3D printing forensics could save lives and protect IP

1 min read

A new technique to detect the unique ‘fingerprint’ of individual 3D printers could be used to track dangerous or illegal objects manufactured additively.

While 3D printing has empowered makers around the globe and given virtually anyone the ability to perform rudimentary prototyping, is has also provided a platform to print weapons at home as well as present challenges around intellectual property and ownership. To reduce this illicit use of 3D printers, Zhanpeng Jin, an associate professor at the University at Buffalo, has developed a way to track the origin of 3D-printed items.

"So, what would be the best way to protect our intellectual property from someone else printing the same design using their own printer?" said Jin, who works at Buffalo’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering. "We wanted to find something internal. What would be the inherent signatures printed by my own 3D printer instead of another 3D printer?"

Known as ‘ThermoTag’, Jin’s method examines the unique properties of each 3D printer's extruder, which pushes material along before melting and depositing it on a print bed. An investigator could examine the specific manner in which a 3D-printed object was extruded and compare that signature to a database of existing extruders to find a match. Once the model printer is identified, the owner could theoretically be tracked down.

Jin and his team discovered that, by examining and comparing the ThermoTag features of 45 different extruders of the same model, they were able to correctly identify the source printer with an accuracy rate of 92 per cent. The work is published in IEEE Transactions on Information Forensics and Security.

"This ThermoTag will behave like the fingerprint of the 3D printer,” said Jin.

“When you print out a new product, you can use watermarking. So that would make this watermark of this particular product unique."