September 11, 2015

This Hyper-Precise, Scannable 3D Bar Code Prevents Counterfeits

examples of 3D barcodes

Image credit: Ben Whiteside, University of Bradford

A science teacher once asked my class to imagine all of written human knowledge as a single string of binary, like 0.0101011101100101 001000000110100001100001011101100110010100100000011011000110100101101110011001110110010101110010011001010110010000100000011010010110111000100000011101000110100001100101001000000110001101101000011000010110110101100010011001010111001001110011 0010000001101111011001100010000001110100011010000110010100100000011100110110010101100001 and so on. He explained that if were able to measure precisely enough, and cut precisely enough, we could place a notch in a grain of rice that represented that number. Voila—all written human knowledge is now encrypted in a grain of rice. To extract it, one simply needs to measure the position of the notch on the grain, and then convert the binary code back into words. Which is to say that’s it theoretically possible, but not likely ever to happen.

I thought of this when I read about a recent project from the University of Bradford in the UK that developed an ingenious method for distinguishing between genuine and counterfeit goods.

The engineers built a device integrated with an injection-molding system that creates bar codes by printing an array of pins at differing heights. Each 0.4µm step in height (that’s 0.4 micrometers, or 0.004 millimeters. Really small.) indicates either a letter or a number. Naturally, it’s impossible to read the barcode by eye or by touch (unless you’re a cyborg).

As Dr. Ben Whiteside, a senior lecturer at the university explained, “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 molding, it could also be used to stamp or emboss the code onto a product.”

The bar code can essentially be printed onto anything, and the company suggests it might be helpful for cell phones, pharmaceuticals, automobiles, and so on.

The 3D bar codes would be effective because it’s unlikely that if forgers were able to crack the bar code on a piece of electronics, and even less likely that they would have the uber-delicate manufacturing facilities needed to print the barcode properly. And what are they chances they would have a scanner capable of even reading the barcode in the first place?

Not good, considering the people who made the barcode don’t even have such a scanner yet. They verified the bar codes using a white light interferometer and a “laser-scanning confocal microscope to characterize the surface of the coded product.” The translation being that they spent a lot of time and used a lot of fancy lab equipment to do the work the scanner might otherwise do.

To their credit, they say that they’re developing a laser scanner to read the code and transmit it wirelessly to a mobile device. A hospital or pharmacy could buy this scanner, which the engineers imagine will look like a little black box with a pill-sized slot that you could stick a pill into to scan. The screen would show the number scanned from the barcode, and you can check it to be certain the number is correct.

Is there anything scanners can’t do?

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