If we are to believe Andrew Manly, communications director of the Active and Intelligent Packaging Industry Association (AIPIA), the large-scale adoption of smart packaging is only about 2 to to 2.5 years off. Technologies that have been around for a while are maturing and coming down in price while other breakthrough and low cost technologies are right around the corner. So what is currently available? What will soon be available? What are the general lines of the technologies that might shape the future of packaging?
If you look at the speakers and their subject matter for the upcoming AIPIA world congress to be held November 18th and 19th in the Netherlands, you could split the technologies up into 3 broad categories
Technologies that improve the manufacturers/distributors experience
These technologies, such as RFID or printed electronics help better control inventory by giving real time information on the number of products in any given location. They can also help wholesalers and distributors reduce waste by keeping tight control on inventory. Sort of like ‘’Just In Time’’ on Steroids.
RFID has already been rolled out in the apparel industry and has the added value of helping with security of the product in a retail environment. One issue that RFID has encountered so far though, is a lack of reliability in less than perfect conditions (where radio reception is not crystal clear). That reliability is improving though, and the price is continuing to go down.
It is hoped that companies in all industries will be able to accurately measure the ROI of the use of such a technology in order to justify its roll -out
Technologies improving the longevity of the product
Active packaging is getting smarter, with specialized packets that can control the humidity in fruit and vegetable packaging very precisely. Some can emit controlled levels of CO2 in Fish and Poultry packaging to extend the food’s shelf life. Another example: One group of researchers from Brunel University has devised a smart application that estimates the decay of meat in a packaging using a gelatine substance. Gelatine, being protein, can mimic the decay that the meat is going through and enable the proper evaluation of how fresh it is at any given moment. Yet other applications measure elapsed time, from packaging to opening of the packaging up until when you should be finished with the product after it has been opened.
Technologies improving the Customer experience
This might be the category of application that really makes smart packaging go mainstream.
So far there has mostly been experimentation within this category such as the use of RFID tags that connect to smart phones to give customers information for promotions. Heineken has done this.
Smart technology in this category can authenticate pharmaceuticals, wine or other products, communicating this information to the customer. It can also entertain. For example Kirin, a Japanese bottling company has devised a bottle that pulsates in different colours when wirelessly connected to a smart phone playing music. This product is expected to be commercialised within the next 6 months
Other more practical applications include pharmaceutical packaging that enables health professionals and patients to track their adherence to their prescriptions using their smart phone, through embedded electronics in the medication packaging.
So what category of use will push smart packaging momentum forward? Will it be the ‘’Wow’’ factor, something so cool that it ‘’goes viral’’ and becomes a strong selling point for the product? Or is more the ability of companies to risk applying a technology and then measure good ROI, which then spurs them forward into more applications?
With the upcoming congress in the Netherlands, which is putting emphasis on progressive minded companies sharing their experiences as they work through such applications, we might catch a glimpse of what will actually motor the future of smart packaging. Stay tuned.