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What This Tech for Science Lab Geeks Can Do for Fashion Textiles

Counterfeiters always seem to be one step ahead of the pack. Now, new tools can help the good guys fight back.

Technology might very well be the key to disrupting the business of producing cheap, imitation goods. IBM Research’s Crypto Anchor Verifier, for example, features a portable scanner that clips onto a smartphone to read a sample material’s optical profile and determine whether or not it’s authentic. That is to say, extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) and the lower quality stuff might both look (and taste) the same to you, but there’s no faking EVOO’s optical profile. The technology does what the naked eye can’t—and then secures the scan results on the blockchain for safekeeping.

But that’s not the only way science is trying to combat counterfeits.

You might come across the word “spectroscopy” when reading up on astronomy in the likes of Popular Mechanics—it’s not the kind of term routinely bandied about in fashion circles. But when shrunk down into a miniaturized form factor, it’s an area of science with the potential to disrupt counterfeit apparel supply chains.

Spectroscopes are the devices used to examine an item’s spectral signature—similar to an optical profile. A spectral signature indicates how much light a sample reflects. Unique to a given item, a spectral signature will differ between an authentic product, like a silk jacket, for example, and a visually identical knockoff that counterfeiters hope will pass the “sniff test” without in-depth inspection.

Spectroscopes aren’t some brand-new invention; they’ve been around for a while in various forms and used in numerous industries, from agriculture to big pharma to semiconductors. Typically, however, bulky spectroscopes are bound to a lab environment, where samples must be sent in a for analysis and results can take weeks.

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Si-Ware Systems (SWS) and its new NeoSpectra device want to bring spectroscopy out into the real world, amplifying the power of the smartphone to give users the portable convenience of counterfeit-fighting technology. Two important components form the crux of the company’s spectroscopic innovation: First, the NeoSpectra analyzes the sample on hand, but that reading is only as good as the cloud-based reference database against which it compares the sample for instant results.

Users tailor their database to their industry; though the NeoSpectra can identify a vast number of samples, a fashion brand’s reference library likely would focus on textiles versus the chemical components you might find in a pharmaceutical database. SWS noted that the NeoSpectra’s results are in some ways only as good as the reference database.

SWS used the NeoSpectra to lab test carpets in September and the results differentiated the distinct spectral signature of the mercerized wool rug—treated to mimic silk’s luster—from its higher-quality silk counterpart, the company said in a statement. What’s more, the device not only detects the presence of the targeted materials or chemicals, but it also identifies the quantity of the material in that sample, SWS said—which could indicate a problem if material that’s supposed to be pure actually is blended with something else.

Real-time material analysis could be nothing less than a game-changer for customs officials inspecting shipments at ports of entry worldwide—and a significant upgrade from how inspectors handle suspected counterfeits today. Cutting out a sample to ship off to a lab for spectroscopic analysis with standard, bulky instrumentation compromises the product’s integrity and takes far too long; without proof that a shipment is misrepresenting itself, customs agents might have no choice for those items to find their way into stores, potentially putting customers in harm’s way.

SWS didn’t specify the NeoSpectra’s cost, but in the hands of the right folks at the right points along the supply chain, portable spectroscopy just might take a bite out of the $98 billion in counterfeit goods trafficked last year. In addition to frontline customs employees, SWS said the NeoSpectra would be helpful to textile buyers acquiring fabrics in bulk who can verify quality at the point of purchase.