Engineer works with 3D printer in a darkened room

3D printing design theft could be sabotaged by secret flaws in CAD files

Image credit: Dreamstime

Once 3D printing files have been stolen, nothing can stop the illicit production of objects indistinguishable from those made by the manufacturer. To prevent this, American researchers suggest embedding flaws into designs such that only under specific conditions are they neutralised.

In the past year, the 3D printing – or additive manufacturing – industry has grown nearly 26 per cent and is now worth more than $5 billion. 3D printing is used to produce prostheses, buildings, puddings and countless other objects of practically any shape imaginable.

However, the requirement for companies to share their computer-aided design (CAD) files for 3D-printed objects via email or cloud storage makes them vulnerable to attempts to steal their intellectual property. A hacker with access to a company’s CAD files could use them to illicitly produce the same 3D-printed objects themselves.

Designers use standard encryption and passwords to protect their files, but when stolen there is nothing to prevent the thief from printing components of identical quality to the original manufacturer.

In a new study published in Materials and Design, New York University (NYU) Tandon School of Engineering researchers detail how to prevent counterfeit 3D-printed objects from being produced by deliberately hiding flaws in their CAD files.

The NYU team demonstrated in a study published last year that tiny defects hidden in 3D-printed objects can severely affect performance, while also being too small to be easily identifiable.

These flaws could result in parts of the object snapping off easily, rendering a solid component hollow or even hiding a ball inside a rectangular block.

The 3D-printing process involves numerous steps as a CAD file gives rise to a completed product. One of these steps involves translating the CAD design into a stereo-lithography (STL) file format. This format models the features of an object as triangles and vectors.

Only by adapting the resolution of the STL file, printing direction and printing resolution may the deliberate flaws be neutralised. Hackers retrieving CAD models would be unable to print the objects without the extra information needed to process the files correctly.

“The range of security feature designs demonstrated in this work can provide great flexibility to application engineers in terms of how to disguise these flaws easily in a complex shaped part,” said Fei Chen, a PhD student  at NYU and author of the study.

“Most industrial components manufactured using 3D printing have complex designs to justify the use of 3D printing, which further helps in embedding these features without detection.”

The researchers hope this could provide an advantage to designers, making it far more difficult to print high-quality parts from stolen files.

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