Brand Protection for Plastics Molders: New Strategies for Anti-Counterfeit Security

by Scott R. Sabreen, president
The Sabreen Group, Inc.
Figure 1. Optically variable ink with color-shifting effect: a) original clear window under front illumination light, b) view in reflected light and c) view in transmitted light.

Counterfeiting is a worldwide epidemic. Many plastic goods are manufactured in a different region than they are consumed. Products often go through multiple distributors, and it’s difficult to follow the entire lifecycle. Today’s counterfeiters use the same advanced digital and manufacturing technologies as the original brand producer. Some counterfeiters operate entire production plants. Multiple approaches and solutions are needed – i.e., a layered approach works best – and captive and custom plastics molders can deploy an arsenal of new technologies for brand protection and anti-counterfeit security.

Costs of counterfeit goods to consumers

The International Chamber of Commerce estimates that in 2015, the value of counterfeit goods globally exceeded $1.7 trillion. That represents more than two percent of the world’s total current economic output. With profits, corporate liability and brand reputations at stake, companies are fighting back to protect their brands. Decades of experience and information derived from reputable global sources clearly demonstrate that no single anti-counterfeit technology works best for all products and situations. Multiple approaches and solutions are needed for maximum protection and deterrence.

Anti-counterfeiting and authentication technologies

Anti-counterfeiting technologies can be classified and explained in different ways. Common defensive strategies include overt, covert, forensic markers, track & trace and tamper evidence. ISO 12931:2012 specifies performance criteria and evaluation methodology for authentication solutions used to establish material good authenticity throughout the entire product life cycle. However, it does not specify how technical solutions achieve these performance criteria. Authentication is generally done through the overt or covert features in the product. Depending upon the importance and value of the product, combining overt and covert features provide layered protection solutions.

Overt and covert security authentication are examined in this article. The main difference between the two is that overt technologies can be verified by users (typically visually) who are familiar with the overt technology and have a genuine reference sample of the feature with which to compare the suspect feature on the suspect product. Overt and covert solutions are designed to be applied in such a way that they cannot be reused or removed without being defaced or causing damage to the pack. For this reason, an overt device might be incorporated within a tamper-evident feature for added security.

Overt techniques are clearly visible and do not require detection devices; they are based upon the sensorial capability of the human being. Note: Overt technologies also can be used as covert technologies and vice versa, depending on the complexity of the design. Most of the recent developments in overt and covert technologies have embedded hidden features to make them more difficult to be illegally replicated.

Overt technologies include security labels (destructive and non-destructive adhesives), Optical Variable Devices (OVD), 2D and 3D holography, security foils, watermarks, security graphics, color-shifting inks, intaglio printing, laser marking, fluorescence artifacts, 2D codes (such as QR or data matrix), contact microchips and much more.

Covert technologies typically require specific equipment to be verified, as the details of the technology are not disclosed. Some covert technologies such as infrared (IR) and ultraviolet (UV) inks, microtext and microscopic tagging are invisible and difficult to detect and replicate without specialist detection equipment. Images printed with UV inks are only visible under a UV light. UV inks are available in different frequencies, thus – depending on the formulation of the ink – the investigators will need to use either a long-wave or short-wave UV source for the printed images or text to become visible. UV inks may fluoresce in a variety of colors, adding to the complexity of this covert feature.

Covert technologies include taggants, nanoparticles and smartphone authentication; micro/nano printing; hidden imagery; polarization imagery and security inks.

Covert technologies, such as taggants, also can be placed onto packaging, with the most effective being completely invisible and only detectable with a special reading device. As with other covert technologies, taggants can only be identified by the brand owner or people they equip with the appropriate knowledge and technology to provide conclusive verification.

Two of the newer security technologies of particular interest to plastics molders are OVDs and taggants. Injection molders should work with their customers on brand protection strategies, and these anti-counterfeit methods can be implemented while products are still in the mold.

Overt technology: optically variable devices

Optical variable devices (OVDs) represent a relatively new security technology. Complex images exhibit various optical effects, depending on the amount of light striking the OVD and the angle at which the OVD is viewed. Sometimes, an illuminating light source is used as an additional security benefit. OVDs cannot be photocopied or scanned, and they cannot be accurately replicated or reproduced.

OVDs, similar to holograms, generally involve image flips or transitions, color transformations and monochromatic contrasts. OVDs are typically composed of a transparent film (as the image carrier), plus a reflective backing layer, which is typically a very thin layer of aluminum or copper to produce a feature characteristic hue. Additional security features may be added by the process of partial de-metallization, whereby some of the reflective layer is chemically removed to give an intricate outline to the image, as seen on banknotes. The reflective layer can be so thin as to be transparent, resulting in a clear film with more of a ghost reflective image visible under certain angles of viewing and illumination.

Creation of ultra high-resolution micro/nano images (10-micron and smaller, 62,000 characters/cm2) is one of the important breakthroughs in optical security, using beam-steered lasers. This detail exceeds the resolution available via any other copying, printing or scanning device in industry. Features can be visible to the naked eye, while fine detail can only be viewed using hand-held magnification. The risk of counterfeiting has been greatly reduced by recent advances in the production of micro/nano images and security patterns that can now be resolved at more than double the previous level.

Details on OVD use are as follows:

  • OVDs can be placed on the surface of products (typically by stamping or rolled laminator process) or under the surface of products (by laminating or injection molding).
  • OVDs can be metallized (shiny) or transparent (HRI – high refractive index).
  • Some OVDs are a combination of metallized and transparent (such as the US passport card).
  • When laser marking is done on HRI type OVD, the laser passes through the transparent OVD.
  • When laser marking is done on a metallized OVD, the laser ablates the metallization, creating a unique or personalized OVD.
  • OVDs can be manufactured to fracture when attempts are made to remove them from the product. This is a tamper-evident feature that helps keep counterfeiters from removing or re-using OVDs.

Figure 1 on page 36 demonstrates optically variable inks with color-shifting effects when viewed under reflected and transmitted light conditions.

Figure 2. Optically variable inks with polarizing effects: a) without tilting, b)tilted and c) view through a polarizing filter.

A second example of OVD security, as shown in Figure 2, demonstrates optically variable inks with polarizing effects.

Covert technology: taggants

Taggants, originally developed by 3M, can be added into molded plastic components and finished goods. Taggants do not change the color appearance of the plastic and can be used in any color, including transparent plastic. A taggant is one of the strongest protective measures, as few materials can be used within products without changing material properties and functions. Multiple taggant types are available to deploy and enforce strong and viable brand protection strategies. One of the most significant recent advancements is product authentication using smartphones.

Figure 3. Taggants can be molded into plastic components and finished goods.

Taggants, “micro taggants” and “nano taggants” are uniquely encoded for each customer or product (Figure 3). Particles are microscopic, typically ranging in size from 20 microns to 1,200 microns. Each particle is uniquely encoded, essentially serving as a virtual fingerprint. In its most basic form, the taggant is a unique numeric code sequence in a multicolored layer format. In more complex form, it provides multiple layers of security through incorporation of several nano-taggant technologies in a single microscopic particle. Verification and detection are done with a variety of inexpensive hand-held readers and scanners (including smartphones). The taggants are available in dry particle form for compounding or as a finished masterbatch. The taggants can be used in a variety of plastic resins and colors, with no change in processing conditions.


In today’s global economy, when products are under attack through forms of counterfeiting and tampering, authentication technologies play a vital role in protecting brand reputation and the public. With the use of increasingly sophisticated counterfeit methods, criminals continue to advance and profit at the cost of public safety and company revenue. It is essential that plastics molders help their customers to implement overt and covert technologies to ensure that criminals are unable to re-use, copy, or misappropriate products.

Scott R. Sabreen is founder and president of The Sabreen Group, Inc., an engineering company specializing in secondary plastics manufacturing processes – laser marking, surface pretreatments, bonding, decorating and finishing, and product security. Sabreen has been developing pioneering technologies and solving manufacturing problems for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at 972.820.6777 or by visiting or