3D barcodes developed to fight counterfeits

Developed by Yorkshire engineers, the first 3D barcode can be embedded into products while being manufactured. The new technology is said to be a key importance to the pharmaceutical and automotive sectors.

Unveiled yesterday at the British Science Festival in Bradford, the technology was devised by UK SME, Sofmat Ltd, and has been developed in collaboration with engineers from the University of Bradford and with funding from Innovate UK.

The 3D barcode enables over 1.7 million different configurations and the anti-counterfeit marker is virtually invisible to the naked eye and impossible to detect by touch. It can be read using a laser scanner, allowing anything from phones to pills to be tracked and verified as authentic.

“The system enables very small displacements to be made in each pin – each step being just 0.4microns, 100th of the width of a human hair,” explains Dr Ben Whiteside, from the University of Bradford. “These have to be set with a very high accuracy, and with sufficient force  so their position is maintained during the manufacturing process. While our system has been developed initially for products made from plastics or composites through injection moulding, it could also be used to stamp or emboss the code onto a product.”

The total value of fakes sold worldwide each year is estimated at $1.8 trillion. Most anti-counterfeit devices are stuck onto the product or its packaging after manufacture, making them easy to copy. The 3D barcode instead is an integral part of the product itself, so it is very difficult to reproduce.

“A 3D barcode allows much more complexity than existing anti-counterfeit systems,” explains Sofmat Director Dr Phil Harrison. “You can have multiple configurations, different codes on each individual product and additional details such as patterns on the heads of the pins themselves, making copying the code extremely difficult. For the first time the same technology and coding can be used on bulk packaging, individual packaging and on the actual product, making it much harder to create and ship fake products.”

The system has been verified in the laboratory using high-tech scanning devices including a white light interferometer and a laser-scanning confocal microscope to characterise the surface of the coded ‘product’ to ensure the code is accurately reproduced. A laser scanner that will be able to read the code and wirelessly transmit the result via an app to either a phone or tablet is currently in development.