Anti-counterfeiting 3D barcodes could be molded into products

A pharmaceutical tablet, bearing one of the 3D barcodes

Although barcodes are currently utilized mainly to keep track of merchandise, they may soon also be used to detect counterfeit goods. We're not talking about ordinary barcode labels, however. Instead, British scientists at Sofmat Ltd and the University of Bradford have devised a new 3D barcode that's actually molded into plastic or composite items.

The system utilizes tiny pins that are integrated into the mold from which the product is made. Each pin can be set to different heights via micro actuators, with each 0.4-micron increment in height corresponding to a specific letter or numeral (0 - 9). The current prototype consists of a four-pin array, allowing for over 1.7 million unique configurations.

The resulting indentations in the finished item are difficult to see and impossible to feel, yet can be read using a white light interferometer or a laser-scanning confocal microscope – a compact laser scanner is in the works, which could wirelessly transmit readings to a smartphone or tablet.

Unlike the case with existing barcode labels, it is believed that counterfeiters would have great difficulty copying the 3D barcodes. They would also need to know the genuine product's 3D barcode in the first place, which would require one of the specialized scanners. Additionally, multiple codes could be included on each item, and the pins could even have unique patterns etched into their heads, which would be transferred onto the product.

The technology could also be applied to non-molded materials, with the patterns being stamped or embossed into their surface. It is hoped that the barcodes could eventually be used on everything from cars to smartphones to pharmaceuticals.

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