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Researchers use AM to embed hidden information

Texas A&M University researchers have developed a method of imprinting a hidden magnetic tag within manufactured hardware, in an attempt to combat the counterfeit goods industry

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Texas A&M University researchers have developed a method of imprinting a hidden magnetic tag, encoded with authentication information, within manufactured hardware during the part fabrication process – a potential solution to the manufacturing and defense industries’ high-priority concern over counterfeited good and components. The process holds the potential to expose counterfeit goods more easily by replacing physical tags – such as barcodes or quick response (QR) codes – with these hidden magnetic tags, which serve as permanent and unique identifiers.

The project, titled “Embedded Information in Additively Manufactured Metals via Composition Gradients for Anti-Counterfeiting and Supply Chain Traceability,” is a faculty partner project supported by the SecureAmerica Institute. It includes researchers from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the J. Mike Walker ’66 Department of Mechanical Engineering at Texas A&M. The team recently published the research in the journal Additive Manufacturing.

The faculty investigators on the project include Ibrahim Karaman, Chevron Professor I and department head of the materials science and engineering department; Raymundo Arroyave, professor of materials science and engineering and Segers Family Dean’s Excellence Professor; and Richard Malak, associate professor of mechanical engineering and Gulf Oil/Thomas A. Dietz Career Development Professor. In addition to the faculty, Daniel Salas Mula, a researcher with the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station, and doctoral student Deniz Ebeperi – both members of Karaman’s research group – have worked on the project. The team has also collaborated with Jitesh Panchal, a professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University.

According to the article posted by Texas A&M University, ensuring security and reliable authentication in manufacturing is a critical national concern, with the US investing billions of dollars in manufacturing. Without such a method readily available, it can be nearly impossible to differentiate an authentic part or component from its counterfeit copy.

Texas A&M University researchers use AM to embed hidden information, in an attempt to combat the counterfeit goods industry.
The team’s custom three-axis magnetic sensor. Source: Texas A&M Engineering.

“The issue is that when I come up with an idea, device, or part, it is very easy for others to copy and even fabricate it much more cheaply – though maybe at a lower quality,” said Ibrahim Karaman. “Sometimes they even put the same brand name, so how do you make sure that item isn’t yours? [The embedded magnetic tag] gives us an opportunity and a new tool to make sure that we can protect our defense and manufacturing industries.”

The team is implementing metal additive manufacturing techniques to accomplish its goal of successfully embedding readable magnetic tags into metal parts without compromising on performance or longevity. The researchers used 3D printing to embed these magnetic tags below the surface into non-magnetic steel hardware.

Other applications for this method include traceability, quality control, and more – largely depending on the industry in which it is used.

Once embedded into a non-magnetic item, the magnetic tag is readable using a magnetic sensor device – such as a smartphone – by scanning near the correct location on the product and allowing the designated information to be accessed by the user.

While other methods exist for imprinting information, they primarily require sophisticated and costly equipment that introduces a barrier to real-world implementation.

“Different approaches have been used to try to locally change the properties of the metals during the manufacturing process to be able to codify information within the part,” said Salas Mula. “This is the first time that magnetic properties of the material are being used in this way to introduce information within a non-magnetic part, specifically for the 3D printing of metals.”

Deniz Ebeperi said that to map the magnetic reading of the part, the team created a custom three-axis magnetic sensor capable of mapping the surface and revealing the regions where the embedded magnetic tag was accessible. While the system is more secure than a physical tag or code located on the exterior of an item, the team is still working to improve the complexity of the method’s security.

According to Ibrahim Karaman, the next steps include developing a more secure method of reading the information – possibly through the implementation of a physical “dual-authentication” requiring the user to apply a specific treatment or stimulus to unlock access to the magnetic tag.

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