Computer giant Hewlett-Packard (HP) has developed a system that allows high quality printing to be added to tablets and capsules in an attempt to derail counterfeiters.
The print cartridge is specifically aimed at the pharmaceutical industry, with HP hoping to tap into increasing concerns over revenue loss caused by counterfeiting. Branding, dosage and security information can be printed onto individual pills and the machine is capable of printing at a rate of 500 feet per minute. Alternatively, there is the capacity to print at a slower speed but much higher quality. In this mode precise, uniform printing of logos, barcodes and variable data can be added to pills and capsules. It is also capable of printing onto dosage forms of a variety of shapes. This could further distance the product from a fake drug, providing additional protection against counterfeiters.
Kathy Tobin, vice-president and general manager of HP Specialty Printing Systems, said: "With this solution, HP sets a new standard by reducing costs, meeting expanding market needs and enabling solutions that exceed heightened security requirements." The desire by pharmaceutical companies to stamp out counterfeiting has attracted some major players to the sector. In addition to HP, DataLase recently launched a product to print high quality text or images onto tablets. Previously the focus from the industry and counterfeiters had been on external packaging. Consequently, getting the packaging to look legitimate is currently the main concern for counterfeit drug manufacturers. Pharmaceutical packaging can now be created or tampered with to give the impression that legitimate medicines are inside.
However, printing directly on to a pill makes it far harder for counterfeiters to convincingly imitate the product. Even if counterfeiters did acquire the technology to perform such printing it is additional cost burden for them, which will hopefully make the market less profitable and therefore less attractive. Sadly for the pharmaceutical industry the profits involved are too large for counterfeiters to walk away without a fight. A US think tank predicted the counterfeit drug market could be worth $75bn by 2010 and consequently pharmaceutical companies will have to work very hard to make the market economically unattractive. For now tablet printing should give pharmaceutical companies the upper hand over counterfeiters. However, it seems unlikely that this latest development will kill off counterfeit drugs.
HP is currently showing its printing machine at Interpack in Düsseldorf, which runs until 30 April.