When we talk about 3D printing and security concerns, one of the first issues that comes up is that of counterfeit 3D printed parts. If a skillful hacker manages to swipe a CAD file from the cloud or from a company’s internal network, he or she can then 3D print parts that are identical to the manufacturer’s originals. Several companies have experimented with anti-counterfeiting measures like embedded identification tags, but a group of researchers at NYU Tandon School of Engineering have come up with a method that’s even trickier.
In a study entitled “Security features embedded in computer aided design (CAD) solid models for additive manufacturing,” the researchers explain how flaws can be introduced into the design files of 3D printed parts to foil thieves. The flaws, which are hidden in the CAD files, can be made to disappear when the part is 3D printed under very specific conditions. Without knowing what those conditions are, a counterfeiter would inadvertently print a flawed, lower-quality part.
When a CAD file is translated into STL format, a number of parameters have to be defined before 3D printing, such as print orientation, resolution, print speed, etc. The researchers examined how these parameters could be used to activate or deactivate certain embedded flaws, such as gaps or voids in a solid part, or features that cause the part to break easily. For example, one part had a sphere embedded into the design. When printed under the right conditions, the part printed as a solid block. When printed under the wrong conditions, the sphere appeared as a void.
“The range of security feature designs demonstrated in this work can provide great flexibility to application engineers in terms of how to disguise these flaws easily in a complex shaped part,” said doctoral student Fei Chen. “Most industrial components manufactured using 3D printing have complex designs to justify the use of 3D printing, which further helps in embedding these features without detection.”
The researchers emphasize that network security is still of the utmost importance. Hackers should not be able to access a company’s network, and a strong IT department needs to constantly be working to make sure a breach doesn’t happen. Embedding flaws in 3D files is a “second line of defense,” they explain.
“Cybersecurity tools can be applied as usual to make the files and cloud secure; however, in case the design files are stolen, there is nothing in the designs to deter printing a high-quality component,” said Nikhil Gupta, materials researcher and associate professor of mechanical engineering. “The new approach is designed to provide an advantage in this scenario and to make printing high-quality parts from stolen files difficult.”
While embedded identification tags are a good way to determine if a part is legitimate or not, those are only useful if someone is actively looking for evidence of counterfeiting. When hidden flaws are introduced, the parts are likely to break, fail or otherwise be rendered inferior – not only preventing their use but deterring thieves from stealing from that company again.
Designing parts that will only print properly under certain conditions isn’t simple, and the researchers caution that this isn’t an “off-the-shelf” technology. Foiling sophisticated thieves takes sophisticated technology, and specific design flaws and printing conditions need to be developed for each individual part and printing technique. To truly ensure that counterfeit parts can’t be 3D printed properly, a very particular combination of conditions needs to be defined for flawless fabrication.
There’s no limit to the types of flaws, or combinations of conditions, that can be used, however, and the flaws can be made to be all but undetectable, as Gupta and other NYU Tandon researchers pointed out in a separate study last year. The study, published by Springer, was the most downloaded, cited and shared from the publisher’s portfolio last year. That research was directed at unveiling the ways that hackers can compromise 3D printed parts by adding undetectable flaws, but in the new study, the same ideas are turned against hackers, in what may be one of the most effective weapons yet in the fight against intellectual property theft.NYU Tandon School of Engineering]
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