Most people think of product packaging as the material you have to rip away from an item to get to the “good stuff”. It could be a cardboard box that holds a Barbie doll for a child or a thermoformed plastic container that protects your strawberries until you’re ready to eat them.
However, we have yet to realise the full depth and breadth of packaging options. Smart packaging — packaging that serves a purpose beyond protecting and containing a product — will benefit a number of industries such as pharma, food, FMCG and security. The integration of low cost printed sensors into packaging opens up a wide range of market opportunities to create products with added value and benefits for manufacturers, distributors and consumers alike.
Imagine a future where your food products let you know when you need to visit the supermarket to renew your supply and when your medication containers tell you when it’s time to take your next dose.
Smart packaging will allow doctors to monitor their patients’ intake of medication and usage of medical devices. Furthermore, businesses will be able to track stocking needs down to individual units and measure return on investment in real time. Additionally, smart packaging allows businesses to track, gather, and process this data in a non-intrusive way.
Brands can also benefit from smart packaging. When your packages don’t look like those of your competitors, your product stands out on retail store shelves and, therefore, commands more attention. Consumers learn to recognise your products on sight, which can lead to more recommendations and greater brand loyalty.
Here, we explore how packaging influences consumer behaviour and how advancements in this space will change how we interact with the products we love.
Businesses and researchers use several terms to identify potential applications for this area of commerce:
- Smart packaging: Any package that serves a purpose other than containment and protection.
- Active packaging: Packaging that actively improves the product or its potential use.
- Intelligent packaging: A packaging system that transmits or gathers data or information about the product.
Each of these terms essentially describe a packaging solution that goes beyond mere blister packs and eggshell cartons. It solves a problem or prevents a negative outcome in an innovative way.
Active packaging, for instance, might help with moisture control to preserve a product’s integrity and extend its shelf life. It could also monitor the product temperature or assist with product dispensation (such as liquid or gas).
Intelligent packaging often incorporates sensors that collect and transmit information about the product. They can enhance security by allowing manufacturers and supply chains to track products after a theft, or to provide measures against anti-counterfeiting but they can also help consumers better understand the product and interact with it safely.
Essentially, smart packaging is designed to improve every aspect of the relationships between the manufacturer, supply chain, retailer, and consumer. The more you know about the products you use or consume, the better value you can extract from them.
Businesses and researchers have only just begun to tap the myriad of applications for smart packaging. However, many different types of solutions are already in development. And it makes sense. According to a report by Raconteur, the packaging industry is worth more than £5.5 billion.
One of the broadest classes of smart packaging involves sensors — electronic devices that can detect or measure certain qualities of a product or of the people who use it. For example, a collaborative project between CPI, Crown Packaging, and students at Brunel University produced a concept for a sunscreen bottle that could detect the user’s skin type, recommend the appropriate SPF, and let the user know how long he or she could safely remain in the sun. The package even incorporated a timer to ensure that the consumer wouldn’t spend too much time in UV exposure.
CPI are leading a collaborative project titled ‘SCOPE’ which includes Unilever, Hasbro, Crown Packaging, and PragmatIC Printing amongst others. The project is creating a world class manufacturing supply chain that will enable the widespread adoption of packaging incorporating near-field communication (NFC) based technology and ultimately enabling the internet of things to become a reality.
NFC is an emerging technology which constitutes a sensor which is embedded or applied onto an object such as product packaging and then activated by interaction with an NFC reader or a smartphone. Data can be gathered and transferred between the two devices when held in close proximity. The production of NFC tags using printable electronics means that the tags are able to be produced in a high volume, low cost manner with conformable geometries. Printed NFC will be used for a host of applications such as providing product differentiation on FMCG, tracking or indicating the authenticity of a product in logistics, anti- tampering controls and it will also provide data management information.
CPI is aiming to develop new processes, equipment and applications to enable the high-volume manufacturing (billions or even trillions) of printed electronic components that incorporate NFC. The SCOPE project is providing a technology platform to develop new, innovative and novel functionalities and applications, alongside the building of specialist skills and capabilities. A key emphasis is to apply highly automated and high speed integration techniques to meet target costs of <1¢ per NFC tag.
While smart packaging has potential applications across all industries and sectors, the pharmaceutical and food and beverage industries are currently poised to benefit the most. It is within these industries that consumers and brands face the most dangers from improperly packaged goods, expired products, and improper use.
These are also industries where businesses lose considerable cash because of spoiled or expired products that must be disposed of. If a business can track a product throughout the supply chain, all the way to the consumer’s home, it becomes easier to anticipate inventory needs and to avoid wasteful manufacturing processes.
In terms of the food and beverage industry, consumers in the UK and beyond have become far more discerning about the products they will buy. Big business no longer dominates the market; smaller upstarts have gained significant market share and created a far more competitive landscape. All businesses are looking for ways to differentiate themselves from the competition.
How Can Smart Packaging Influence the Pharmaceutical Industry?
As smart packaging comes of age, the pharmaceutical industry will likely experience the most changes.
The game changer is that smart packaging brings a host of benefits in the area of medical compliance. Printed electronics, for instance, offer a wealth of possibilities for helping patients manage their medications. When you come down with the flu, a smart packaging solution could help you to manage your dosage schedule for optimum results and remind you to keep up with your medication. In many cases, smart packaging will communicate with technology in smartphones, tablets, and other Wi-Fi-enabled devices. Associated apps will help patients track their medicine usage so they can get the maximum benefit from each dose.
Smart packaging can improve patient outcomes and compliance by providing information and validation around anti-counterfeiting, product tampering and whether the drug is fit for consumption. The technology is also easily integrated with NFC, RFID and other wireless based applications providing the opportunity to optimise logistics operations and stock control within the product life cycle.
CPI is working in a project alongside GSK, AstraZeneca and the University of Cambridge’s Institute for Manufacturing to bring smart packaging technologies to market which have the potential to improve medicine manufacturing and supply, offer more personalised, faster and cheaper drug delivery and drive advances in product quality, affordability and volume flexibility. The project supports growth in inward investment by creating a supply chain ecosystem that will not only result in high value manufacturing jobs for the UK but also reduce the cost of new drug development and current levels of inventory.
Smart packaging solutions obviously offer compelling reasons to jump into the fray, but businesses and researchers have encountered a number of obstacles that can delay progress in this space.
Unless the figures add up then concepts will stay as concepts. The technology needs to reach industry standards in terms of supply chain efficiency and unit costs. There is no doubt that there is demand for intelligent packaging from the big brands, but the technology has yet to reach the viable price point of less than <¢ per unit that will enable true mass market adoption.
In the past, manufacturers have focused on creating the cheapest and easiest packaging solutions so they can inject as much capital as possible into product development. Smart packaging requires a different approach — developing packaging as part of the overall product rather than merely an afterthought, convenience, or necessity.
Disposal also presents a challenge. When most people finish a bottle of medication they discard the package or bottle because they no longer need it. However, sensors and other electronics have value, and disposing of electronics requires a sustainable and cost-effective solution. In many cases, the task of developing effective recycling programmes for these electronics will fall to regulatory officials.
CPI’s role as a technology innovation centre is to provide the infrastructure and support for companies to overcome these scale up challenges and help to translate ideas into manufactured products. In order to turn new innovative concepts into products, companies need to be aware of the “safety net” that technology innovation centre’s like CPI can provide for new product development in smart packaging. CPI has a track record of enabling clients to speed up time to market and reducing their overall development costs significantly. In the commercial world you can’t stop the production line to trial a new way of working or a technology, however at CPI it is possible to do that.
Smart packaging is going to add real value to the packaging industry in the near term. The key is to make sure that the technology is robust enough in terms of volume, speed and price to facilitate mass market adoption. That is what CPI is here to do, to help companies interested in smart packaging to reduce the risks and costs associated with new product development.