Pirated goods costs industry billions and expensive industrial goods such as machining systems are a growing target.
The annual cost of illegal copies of branded products to industry is estimated to be £500bn worldwide so scientists are turning the tables on the forgers by studying their methods and developing anti-counterfeit solutions.
Machine tool manufacturers have become an increasingly popular target for pirating operations with around a third of German companies, the biggest manufacturer of machine tools in Europe, having seen their business eroded by cheap imitation products, especially manufacturers of textile machines, compressors and plastics processing equipment.
In the world of industrial machines, there are forgeries of almost everything that can be copied, from housing design to instruction manuals.
“Most companies have absolutely no idea just how easily their products can be copied,” says Bartol Filipovic, head of the Product Protection department at the Fraunhofer Research Institution for Applied and Integrated Security in Garching near Munich.
Product pirates tend to steer clear of getting their own hands dirty, preferring to engage the services of those offering “reverse engineering,” which performs the same development process but in the opposite direction, finding how the hardware is put together and creating circuit diagrams of the original product.
Reverse engineers can then rip the software and reconstruct the machine’s control system and functions, thereby gaining access to the manufacturer’s key know-how.
The German research institute said that most companies only react once counterfeits of their own products have surfaced on the market. Although it is then too late to prevent fake copies, it is possible to tag the original so that it can be distinguished from imitations.
In a similar way to how the aviation industry marks safety-critical spare parts with copy-resistant holograms, it is also possible to build an electronic fingerprint into the circuit but customs officers, distributors and customers are not all equipped with the devices needed to read and decode the markings.
Research it now coming up with protection mechanisms placed deep within the hardware of machines making new product ranges.
One option is to install devices that encrypt the data stored within the machine that generate a key differing from those emitted by other chips, even those from the same production batch, rendering the key unusable.
Another option is to use hardwired control units. These purpose-built chips make it extremely difficult for offenders to rip the software and run it using standard chips built into product imitations.