Counterfeiting goods is a worldwide business. Criminals are attracted to the opportunities afforded by complicated global supply chains, weak or conflicting trade regulations, and high product profit margins. The pharmaceutical industry is among the industries most heavily impacted by counterfeiting, but most manufacturing industries invest heavily in anti-counterfeiting measures.
Many different kinds of measures can be taken to prevent counterfeiting or identify genuine products. However, constant advances in technology mean that any one anti-counterfeiting measure will be defeated and imitated by counterfeiters within around 18 months.
Nano-Enabled Anti-Counterfeiting Measures
Advances in nanotechnology are expected to offer new ways to prevent illicit copying. Novel ways to create features which are more and more difficult to produce will help genuine manufacturers stay ahead of the counterfeiters. Anti-counterfeiting measures could even be developed to be practically unique and impossible to copy.
Figure 1. Pharmaceuticals are some of the most commonly counterfeited goods. The industry invests heavily in prevention measures and identification techniques. Image Credits: FDA.gov.
Holographic logos or transfers are currently used, as they are much harder to copy than plain ink logos, although it is not impossible. Adding nanostructured components like gratings and fluorescent nanopatterns could make holograms very close to impossible to reproduce, making counterfeit goods easier to recognize.
"Fingerprinting" by Surface Analysis
Natural nanoscale features on surfaces are unique, much like the human iris or fingerprint. Now that we have tools to rapidly profile a surface on this scale, a database of surface tags could be used to identify genuine products. This would be most applicable to very high value products, where the relatively expensive equipment can be justified.
Barcodes are one of the most widely used methods of product identification, but are very visible and easily copied. Nanotechnology now allows identification tags to be encoded into polymer patterns a few tens of nanometres across, making the barcode much more difficult to detect and copy.
Whilst the technology to duplicate nano barcodes will doubtless emerge, it will remain prohibitively expensive for counterfeiters for the foreseeable future.
RFID (Radio Frequency Identification)
RFID is a widely used in product tracking, and it is growing more popular all the time. Nanotechnology can help to enhance RFID technology in numerous ways. Nanoscale radio frequency components and printed electronics will help to decrease the cost of tagging chips and readers. In addition, nanoscale variations produced naturally during the manufacturing process could be exploited to make each tag identifiably unique, much like the approach discussed for holographic tags and surface fingerprinting.
Various other kinds of nano-enhanced tags have been proposed. Metal nanoparticles can emit characteristic electromagnetic signals via surface enhanced Raman scattering (SERS); quantum dots have specific fluorescence which depends on their size and chemical composition; nanocomposite materials with randomly generated structures have optical or magnetic "fingerprints". All of these properties can be used to identify genuine products, and are incredibly difficult or impossible to replicate.
Challenges to Implementation
The main hurdle to overcome for any of these technologies is an economic one. Whilst some of these nano-enhanced systems may allow products to have a totally unique, unreproducible signature, if the cost of implementing the system is higher than the likely loss of income through counterfeiting, then there is obviously no hope.
Closely linked to this is the technical challenge of reading the tags, in situ, in multiple scenarios along the whole production line, without the need for complex instruments and skilled operators.
It would also be of great use for the anti-counterfeiting measures to be obvious to the end-user of the product in some way - much like a hologram - so that they know they are getting a quality product. These issues remain largely unresolved.
Companies and researchers developing anti-counterfeiting measures currently have to constantly work to stay ahead of the game, as existing measures become outdated.
Nanotechnology research has provided a number of ways to close this cycle by creating fingerprint tags with nanoscale features which are too complex to be duplicated.
These advanced techniques will remain expensive for quite some time. They may soon become justifiably affordable for higher-value products, however - pharmaceuticals are the most obvious candidate, as counterfeiting is highly widespread in that industry, and also potentially highly damaging to the end user.
If these technologies are adopted by one industry, it will likely reduce costs and provide a real-world demonstration to enourage other industries to adopt the novel technologies as well.
Sources and Further Reading
- "Nanotag luminescent fingerprint anti-counterfeiting technology" - Johansen et al, Nanoscale Research Letters 2012, DOI: 10.1186/1556-276X-7-262