Tuning In to Taggants

Jan. 11, 2006
Holograms and some security inks may “thwart the high-school kid with a desktop photocopier,” but not experienced counterfeiters, says Brian Brogger, VP of the company that coined the term “taggant.”
By Paul Thomas, Managing EditorMicrotrace brand Microtaggant Identification Particles are microscopic particles that, in their most basic form, contain a unique numeric code sequence in a multicolored, layered format. They can be loaded with additional security layers and coupled with additional product-security measures such as pattern recognition to become as complex as the customer wishes.
The Microtrace Microtaggant Identification Particle under several hundred times magnification. Particles shown are 75-44 microns in size, and reveal a sample code sequence of 7 layers — black, white, red, white, red, white, fluorescent green. The code also has a numeric value.

Engineered by 3M but developed by Microtrace, LLC., since 1985, Microtaggants — which the American Heritage Dictionary credits as the origin for the term taggant — have become a recognized technology for tracking and tracing explosives. And now, they’re also gaining traction in the pharmaceutical industry and being incorporated into packaging resins, films and inks for drug protection.Microtaggant technology offers exclusivity to each customer and application, notes Brian Brogger, company VP. Many customers even keep the encoding technologies within their Microtaggant confidential at different levels within the organization, he says. Microtrace teamed last year with laser specialists to offer covert laser marking solutions for both drug product and packaging.Pharmaceutical Manufacturing spoke with Brogger recently to learn how customers are best using taggants and lasers, and whether most manufacturers really “get it” when it comes to securing their products.P.M.: What's the state of Microtaggant technology? Where is it compared to a year or two ago, and what might we expect a year or two from now?B.B.: In the last few years, Microtrace has enhanced both the Microtaggant technology as well as the delivery formats of the technology.The market is becoming increasingly aware there is no one “silver bullet” technology to combat counterfeiting and the best approach is to utilize multiple technologies in a layered approach. Microtrace has advanced the Microtaggant to now include multiple nano/taggant technologies within the structure of each particle, thus delivering multiple layers of encoding in a single delivery format. Depending upon the materials incorporated in the Microtaggant, it can now be detected and read with a variety of hand-held devices.The market is looking for solutions that are easily incorporated into their manufacturing processes. Currently, we are working with leading pharmaceutical companies who are able to incorporate Microtaggants in the materials commonly used in their production processes. We’ve also expanded the variety of finished formats in which we can deliver Microtaggant technology: press-ready security inks, compounded plastic resins, films, adhesives and many more. We can also work with customers’ current materials suppliers to incorporate the Microtaggant directly in the materials they already purchase.Counterfeiters continue to become more sophisticated and Microtrace will continue to ensure its technology stays ahead of counterfeiters’ abilities. In addition, we will continue to identify companies who are able to incorporate the Microtaggant technology in finished solutions that can easily be used by customers. One such relationship that will be announced in early 2006 is a partnership with a leading manufacturer of shrink sleeves for the pharmaceutical and packaging industries.P.M.: You're now combining laser systems with Microtaggants. What does this enable that you couldn't do before?B.B.: Our customers are diverse and have unique requirements for desired applications. Laser systems allow us to deliver turnkey integrated systems for direct marking — for a variety of substrates, from pharmaceutical tablets to plastic parts and packaging. With laser systems, we are able to produce marks that are either so small or done so shallow that they are not easily detected. This allows a wealth of information to be encoded into markings which are nearly invisible to the eye but are easily read with the correct barcode scanning equipment. The addition of laser capabilities gives our customers an additional level of security.P.M.: Which applications seem to be getting the most traction from your  pharmaceutical clients, and why?B.B.: We’re getting good traction in the pharmaceutical industry with Microtaggants supplied in security inks, shrink sleeves and compounded resins used to make the plastic bottles, caps and blister packs. The most traction is coming from the Microtaggant security ink, for a number of reasons:
  • Ink is delivered press-ready and easily applied by any pharmaceutical label printer;

  • Microtaggant code can be changed frequently and easily, as opposed to minimum runs;

  • No other printing technology offers each customer an exclusive code.
P.M.: It’s been said that counterfeiters and diverters are getting quite good at foiling security measures such as holographs and basic security inks. Would you agree? By adding Microtaggants, are you essentially adding sophistication (and renewed uselfulness) to these measures?B.B.: Counterfeiters and diverters are getting more advanced in their practices, but the problem also lies with some of the basic technologies in the marketplace — i.e., color-shift, thermo/photochromatic, IRs, holographs, etc. — that do not offer exclusivity to the customer. The companies that supply these technologies try to tightly control who has access to these materials, but in some cases there are several producers of the very same material around the world. In the end, the customer is left with only the perception of exclusivity and security.Our Microtaggant technology is the only one that truly offers exclusivity to each customer and/or application. Each Microtaggant code is unique and certified to the end customer.
Microtaggants are inedible, but laser coding directly on tablets is possible.

P.M.: Do you have any measures that are incorporated into the drug product itself, as opposed to just the packaging? If so, how do they work?B.B.: The Microtaggant technology is not edible and is not to be incorporated in the drug product itself. The laser systems can be used to mark pharmaceutical tablets. Each tablet can be marked with encoded barcodes or logos. We work with each customer to determine the right marking for their use.P.M.: Cost is always in an issue for drug manufacturers — how affordable are your solutions, and what kind of ROI might customers expect?B.B.: The discussion of ROI is always a challenge when discussing the impact of anti-counterfeit technologies. In our case, ROI is best defined as either the potential liability that is avoided by the conclusive identification of counterfeit or diverted product or market that is recaptured in removing counterfeit product from distribution channels. Unfortunately, the true ROI will only be determined after a major event such as a death resulting in a counterfeit pharmaceutical. A similar analogy to this is insurance, which the value of can only be truly realized after a catastrophic event has occurred.Microtrace solutions are very affordable ranging from low tenths of a cent to low cents per item. This range is dependent upon a number of variables including the type of Microtaggant utilized and the delivery format.P.M.: Do pharmaceutical manufacturers "get it" in terms of knowing how to protect their products? What is the one piece of advice you would have for those manufacturers?B.B.: I believe pharmaceutical manufacturers are getting better in their understanding of how to protect their products. I encourage them to do their homework regarding the level of exclusivity offered by various anti-counterfeit technologies. It is always frustrating to hear that a pharmaceutical customer is considering technologies such as holograms or thermo/photochromatic materials as a security device. This technology may thwart the high-school kid with a desktop photocopier, but will be little barrier to a real counterfeiter. It is only a matter of time before counterfeit pharmaceuticals result in large numbers of serious illnesses or deaths in the United States.Pharmaceutical companies need to take action now to incorporate specific anti-counterfeit technologies into their packaging. It is no longer sufficient to distinguish counterfeit packaging from genuine packaging by identifying subjective variations in the font size or style or shrink-sleeve fitting.