DataDot News

  • Microdot technology – the permanent marker for cars

    Mechanical Technology – June 2009

    My first treat on arrival at Nissan's Bill Wilson Building in Rosslyn was to be shown a video of a Nissan Almera being blown up in Kroonstadt. Fouche Burgers from Business Against Crime South Africa (BACSA) showed it to me in slow motion, complete with the bonnet and one of the doors being tracked, frame-by-frame, as they flew into the air and out of shot, and then reappeared several frames later on the way down again. Apart from the mangled remains of an engine, there was little left of the car. It was described as a "controlled test" but to me, it looked a touch too ferocious for that.

    Who was responsible? The South African Police Service (SAPS), the Department of Transport (DoT), the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS), the Vehicle Security Association (VESA), Nissan South Africa, and four Microdot suppliers in South Africa – DataDot, Holomatrix, Impimpi and Recoveri.

    Why? To prove, beyond all doubt, that it was impossible to remove the micro-dotted identification numbers sprayed onto vehicles. The exploded Nissan had been marked with microdot "DNA" from all four of South Africa's microdot companies, and all information from each supplier could be located and read on the remaining debris of the bonnet and doors immediately after the explosion. Legible microdots were also found on the remains of the engine. Exciting stuff!

    The launch event began with a tour of Nissan's microdotting facility, a process subcontracted by Nissan to DataDot. We were bussed to a three-pit workshop and taken through the process of microdotting a new Nissan bakkie. "At this facility, we can currently microdot 250 cars a day using a single-shift manual process," says Derek Menday, director of DataDot and our guide. "The facility has also been designed to eventually take on a robotic arm, which will enable a car to be dotted in one minute and 11 seconds – or 700 to 1 000 cars a day on a double-shift basis," he adds.

    Every car manufactured by Nissan at the Rosslyn plant passes through this facility before being dispatched, and every car manufactured by Nissan since October 2006 has been microdotted. The process involves the application of approximately 10 000 tiny polyester or metal dots, each less than 1 mm in diameter and each containing the vehicle's identification number (VIN) or a unique vehicle PIN etched onto it by a laser-etching process, as repeated lines of text. "The 17-digit VIN number can fit no less than four times on each dot," Menday tells us, "which is a lot of information." The DataDot process currently uses a PIN-based system, although the technology is already available to etch the vehicle's own VIN number onto the dots. The laser-etched dots are manufactured in George – mixed with a water-based inflammable adhesive and packaged in a disposable canister, which is bar-coded with the unique PIN number – then sent to Rosslyn in batches. As the vehicle is driven into the facility, its VIN number is scanned and blue toothed into a computer system at the back of the workshop. A canister of dots is then taken out and its unique PIN number is scanned and allocated to the vehicle's VIN number. This enables a live database to link the two vehicle identifiers and to immediately register the addition on a nationally accessible database. "The muscle of the dot comes down to the availability of the information at the right level, not just at the police level but at dealer, bank and insurance levels. This system is in place. This Nissan being dotted today can be traced back to a VIN number and a current owner within minutes of leaving this facility," says Menday.

    The information on each dot – invisible to the naked eye – functions as the vehicle's DNA. A criminal wanting to tamper with the identity of a vehicle and its parts must literally find all 10 000 dots. The fact that this is a virtual impossibility makes the use and application of microdot technology an important deterrent against vehicle crime and theft. In particular, it ensures that the vehicle's identity can never be removed, and thus it fights crime at its financial roots, ie, the point at which "anonymous" stolen vehicles are sold.

    James Ralekwa of DataDot is issued with a "pot of dots" along with a fitment sheet. He then does a manual verification, twice. He checks that the PIN number on the canister is the same as that allocated to the vehicle, that the vehicle VIN plate is the same as that on the fitment sheet and that the VIN Stamp on the vehicle ties up.

    After signing off the fitment sheet, James takes out a nozzle and, after shaking the canister, attaches the canister of dots onto a compressed air line. He then applies a sample dot onto the fitment sheet. We see a smudge of adhesive on the paper with 20-odd tiny black dots embedded into it – the DNA of this Nissan. Ralekwa then begins spraying in short bursts into the cavities of the Nissan's bonnet and the internal spaces of the engine compartment's framework. He then proceeds to spray individual components on the engine. "All of the major panels and all tradable parts of this vehicle are being "contaminated" with these dots," says Menday.

    Each vehicle has a quality specification stipulating where the dots will be sprayed and this information is made available to the police services. The 10 000 dots are sprayed in 88 different places on the vehicle.

    The adhesive cures completely in 24 hours and takes on the background it is applied to – making the dots invisible on the components of the car but "the trick is, that the adhesive has a UV property that fluoresces under UV light." We get the opportunity to shine a simple UV-torch onto the newly applied patches of dots. They are very easy to find.

    Once the engine compartment is complete, Ralekwa moves around the vehicle, marking the tailgate and other components as he goes. He moves into the pit underneath the car and continues marking components from the underside. Once finished, he places the Nissan DataDot sticker onto the car's window, "which makes the vehicle too hot to handle and much less desirable to criminals." He then scans this vehicle one last time, and the car is registered on the Nissan SAP system as "dotted".

    Menday tells us that vehicles worth R1,2-billion are crushed annually by the police services because the legitimate owners cannot be traced. "No Nissan vehicle made or imported after 2006 will be among these," he adds.

    Police conducting forensic investigations on stolen vehicles or parts need a low-tech UV-torch to find embedded microdots and a simple microdot viewer/reader to determine the vehicle's microdot PIN number. They then link into their databases to determine the exact identity of the vehicle. They need only find one dot to identify a vehicle, unlike the criminal, who needs to find 10 000 dots to remove its identity.

    At a later presentation Burgers summarises some successes. All makes of recovered vehicles that have been 100% microdotted have been identified by SAPS – all Nissans, BMWs, Toyota Quantums, AVIS and SAPS vehicles. More than 3 000 vehicles with microdots have been recovered and in more than 400 cases, the microdots were the only identifiers left on the vehicle. Recently, micro-dotted parts from 28 different vehicles were identified in one chop-shop.

    "With a fuller take-up of the technology and fitment which complies with the Standard launched today, BACSA, in conjunction with the partners here today, hopes to see similar and even better results going forward," says Burgers.

    The cost increment off production lines is just R400 – of the order of a single month's insurance premium. Surely all South African vehicle manufacturers and fleet operators should adopt this process and the associated new standard?

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