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The ink pot

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Because they fit easily into most existing production processes, security inks are among the most popular brand protection techniques available. But what are the latest innovations to keep counterfeiters guessing, and why do traditional ink suppliers want a piece of the market?

hen Flint Ink and Sun Chemical decide to reach beyond their traditional established printingink businesses and enter the small but highly specialised world of security inks, you find

ink businesses and enter the small but highly specialised world of security inks, you find yourself asking ‘why’? After all, brand owners are a reticent bunch when it comes to accepting the counterfeiting issue and doing something about it.

A cheap solution

Within the security device and brand protection industry, security inks are one of the oldest and most widely used anti- counterfeiting techniques. They are easy to apply and comparatively cheap to buy. But care must be taken to ensure their ease of use does not mean that they are easy for a counterfeiter to copy or appropriate. For example, UV inks will assist in defeating efforts to copy packaging or documentation by scanning. These inks are easy to detect but can be bought from numerous ink suppliers, not just makers of security inks. Fluorescent inks on their own offer little security in the face of determined counterfeiters but can form part of a package of brand protection and security features.

The benefit of versatility

As well as acting as overt brand protection measures, inks also provide a good base that hidden or covert security technologies such as DNA markers and taggants can be integrated into. These can usually then in turn be printed onto packaging in existing production processes.

inks are one of the oldest and most widely used anti-counterfeiting techniques. They are easy to apply and comparatively

cheap to buy

They are easy to apply and comparatively cheap to buy ’ 43 Tagging is a covert


Tagging is a covert technology that can be used to underpin any brand protection

strategy. Particle tag systems can be included in ink, as well as paper, laminates and labels. Another type of technology known as infrared (IR) up-converting taggants uses

a small amount of up-conversion inorganic

phosphors that can be added to most inks and materials.

Although DNA taggants have been around for

a while, interest in them has really grown in

the last couple of years and so has the number of companies supplying DNA taggants. The main practice is to mix or attach specially processed DNA to specific media, such as paint, ink, polymer or adhesive and use the unique and hard to replicate characteristics of DNA to tell real products from counterfeits.

Specialist security ink suppliers Calyx

Calyx in the US supplies overt and covert inks for protecting brands, from optically variable pigments to infrared up-converting and fluorescing inks. The inks are combined to provide multi-layered anti-counterfeiting solutions to pharmaceutical companies, Calyx’s main client base.

In July 2003 Isotag – a brand protection company in Dallas that has developed a unique molecular marker technology that can be tracked online – announced it had acquired Calyx. Scientists at the newly united business venture are creating a hybrid ink that incorporates Isotag’s forensic technology into

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Calyx’s dyes. As well as offering overt and covert authentication features the new ink will allow a item to be traced along the supply chain. The information gathered from the ability to track and trace a product could prove invaluable for drugs companies because they can isolate where copies of their products are entering the supply chain and where diversion is taking place.

Calyx’s existing range of security inks add a few extra cents to the cost of production per pack, which can increase depending on the

complexity of the solution. The new ink containing Isotag’s technology should not add to the cost because the amount of molecular marker solution used is tiny. However like other DNA techniques they are totally invisible to the naked eye and cannot even be picked up by a reader in the field. They do not provide immediate yes or no authentication, but have to be forensically tested in Isotag’s laboratory. Depending on the type of covert technology used, readers in the brand protection industry in general can range from

a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.

Isotag scientist Dave Wallace is confident the new ink with the molecular markers will be virtually impossible to copy. ‘By adding covert feature after covert feature to the ink you are making it very hard for counterfeiters to replicate.’ But Wallace concedes that for brand protection technologies to work best they must be applied at item level, or close enough to that level.

Isotag’s ultimate goal is to deliver an ink or dye that can be printed onto the product or suspended in a liquid. If the pack of medication leads directly to the consumer then a brand protection device applied to the package is fine says Wallace.

But, in the US especially, a lot of medication

is produced, packed and distributed in bulk

to pharmacists. In these instances item-level brand protection is desirable. However this

is still years off for the company, which is

only in the early stages of research and development for such a solution.

Why does Wallace think security inks are so appealing? ‘Inks can be used in almost any existing manufacturing process.’ The

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Volume 3 Issue 1

Table 1 Forecast growth of security ink market, 2002–05, %




Western Europe



Eastern Europe









North America



South America



Total worldwide growth



Source: Pira International Ltd

company’s optically variable pigments are compatible with flexographic, gravure and offset printers. Its UV-curable pigments can be applied by rotary screen. The inks can also be incorporated into tamper-evident labels and the covert dyes can be mixed into existing colours used by Isotag and Calyx’s clients. ‘They or their printer don’t have to redesign their packs in order to include our technology,’ says Wallace.

Flex Products

Flex Products in California makes optically variable pigments that are added to paints, inks and coatings. Objects coated or painted with these pigments change colour according to the angle from which they are viewed. This colour variation cannot be replicated via any scanner nor by any printing technique other than by the use of optically variable inks or pigments but they provide instant visual authentication. The pigments are sold to authorised ink, coatings and paint manufacturers and are used on many products, from mobile phones to cars.

Isotag has a partnership with Flex Products. The two companies are working with a global pharmaceutical company to stop the counterfeiting of one of its drugs products. Here’s the background to the case and their solution:

The prescription drug business for this pharmaceutical manufacturer exceeds $17 billion (14.2 billion) annually. Around $10 billion of those revenues are made in the US alone. The company’s top selling drug generates more than $3 billion every year and each of the other 23 drugs it produces rake in more than $100 million each.

generates more than $3 billion every year and each of the other 23 drugs it produces

Counterfeit versions of the company’s best selling drug were discovered in the US. FDA guidelines threatened to recall the drug, valued at over $1 billion, throughout the distribution pipeline unless consumers could in future tell it apart from fakes. The company had to repackage its drug with layered security or face loss of revenue and potential negative effects on consumers due to shortage of the product. The drugs company was also concerned that any potential damage to its top seller would put all its other brands at risk. The manufacturer did not have a product security system in place and needed an FDA- approved solution immediately.

For an overt security layer Flex Products provided its colour-shifting pigment to be used with inks printed on the packaging. Machine-readable inks were also printed on the packaging as a covert measure. These could be read in the field to authenticate packages. Isotag’s proprietary molecular marker technology was also applied to the packs as a third covert measure. The


markers can’t be verified in the field, only back at Isotag’s laboratories. The whole brand protection package took the FDA less than four weeks to approve. The drugs in the pipeline were then released for sale and a product recall was avoided. Isotag’s and Flex Products’ solution is now being applied to other high-value drugs within pharmaceutical company’s portfolio.


Israeli brand protection company Bsecure has developed a new ink and system for authenticating and tracking branded goods. The SecuVision technology consists of invisible ink that gives a product, or its label and packaging, a unique identity. The ink can only be read with a special reader developed by Bsecure. The dye itself costs a fraction of a cent to apply to each item. Brand owners can store each unique ID created by the ink onto a database to track items in the supply chain. Authorised operators can enter onto the database the exact location, time and date at which they verified a product’s authenticity

Table 2 Profile of latest security inks available


Inks types

Overt or










Optically variable inks


Colour changes when viewed at different angles

Readily seen

Can be very expensive. No litho ink yet

Improved printability.


by public

Litho grades


Thermochromic inks


Colour changes above a set temperature


Limited in


some climates

Infrared up-converting inks


Absorb IR energy but not visible to eye

Cannot be

Requires detection


detected by


graphic scanners

Tagged inks


Trace additions of invisible tags. Very versatile


Wider range of taggants introduced


without correct


Machine-readable inks


Contain components that are only detectable by equipment

Permit automatic

More costly than is often

More dedicated




acceptable combinations

Conductive inks


Allow electrically conductive tracks to be printed

Potentially allow less costly circuits to be produced

Development work has yet to be completed

Greater conductivity UV litho & flexo

Intaglio inks


Produce very thick films that can be felt

Few producers of intaglio print improves security

Limited choice


of suppliers

Photochromic inks


Change colour in UV or strong sunlight

Source: Pira International Ltd

Overt/covert Change colour in UV or strong sunlight Source: Pira International Ltd Volume 3 Issue 1

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Table 3 Security inks: progression of the market for brand protection in

pharmaceuticals, 2002–2005 (%)




Overall market



Security inks



Source: Pira International Ltd

so that they can isolate where the product

is being diverted, counterfeited or stolen.

Bsecure is in talks with multinationals in the pharmaceutical, tobacco and cosmetics industries that are interested in using the technology. The company hopes to release more details about these negotiations in the near future.

A label or substrate printed with the special

ink looks normal. When it is viewed through the reader a pattern becomes visible that can be used to verify the product. According to Bsecure’s chief executive officer Ron Peer, integrating the ink into a product logo would produce the best results because counterfeiters would literally have to remove the logo in

order to get rid of the ink.

Mainstream providers of ink

Traditional ink and pigment suppliers like Flint Ink, Sun Chemical and Holliday have

all cottoned on to the appeal of security inks.

In the past 18 months they have bought into

security ink businesses, or are setting up alliances with providers of brand protection techniques or have launched their own security products. And it makes sense. The general printing ink market is highly competitive and has a surplus of production capacity. The result is that prices are kept very low by the

competitive pricing of ink makers and general profitability is lower than most other industries would accept. There are potentially greater profit margins in the security ink sector because

it adds more value and is less commoditised.

These traditional printing inks companies have distribution channels in place and long established relationships with clients in the printing, converting and publishing industries.

Holliday Pigments

Holliday Pigments in the UK is the world’s largest producer of ultramarine blue and

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manganese violet pigments, used in inks across substrates and products, including plastics, rubber, cosmetics, paints, artists colours and printing inks.

An integral feature of some of Holliday’s pigments is that they cannot be copied, so when mixed into ink and printed they give a low level of visible brand protection. The company is marketing this aspect of the pigments to two groups in the supply chain: ink suppliers and packaging designers.

A kilogram of the pigment costs around

$14. Of course the pigment could get into the hands of counterfeiters but Holliday’s ink technologist Aaron Marshall says, as

a precaution, the company will only

discuss its products with the major manufacturers of both traditional and security inks such as Sicpa, Flint Ink, Dainippon and BASF. ‘Our pigments will put off the opportunist, the man on the street,’ says Marshall.

Marshall and his colleagues have already discussed the possibility of combining their unique pigments with covert technologies to produce inks that can fluoresce when exposed to ultraviolet light. However, Holliday will wait and see how much interest the market will show in this idea. There is a company in mind it would like to work with but Marshall

is reluctant to reveal details until they have

actually approached it.

He agrees with Wallace at Isotag that the reason why inks are such a widely used security measure, compared with other devices, is because they fit into existing printing processes. ‘Inks can give a pretty good idea almost straight away as to whether a product is genuine or not and they can be combined with other technologies to provide a covert level of detection and a history of where the product has travelled along the supply chain.’

to provide a covert level of detection and a history of where the product has travelled

Figure 1 Pharmaceutical industry views on the adoption rates of security products by type, 2002–2005 (%) Source: Pira International

Tamper-evident seals Digital watermarks Security graphics In-product marking Magnetic technologies EAS Bar codes Taggants Security films Security threads Security papers Security inks Holograms RFID tags Security labels Security packaging overall

0% 10% 20% 30% 40% 50% 60% 70% 80% 90% 100% Speed up a lot
Speed up a lot
Speed up a little
No change

Sun Chemical

In June this year Sun Chemical, the

world’s largest ink supplier, announced

a marketing alliance with InkSure, a

specialist in encoded inks that can only be read by specially developed machines. Sun Chemical wants to use its extensive client base as leverage for the security inks developed by InkSure. Other security inks, coatings and brand protection technology suppliers are also in Sun Chemical’s radar, though it is still early days for the company

to give away any names yet.

The ink supplier’s strategy is to build up

a battery of security and brand protection

techniques through license agreements with security specialists and acquisitions. Flint Ink’s plan is pretty much the same, but the company wants to provide the whole service, not just an exhaustive list of security inks and devices.

Sun Chemical’s security and brand protection director Pat Polazzo predicts that in the coming years there will be consolidation between the traditional ink suppliers and boutiques and specialists offering security and brand protection technologies. Brand owners and their packaging converters aren’t up to speed with the numerous

technology start-ups offering DNA markers, taggants and other ingenious ways to authenticate and track goods. If such a company licenses their technology or distributes it through an ink or coating supplied by a Sun Chemical or a Flint Ink they have a better chance of it reaching end-users.

InkSure’s chief executive officer of US operations, James Assaf, thinks converting has become so competitive that packaging companies will print or integrate security devices on or in packaging as part of a one- stop-shop service to brand owners.

Alcan has started with holograms. The converter is licensing a machine that can apply, in-register onto flexible packaging, transparent holograms for applications such as CD packaging. Alcan intends to grow its range of secure packaging, which will include security inks.

Sun Chemical is now in talks with a tobacco company that owns one of the largest cigarette brands in the US and its packaging converter about testing covert inks in the SunSure range on cigarette packs. Polazzo says the company will also target other markets including cosmetics, spirits, wines and pharmaceuticals.

will also target other markets including cosmetics, spirits, wines and pharmaceuticals. Volume 3 Issue 1 brand

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What’s so good about inks?

Technology suppliers have to convince brand owners that their products are value for money. In Pira’s research, minimum cost was cited as the most important factor behind the choice of a particular brand protection device. Although security inks and also papers are more expensive than their standard counterparts, they are not generally regarded as unacceptably high in cost.

Security inks can be overt and covert, both equally important levels of security to have on packaging or products for different reasons. Overt security, such as colour-changing inks, watermarks and holograms offer consumers the opportunity to decide for themselves whether a product is genuine. This in turn is good for the brand owner. It enhances the brand and adds value to it. You or I will buy Microsoft software because we know it’s the genuine article. It’s a two-way thing, brand name and brand protection measure reinforce each other. Overt protection also serves to put off have-a-go counterfeiters from copying the product.

But the more serious counterfeiters will try and copy the overt device, so by incorporating one, two, three, even four types of covert technology a brand owner will completely scupper any chances of its product being copied. Many of these covert technologies such as Isotag’s molecular markers, the MagDot technology sold by Light Impressions in the UK and Bsecure’s invisible coding technology are incorporated into inks. Most of them can be applied on existing printing processes, so all the converter is paying for is the ink and readers, not say an entire new machine or piece of equipment for applying another security device.

The biggest growth areas in the security inks market will be in optically variable inks, thermochromic inks, infrared up-converting inks, tagged inks and machine-readable inks. Security inks will continue to remain one of the biggest brand protection techniques, perhaps being eclipsed in the coming years by radio frequency identification (RFID) devices as their cost comes down. They will become extremely popular in Asia-Pacific, over the coming years

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TAKE AWAY ■ Security inks are one of the oldest and most widely used anti-counterfeiting techniques,
TAKE AWAY ■ Security inks are one of the oldest and most widely used anti-counterfeiting techniques,

Security inks are one of the oldest

and most widely used anti-counterfeiting

techniques, easy to apply and comparatively cheap to buy

Ink, as well as serving as an overt brand

protection measure, also provides a good base that hidden or covert security technologies,

such as taggants, can be added to

In the US, Calyx, a supplier of overt and

covert security inks, has been bought by Isotag, the company behind a unique molecular marker technology. The new

company is developing new ink solutions that combine Calyx’s and Isotag’s technologies

Isotag and Flex Products, a supplier of

optically variable pigments, teamed up to

supply a combined package of overt and covert security. This was to help a leading drugs company save its best-selling brand which was under attack from counterfeiters

Bsecure in Israel recently launched a new

invisible ink that marks each product with a unique identity that can only be detected with

a special reader

The world’s biggest suppliers of traditional

inks, such as Sun Chemical, are getting into

security inks partly because these specialised products offer better profit margins. The packaging printing and converting industry, therefore, becomes more competitive

The security ink industry will continue to

consolidate as the big traditional ink players acquire or absorb technology suppliers into their operations

Security inks will remain a popular choice

of brand protection because they are relatively cheap to apply, compared with other security measures and are very versatile

By incorporating a number of different

types of covert technology a brand owner

will completely deny any possibility of its product being counterfeited

Much of the growth in the security ink

market will happen in Asia-Pacific over the

next few years.

Sara Ver-Bruggen

in Asia-Pacific over the next few years. Sara Ver-Bruggen Sara Ver-Bruggen is the editor of Active-
in Asia-Pacific over the next few years. Sara Ver-Bruggen Sara Ver-Bruggen is the editor of Active-

Sara Ver-Bruggen is the editor of Active- Intelligent News, Pira’s fortnightly newsletter. For subscription information, or a free trial, please contact: publications@pira.co.uk

Pira’s fortnightly newsletter. For subscription information, or a free trial, please contact: publications@pira.co.uk