Disney's Imagineers have dreamed up a scheme to fight counterfeiting with a form of stealth technology.
In a patent application disclosed earlier this month, Disney researchers describe a process for creating merchandise with a material that resists scanning through light distortion.
By mixing a light-scattering plastic into the extrusion process, the technique makes the exterior surfaces of 3D printed merch either absorb light or reflect it in unexpected ways, thereby introducing errors in 3D scans and ensuring that knockoffs come out looking deformed.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that value of global trade in counterfeit goods related to information and communication technology (ICT) was about $143bn in 2013.
While such losses may sustain intellectual property scofflaws, they make the happiest place on Earth a bit more glum, putting Disney's profits and brand at risk.
Disney's boffins rather ruefully note that commercially available 3D scanners have no trouble creating the digital files necessary to reproduce scanned objects.
"As a result, a person with a 3D printer may copy nearly any 3D object even without access to the digital file originally used by a manufacturer in creating the 'original' 3D object, and it can be difficult for a company distributing collectables and other 3D objects, such as plastic figurines of movie and animated film characters, to prevent unlicensed copying," the researchers explain in the patent application.
Such counterfeiting turns out to be particularly problematic if the goods in question were designed for fabrication via 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing.
Disney did not respond to a request for comment.
InfraTrac, based in Silver Spring, Maryland, has taken a slightly different approach. It offers a chemical additive (a taggant) that can be added to plastic and metal parts created in this manner.
Unauthorized reproduction becomes more serious when the product is functional rather than merely collectible. Particularly for aerospace or medical device companies, CEO Sharon Frank explained in a phone interview with The Register, it's important that any anti-counterfeiting additive is safe and doesn't affect the quality of the product.
No one wants engine parts disintegrating in mid-air or an implantable hip replacement that cracks under stress due to copy protection additives.
Frank explained that while counterfeiting is not a new problem, recent developments in 3D printing technology have made the process much more appealing for all involved.
A few years ago, 3D printing wasn't cost effective at scale. But it now makes sense for merchandise runs of 50,000 to 100,000 units, she said.
In the past year or so, Frank said, many companies have adopted additive manufacturing for small- and medium-sized product orders because HP's Multi Jet Fusion technology has made it economical.
"For companies like Disney or shoe manufacturers, if you want to customize on a mass scale, that's the way to do it," she said.
Disney, she said, often makes limited-edition merchandise, and 3D printing threatens to make those editions unlimited. ®