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SIGGRAPH 2013 has been kicking into full gear the past couple of days, and among other exciting news to come out of the Anaheim, California event is the announcement from Microsoft Research that they are developing embedded ID tags for 3D printed objects. Titled InfraStructs, the internal tags are created from the same 3D printing process already used to create the intended, printed object; effectively generating an internal, invisible tag that can be read with a terahertz (THz) imaging scanner. What does this mean for the future of 3D printing?
InfraStructs: The ID Tag System for 3D Prints
“A lot of people see 3-D printers simply as tools for rapid prototyping…We want to think about 3-D printing more deeply and approach it as a research topic. InfraStructs brings terahertz scanning into 3-D manufacturing. It opens up new possibilities for encoding hidden information as part of the 3-D fabrication process.”
-Andy Wilson, Microsoft Research
(Andy Wilson, Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research)
Currently, this ‘terahertz’ scanning that Wilson is referring to is the same level of scanning used for airport security, medical imaging, and various forms of scientific scanning for high-resolution volumetric imagery. The term terahertz refers to electromagnetic radiation that falls between 300 and 3,000 gigahertz with wavelengths of one millimeter or shorter.
(A familiar example of THz scanning for security purposes)
So where does 3D printing come into play here?
“The premise behind the project is that 3-D printing offers a way to embed information inside physical objects as a cost-effective part of the manufacturing process. InfraStructs is a prototype that demonstrates the feasibility of such a process, from designing and fabricating coded ”tags” as unique identifiers to scanning inside a printed object to read and decode the information on those tags.”
Ultimately, the benefit of this approach for manufacturers is that they can embed unique information such as serial numbers or simple programs in coded tags by integrating the design into a pre-determined 3D printed design. In turn, this eliminates the potential need for other (and oftentimes more expensive) identification systems such a RFID tags and electronic chips that can add cost and complexity to the manufacturing, as well as the need for bar codes which can be cumbersome to work with and are vulnerable to tampering.
(Could InfraStructs help maintain the integrity of authentic 3D printed objects?)
“It has to do with the waveforms you get when the scan penetrates the object,” Wilson explains. “We are able to distinguish between transitions in the material, void or non-void, by measuring the reflection distance. We investigated a lot of the really early depth-camera technologies, and at some level, it’s all consistent with that line of research….Down the road, a program reads the object, and embedded within the object are further instructions, perhaps even code that can be read and compiled to further interrogate the object. There’s been some work in this direction using RFID tags. We talk about ‘the Internet of Things,’ and I would argue this fits into that vision.”