Q&A with Dr Phillip Harrison

Materials World magazine
1 Sep 2018

Dr Philip Harrison, CEO of SofMat, talks to Gary Peters about the company’s anti-counterfeit 3D marking technologies, which are invisible to the naked eye and could have applications in a number of industries.


What is your background?

I am a metallurgist and have worked in a number of areas, but mainly on the production side on the shop floor with experience in most aspects of metal forming and testing.

My PhD was based around oxide ceramics and after that, I worked in the commercial sector in various technical sales roles. In 2000, I formed a company that was involved in metal blasting and polishing that I sold in 2007. I became CEO at SofMat on a part-time basis when the company was formed and have continued until this day, but I am now committed on a full-time basis.

How did the company start?

The concept originated at a meeting that was held to examine the potential uses of nanotechnology in anti-counterfeit applications. We were discussing QR codes and their limitations, and I thought that the production of small 3D QR-type codes might overcome some of these.

We then looked at producing this and, after a large amount of trial-and-error, we succeeded with samples where the features were replicated consistently and repeatedly. The company was formed in August 2011 to take the concept through to commercialisation.

Market research indicated that the 3D feature was of interest to a range of end-users but it would be preferable, and have more potential applications, if we had a method for unique identification of products during moulding. In response, our direction changed slightly but we still use the technology originally developed for the QR code to produce other client specific features.

How does your solution work?

We have designed small mould inserts containing a number of moving elements that can be controlled at the micrometre scale and have created, for the lack of a better term, 3D barcodes that can be placed onto product surfaces during manufacture.

This 3D structure creates the potential for physical storage of a large amount of alphanumeric data in a small area. It is compatible with both pharmaceutical track and trace and medical device unique identification requirements. It can also mark the products rather than just the packaging.

The movement of the components is controlled externally, allowing for remote operation and control of the elements via the internet or ethernet. Our markings can be applied both during and post production.

Furthermore, as the marking does not contaminate the surface, it can be used on ingestible goods. We have also developed a small portable reader that can evaluate the 3D feature for verification of identity and authenticity within the supply chain.

You mention the time it took to get the company up and running. Did you expect it to take that long?

Due to our experience in materials and their processing, we expected that the development work would take a couple of years at most. The project has been far more demanding than first imagined and, in addition to the complexities of the development process, we have also carried out specific work to accommodate the requirements of potential customers.

We also had developmental problems regarding tooling design, production, and systems integration. The initial trials also threw up issues of accuracy of machining and long-term reliability. We have now overcome these problems and proven the long-term viability of our product.

Can you expand on these challenges?

The work seemed very simple on the surface, as it was only a machining process with the addition of a control system and other ancillaries, but the production of movable tooling that could be controlled to micron accuracies and work within the confines of an injection-moulding machine was far more difficult than first thought.

There were materials, machining, fabrication, installation, and control problems. We could not find a commercially available, low-cost instrument that could do the micrometre scale measurement we required, so we had to design our own. The systems also needed to be robust for industrial application and designed for ease of installation into client production lines.

The company now has a comprehensive understanding of the material properties and processing routes needed to produce the mould inserts and their capabilities in production scale moulding.

We have carried out a large number of trials to optimise the processing parameters. Additionally, we have found several expert sub-contractors that can work to our exacting requirements and, when required, offer practical assistance on any design modifications and production issues. We have a robust UK-based supply chain.

What makes SofMat different from other anti-counterfeit measures?

It does not contaminate the goods and can be used on the product and packaging even if it will be consumed, such as pills. As far as we are aware, there are no additional approvals required when using our system on products that will be ingested or on packaging that comes in contact with, for example food.

Stability testing for some pharmaceutical applications may be necessary. The product is passive and cannot be externally hacked or altered, as in the case of some electronic anti-counterfeit measures.

What sectors are you targeting and why?

We initially looked at the pharmaceutical sector, making all of our designs based on the injection moulding of polymer-based pills. This led to research into the counterfeit problem globally and we were amazed at the severity of it. Since then, we have looked at other sectors where there is a need, using information such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, France, report, Trade in Counterfeit and Pirated Goods, as data sources.

We have investigated sectors such as medical devices, automotive, high-value luxury goods, sporting goods, and high-value beverages. Some validation trials are now in place at companies working in these areas.

In the weeks before the anti-counterfeit meeting where I had the original idea, I had read about fake anti-retrovirals in Africa. My initial thought was that the application of 3D marking of the pills could be a method of providing proof of authenticity and could minimise the problem. We have recently been brought back to looking at pharmaceutical products after interest from overseas, specifically looking to help tackle the opioid crisis in the USA.

You’ve said it was difficult getting UK companies interested in the product. Why?

I don’t know why but we have had more success overseas than in the UK. The majority of our trials have taken place overseas and I would estimate that only 20% are in the UK. Having said that, we have now received our first UK order.

How do you think the anti-counterfeiting space will evolve over the coming years?

Anti-counterfeit technologies have to move very quickly to prevent forgers from catching up. The track and trace on pharmaceutical products is very complex and the move to cloud-based applications can improve this by using, for example, blockchain encryption. The main drawback with these technologies is that when products are removed from packaging, they lose traceability. This is where we fit in, as we can place matching codes on the product and packaging.

Is there more focus on tackling counterfeiting now than ever before?

Both industry and regulatory bodies are placing emphasis on this growing problem. For example, one report has forecast growth of counterfeit products from US$46bln in 2013 to almost US$1 trillion by 2022. This is just goods and does not include software, music, and films.

The use of counterfeit products has an impact on everyone, for example a company may lose sales to counterfeit products that are sold by vendors who do not pay tax on the product.

Additionally, if profits are reduced, the amount spent on R&D will also go down, which will hit the long-term growth of the company. Fake products, for example car parts, have also resulted in death and injury in various cases worldwide.

What are your plans for future development?

We have to evolve and constantly improve our product to stay a step ahead of the forgers. We are working with several universities to examine complementary technologies that could be used as part of our future offering. Our next planned development will allow the use of a smartphone, with an additional optical element, to examine and verify authenticity of products that use our technology.