for a future article on this topic, to further pose ideas and discussion.