Major 3D-printing breakthrough could keep design pirates at bay

21 Aug 2018

A 3D-printed dome containing a variety of dummy and real QR codes. Image: NYU

Trying to prove who designed and built what in 3D printing was envisaged as costly to major manufacturers, until now.

The amazing aspect of 3D printing is that anyone, anywhere, with the right equipment, can print and build an object almost identical to an already existing one.

While this sounds great in theory, for major manufacturers it creates one major headache: how do you prove a design is yours?

Not only that, but what liability does a company have if someone steals its design, creates a poorly made copy and it leads to a major accident?

A soon-to-be lucrative business

Estimates suggest that by 2021, 75pc of commercial and military aircraft will fly with 3D-printed engines, airframes and other components.

Companies and the clients they provide parts to will want to be completely sure they are getting the real deal but, so far, no simple and effective method has been found to give 3D-printed items a clear provenance.

Now, however, a team of New York University researchers has found a way to convert flat QR codes into complex features hidden within 3D-printed objects to foil any potential pirates.

In a paper published to Advanced Engineering Materials, the team said the method can be applied to QR codes, barcodes and other passive tags.

By placing them within the objects, the researchers said it does not compromise the part’s integrity, nor does it make itself obvious to anyone trying to reverse-engineer the part.

How it works

Describing how it works, the team led by Nikhil Gupta said that the technique ‘explodes’ the QR code within the original design file.

This presents several fake QR tags to a micro-CT scanner or any other scanning device.

However, only a trusted printer or end user would know the correct head-on orientation for the scanner to capture the legitimate QR code image.

Testing revealed that despite it changing the interior structure of the object, it didn’t compromise its strength.

Fei Chen of the research team said: “To create typical QR code contrasts that are readable to a scanner, you have to embed the equivalent of empty spaces.

“But, by dispersing these tiny flaws over many layers, we were able to keep the part’s strength well within acceptable limits.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic