What is Smart Packaging?

Smart Packaging links the physical world with the digital world: Smart packaging forms a perfect “digital bridge function” between manufacturers, retailers, consumers and social media channels. What is still often used to protect, and label goods today will increasingly receive new functions in the future thanks to digital technologies. Packaging becomes more individual, personal and communicative.

What exactly is Smart Packaging?

In principle, “Smart Packaging” describes packaging with extended functions. There are usually two types of smart packaging – active packaging and intelligent packaging:

  1. Active Packaging

Active packaging is packaging that interacts with the contents and thus improves the shelf life or quality of the contents during storage. Either certain substances are released into the medium or certain substances are removed from the medium or its immediate surroundings. This is achieved by using light filtering materials, oxygen and ethylene absorbers, antimicrobial surface coatings or moisture-regulating materials. The active component can be integrated into the packaging or added separately in the form of inserts. A typical example is beer in a plastic bottle, which contains an oxygen absorber in the screw cap. This extends the shelf life from three to six months.  Another example is film packaging with ethylene absorbers. The ripening hormone ethylene is absorbed during the storage of the food and thus ensures a longer shelf life.

  1. Intelligent Packaging

Intelligent packaging is packaging that offers an additional benefit that goes beyond the mere packaging task. The “intelligence” of packaging essentially results from “communication” with the outside world. The additional benefit can include diagnostic and indicator functions that use indicators or sensors to monitor the condition of the product and provide information on e.g. tightness, storage time, temperature or freshness. Alternatively, the indicators or sensors can be integrated in the packaging, placed on the outside or inside the packaging. Thanks to this integrated freshness and/or time/temperature indicators, retailers and consumers can see whether a critical limit value has been exceeded. For example, a colour change in the packaging indicates an interruption in the cold chain, a leaky packaging or an unwanted proliferation of salmonella.

In addition, intelligent packaging also fulfills information, automation, marketing or protective functions, e.g. through barcodes, LEDs, augmented reality, NFC, loudspeakers, radio chips or displays. One example is intelligent drug packaging with built-in RFID chips, LEDs that register the removal of pills and sound an alarm if they are taken incorrectly or even inform the doctor treating the patient. The same applies to packaging with NFC chips, which, using an NFC reader (e.g. smartphone), make it possible to read out the package insert and re-order the medication. Extended packaging offers smartphone users additional product information on origin, production conditions or ingredients. By scanning barcodes or RFID chips, the information can be called up in conjunction with a suitable app on the internet. Packaging equipped with augmented reality elements goes one step further. This often refers to visualisations that virtually supplement real images on a smartphone or tablet. The application possibilities are manifold. Virtual tours, competitions, virtual theme worlds or operating instructions that appear on the packaging when photographing or filming a product have already been realised.

Smart Packaging is a growth market

Smart Packaging is still at the infancy of its development, but its potential is immense. Although the technology for smart packaging is already available in many areas, its mass application has so not yet been realised. However, this will change. Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Modular Solid-state Technologies (EMFT), for example, are currently working on a several highly efficient production process that develops sensory labels consisting of flexible silicon chips and modern films, in which both elements are brought together by a rational roll-to-roll process. Regulatory bodies please take not of the upcoming changes which will soon be flooding all markets, particularly the Pharmaceutical, Healthcare sectors which are ripe for innovation, digitization.

Smart Packaging from the consumer’s point of view

The development of innovations in the field of smart packaging will in the future open up a wide range of opportunities to reach consumers and understand their needs. Experts agree in principle that the consumer’s need for information will continue to increase and that “communicating” packaging will be well received by consumers. This is also confirmed by the Mindshare study “Everyday Connects”: The willingness to use smart packaging is very high – but under the premise of simple and fast interaction. Smartphones are the best way to do this, but ideally without installing an App in advance.

Conclusion: Smart Packaging is a means to an end

The use of smart packaging should not be primarily oriented towards trends and image cultivation but should focus on the benefits for the stakeholders, consumer or patients. The added value which innovative packaging solutions can bring to the marketplace is immense in terms of supply chain management, track, and trace, authentication, patient engagement, compliance. Smart packaging represents a powerful medium that will in time transcend and improve the quality of all of our lives for the better.

This article written is written by Graham Howieson a healthcare, packaging, digital product development expert and currently Head of Innovation and Digital @ Origin Pharma Packaging: www.originltd.com/packaging-design/digital-packaging/