Embedded RFID product authentication combats counterfeit goods

Industrial Embedded Systems — September 19, 2008

1Getting the right component – part, reagent, or sample – matched to the right system is critical not only to ensure manufacturing and testing integrity, but also to prevent companies from using the wrong items. RFID built into machinery, water analyzers, medical devices, and other systems can seamlessly identify correct and incorrect products.

Counterfeiting is a global issue that costs businesses billions of dollars in revenue each year. In 2000 alone, trade in counterfeit goods reached an estimated $450 billion, and the problem has only grown worse since then. Counterfeiting afflicts numerous items across many industries, including chemical reagents, device consumables, game tokens and chips, paper documents and certificates, removable media, and replaceable parts. In addition to counterfeit products, generics and substitutes cost companies revenue and often tarnish brand names.

Embedded RFID provides a simple, cost-effective solution to counterfeiting as well as the problems associated with unauthorized generics and substitutes. RFID allows manufacturers to embed inconspicuous tags that typically cost 10-30 cents each directly into or onto their products or consumables. Once a tag is added to a product or consumable, it can then be encoded with a digital fingerprint using state-of-the-art cryptography that uniquely identifies the product or consumable.

Counterfeits, Substitutes, and Generics (CSGs) create a multitude of problems for businesses across nearly every industry. CSGs divert revenue away from OEMs and designers who rely solely on complimentary consumables for profitability. They also tarnish brand names because poor performance can adversely affect an unwitting customerís opinion and experience with a product. Customers often blame the original branded product instead of the poorly performing generic, thus ruining their relationships with a particular brand.

The influx of CSGs into the market also drives up cost. Quality and service are sacrificed in favor of price. Poor quality transfers the costs of support and warranties to manufacturers even if they are not responsible. Finally, and most importantly, CSGs threaten customer safety. In environments with medical devices, industrial filtration, and even auto parts, improperly functioning or untested substitutes can lead to consumer injury, litigation, and possibly death.

Beyond simply inhibiting CSGs

In addition to deterring problems created by CSGs, embedded RFID offers several indirect benefits. RFID increases visibility into customer preferences, enabling companies to make better decisions about product offerings and pricing. Also, because RFID can uniquely identify people and products, OEMs can use this data to personalize the customer experience with any RFID enabled product. RFID also allows OEMs to enforce usage policies that ensure correct product usage, leading to better quality, higher performance, and ultimately, more satisfied customers.

Preserving machine reliability

To illustrate these advantages, consider equipment makers who build their reputations on being able to deliver reliable, high-performance machinery that meets or exceeds functional specifications and expected lifetimes. RFID can ensure that the correct consumable is used in the manufacturing process by verifying its manufacturer, type, and age.

Every machine will inevitably wear out a part and require a replacement or will use up all of a particular consumable and require replenishment. Knowing a part or consumableís manufacturer, type, and age is vital to maintain the machineís reliability, performance, and effective lifetime. If the wrong consumable or part is used, it could negatively affect the manufacturerís brand equity and customer loyalty.

Tracking water filters

For another example, consider a water analyzer that assesses the suitability of water for drinking, cleaning, or manufacturing. This tool uses a disposable filter to measure the levels of certain microscopic particles in water. Filters wear out over time and must be replaced regularly to guarantee accurate test results.

Embedded RFID ensures that the right filter gets inserted into the analyzer and that the filter is used properly. A small, inexpensive reader can be easily embedded into an existing water analyzer and can read a tagged filter a few inches away.

Three steps are involved in implementing this RFID system (see Figure 1). First, the RFID tag must be encoded with the data required for authentication and usage and then attached to the filter. This requires companies to select RFID tags with enough memory to store required identification and policy data as well as a high-frequency RFID printer/encoder capable of being programmed to encode the RFID tags with usage policies. The RFID reader also must be small, have low power consumption, and be easy to integrate with existing hardware.

Figure 1

Once the reader is embedded in the water analyzer, it is preprogrammed at the factory to only accept filters that are the correct age and type and below the usage limit indicated on the tag. This means that the embedded reader will deny a filter that has been used too many times.

Enhancing medical diagnostic systems

Embedded RFID also can benefit medical device manufacturers who must make certain that they use the correct reagent to guarantee accurate test results and patient safety. For example, blood transfusions remain driven by manual processes, and with more than 50 million blood units transfused annually worldwide, human error in blood type matching places hundreds of lives at risk every year. Similarly, the accuracy of laboratory test results used in the reagent trail is put at risk by generic or counterfeit reagents used in laboratory analysis equipment.

Similar to the water analyzer example, RFID can protect against CSGs in a urinalysis system (see Figure 2). The difference in this case is that the urinalysis system manufacturer allows third parties to manufacture reagents that can be used with its system. However, certain generic and counterfeit reagents that do not meet required specifications have entered the market.

Figure 2

Embedded RFID with anti-cloning technology ensures that urinalysis systems use the proper types of reagents by creating new authorization policies that encrypt data placed on reagent tags. Additionally, RFID remotely upgrades RFID reader modules inside urinalysis systems deployed in the field and RFID label printer/encoders deployed in the factory.

Intelligent counterfeit prevention

Running open standard cryptography on the reader is crucial because a generic RFID tag cannot defend against counterfeiting. If a numbering scheme or file containing serial numbers is stolen, a counterfeiter can use that information to create counterfeit RFID tags, which are typically indistinguishable from authentic reagents when placed on counterfeit reagent systems. However, RFID readers with open standard encryption and hashing algorithms provide enhanced security that protects against cloned RFID tags (see Figure 3).

Figure 3

Embedded RFID can be easily integrated into several different products. The small size of todayís intelligent RFID tags and readers coupled with tag designs built for integration make RFID an ideal technology for preventing counterfeiting across a variety of industries. RFID is an inexpensive solution to a problem that costs companies billions annually.

Martin Payne is senior VP of marketing and strategy for SkyeTek, Inc. in Westminster, Colorado, where he is responsible for corporate strategy, market awareness, lead generation, and technology alliances. He has gained several years of experience in high-tech marketing and strategy positions at Sun Microsystems, StorageTek, and Dell Computer, and served for five years as an officer at the U.S. Air Force Space Test & Evaluation Program Office. He holds a BS with honors in Aeronautical Engineering from the U.S. Air Force Academy, an MS in Operations Research from the University of California, Berkeley, and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

SkyeTek, Inc.