Embedded 3D Barcodes To Ensure Pills Are Real

A laser scan could test for counterfeit medication

Plastic prototype pill with 3-D barcode

Ben Whiteside, University of Bradford

A new kind of barcode could be structurally built into a pill or other product, rather than just slapped on the packaging. A team of engineers unveiled the new technology this week at the British Science Festival in Bradford, UK.

Researchers from the University of Bradford and Sofmat, an anti-fraud technology company, developed a system to add microscopic indentations to the surface of a product. Tiny pins are set to different heights, each encoding a letter or digit. The pins can either be embedded in the mold a product is made from or stamped on afterwards.

The resulting code is almost invisible, and too tiny to feel. But a quick laser scan could prove a product's origin, which the engineers say could track and verify products to combat fakes. The annual global value of counterfeit goods has been projected to be more than $1.5 trillion by the International Chamber of Commerce.

Counterfeit electronics are a problem, and counterfeit medication can be downright dangerous, containing the wrong dose or no active ingredient at all. This is especially an issue in the developing world. The World Health Organization estimates more than 25 percent of the medication consumed in poorer countries is counterfeit or substandard.

Existing tools to fight this include a verification system wherein a patient can scan the packaging of their medication and text a special code to ensure their medication is genuine. The FDA has also designed a device that uses UV light to scan pills and their packaging. But packaging can be copied or switched. The new 3D barcode actually becomes part of the product.

"For the first time," said Sofmat director Phil Harrison in a press release, "the same technology and coding can be used on bulk packaging, individual packaging, and on the actual product, making it much harder to create and ship fake products."