AMS Spring 2023

HP Labs Develops Three-Stage Identification and Authentication System for 3D Printed Objects

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3Diax Watermarking Module

Whenever I’m at a store purchasing a baby gift for a friend from their registry, I have to go back and forth between the paper and the tiny tag denoting the serial number of the product I’m looking at to make sure it’s the right one…maybe it’s just me, but I think that all of the many light yellow baby sheet sets with baby animals on them look exactly the same. However, I am extremely grateful for those bar codes, because the numbers say different. Unique identifiers like bar codes, RFID tagsserial numbers, watermarks, and QR codes can be helpful in accurately identifying, and authenticating, all sorts of objects, including ones that are 3D printed.

This will be especially helpful in the future, when we’ve moved past the frequent prototyping and custom one-off stage to a time when high-performance parts and machines, like jet engines, will be routinely 3D printed to order. According to HP Labs, 3D identifiers could also help when developing new systems for the tracking of objects “on a massive scale.”

HP Labs Distinguished Technologist Stephen Pollard

Bristol, UK-based researcher Stephen Pollard said, “To use a 3D printed part in a machine like an aero-engine, you need to be able to confidently identify and track that part after it has been printed from a known and trusted printer.”

Counterfeiting is a major issue, particularly in critical applications like aerospace, where design defects could be disastrous. But Pollard, along with his colleagues in HP Labs’ Print Adjacencies and 3D Lab, have come up with a solution: a three-stage, cost-effective, automated identification and authentication system, where 3D printed objects do not need to be readied for authentication.

Adding identifiers – like serial numbers and bar codes – to objects that are 3D printed adds materials and processing costs to the process, which the HP team sought to avoid. In addition, the HP Labs solution is applicable to 3D objects that are created through traditional methods of manufacturing.

In the new solution, a small area – around a centimeter squared – of the 3D printed object is designated for the location of a virtual forensic mark, which can be tracked. The spot can be pre-assigned easily during the 3D design process. Once an item is 3D printed, it is then robotically scanned, in order to identify the location of a virtual forensic mark.

The final step is using a very high resolution scanner to measure the area, and according to HP Labs, the scanner is so accurate that it can detect surface differences down to two thousandths of a millimeter, as well as “establish a unique digital signature for every printed version of an identical 3D object.” This identifying signature is then filed away, and whenever the identify of the product needs to be verified, it can simply be scanned again.

Pollard said, “It’s like a fingerprint scanner for physical objects.”

Pollard’s team has created prototypes for most of their system’s elements already, and plan to shrink them down in order to integrate them into one prototype device. The goal is to develop a tool which will perform the work of very expensive instruments already on the market for less than $100 per system.

(L) MJF 3D printed part on the left and (R) a high resolution scan of the indicated portion of it showing the micro surface structure used for authentication. [Image: HP]

HP Labs researcher Faisal Azhar has noted some of the challenges of this project, including placing the elements together in such a way that the identification process can be automated.

“The other hard problem we face is extracting reliable and repeatable signatures of the 3D parts. We are already able to make incredibly accurate scans but those scans need to be reliably repeatable to be confident that the object we identify right after printing is the same object we later want to place, for example, in a machine,” said Azhar.

The prototype identification and authentication system team is working on a way to measure other properties of 3D printed objects than just their shapes, as well as techniques to enhance “production line integration and automated machine interactions.” Additionally, the system is only optimized to scan the surfaces of objects 3D printed on one of HP’s Multi Jet Fusion 3D printers. But, the team has plans to expand and diversify the system’s capabilities, so it will be able to work on objects made from other materials.

What do you think of this identification and authentication system? Let us know your thoughts; join the discussion of this and other 3D printing topics at or share in the Facebook comments below.


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