SMART packaging may be finally coming of age – granted, we’ve heard that before but earlier this year one or two developers confirmed the first orders from large supermarket chains.
Consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies are said to be actively developing prototypes of smart packaging.
The only commercially successful use of smart packaging so far has been with the time /temperature-sensing smart labels used in vaccines, and available from suppliers such as 3M and Temptime.
But another area where there seems to be traction for the approach is in smart food labelling, whereby consumers can be kept informed of the freshness of a product via a visual indicator on the packaging. Printed electronics is also being primed for a role here, as well as with enabling security and aesthetic enhancements in certain classes of product.
Cutting down food waste
As public attitudes to food waste change, and we all become less tolerant of the mountains of it that reach landfill every year, there has emerged a greater impetus to find ways of reducing it. Enter smart labelling. Various time / temperature-sensing approaches have been incorporated into proof-of-concept smart labels for food packaging in recent years. But nothing like this has appeared on the supermarket shelves yet, as the technology has been cost prohibitive. But some suppliers claim this is now changing.
In general, the approaches used to produce sensor-based smart food labels fall into two main camps, depending on whether they employ some form of chemical marker or use printed electronics.
In the chemical marker camp, Insignia Technologies, a spin-off from research conducted at Strathclyde University, announced in March the creation of a smart label (see image, above) which it says has already generated interest from supermarket chains in the UK, France and the US, and it is hoping to roll-out its label in food packaging this year.
By giving the consumer a more precise indication of how long a product might have been lying open in the fridge, it will make them less inclined to simply throw stuff away. Or so goes the reasoning behind it.
A 2006 report on smart packaging by the Technology Strategy Board, a UK government agency, identified cost as one of the major obstacles to the adoption of smart packaging, along with things like the reliability of the indicating devices, and food safety and regulatory issues.
The big question is: can the cost be absorbed or passed onto the consumer? Insignia’s business development manager Jonny Macneal believes his company’s conversations with supermarkets have been encouraging. “The pricing we’ve been talking about seems to be ticking the right boxes,” he said.
The label uses a smart pigment technology that is activated by the presence of CO2 in Modified Atmosphere Packaging and which then begins to change colour once the pack is opened by the consumer. “It’s cost effective compared to other time and temperature indicators, which often have expensive and fragile liquid parts, that have to come together. Our label is much simpler.” Insignia’s technology takes a colour-changing pigment and extrudes it into plastic film, while retaining the colour changing capability.
In parallel with the development of such chemical-based methods is the ongoing evolution of printed electronics, potentially opening the door to a range of enhanced packaging features.
E-labels get affordable
In the same smart food labelling market as Insignia, with another system for labels that monitor the freshness and expiry dates of food, is Norway based Thin Film Electronics (TFE).
A temperature sensor tag of the kind it demonstrated in December 2012 will, says the company’s Davor Sutija, “cost much less than current silicon-based solutions, and approximately the same as high-end colour-changing labels.”
Printed electronics has the additional advantage that the information is stored digitally in a permanent memory, he says, so even after the event, the information about whether a temperature threshold has been exceeded is available for retrieval. Such retrieval will either be by a contact-based method (similar to today’s disposable 6-day temperature sensors) or in later versions, wirelessly. “Thinfilm and [ US packaging and thin films provider ] Bemis, our strategic partner in advanced packaging, have committed to bringing to market a sensor tag by the end of 2014,” he said.
Ongoing steady improvements with the technology of printed electronics mean that it is now ready for the market, says Sutija. Components such as sensors and displays have been available before, he says, but now Thinfilm and its partners have developed the heart of “an extensible printed system”, which includes both printed logic and rewritable memory. Crucially, TFT says its labels will cost “dimes rather than dollars”, making it available to all products, not just high end ones.
When it comes to indicating the freshness of food, a more powerful system than a simple timer-based label is one that makes a direct measurement of a property such as acidity. A crucial enabling technology in this respect is analogue-to-digital converters (ADCs) that can be printed onto plastic. Late February saw the announcement of a plastic ADC from researchers at Eindhoven University of Technology, Universitá di Catania, CEA-Liten and STMicroelectronics. It is a development that “brings plastic sensor circuits costing less than one euro cent within reach”, according to a spokesperson.
Smart labels are also seen as a promising weapon in the battle against counterfeiting. In March, Thin Film announced the receipt of its first order for the use of its technology in brand protection (see image, above). The order came from a global consumer packaged goods company.
By using memory based on printed electronics, you can produce an electronic signature that is virtually impossible to replicate, and one that can be deliberately and predictably modified to create a signature unique to a product line or manufacturer. The TFE memory labels can apparently be applied to any product in the same way as a conventional label.
Security-enabling smart labels are also being developed by Cambridge based PragmatIC working with security printer and papermaker De La Rue. PragmatIC has previously demonstrated LEDs that can be integrated within plastic, as with an interactive beer bottle that lights up when you hold it, developed while working with Innovia Films, and announced in 2011.
A recent report by research group IDTechEx – “Smart Packaging Comes To Market: Brand Enhancement with Electronics 2013-2023” (www.IDTechEx.com/smart) posits a market of $75 million in 2013, which includes electrical and electronic smart packaging but excludes chemical smart packaging and RFID. It will be another 5 years before the market reaches sales of $200 million, but will then grow to $1.45 billion by 2023. A February article in Printed Electronics World also raised the issue of volume manufacturing – even if a CPG company likes a concept, it might be another matter to get it ready for volume production. To afford the cost of e-packaging, suppliers are tending to look at high value products and special promotional items.
However, some have been able to produce simple and inexpensive systems. And in the food and beverage arena, companies like Insignia and TFT are now making the sort of claims that justify the apparent interest from CPG companies.
Images – Top, A label from Insignia Technologies tells you how long food packaging has been open, and can be incorporated in plastic film. Above, Thin Film Technologies has received orders for its anti-counterfeiting smart labels from a global consumer packaged goods company.