As the new era of 'smart' packaging is slowly, but relentlessly, ushered in, Dr Peter Harrop and Adele Willacy, IDTechEx, provide a timely guide to present realities and future possibilities

Smart packaging, like smart cards before it, uses the American meaning of smart, implying something new, clever and perhaps intelligent. There is no official definition but it certainly involves more than simple protective coatings with alphanumerics, graphics and barcodes.

The excitement revolves around responsive features, like tags that radio back an identity code, ‘active’ packaging that selectively lets gases in or out and packs that perform several valuable functions.

New science and clever use of old science: Smart packaging usually either uses new technologies or older technologies that have plummeted in cost so they are moving rapidly from academia to everyday use. It can be electrical, chemical, mechanical or electronic, and may involve primary, secondary or tertiary packaging.

Price sensitivity: This follows the usual rule of thumb used by packaging professionals. If it adds a dollar, worldwide demand is unlikely to exceed millions yearly. At 5 cents, a useful feature may achieve billions yearly and, sub 1 cent, hundreds of billions or more may be sold.

Electrical smart packaging: The battery tester on a battery’s primary or secondary packaging is an example of electrical smart packaging. Billions have been sold at a few cents each.

A more recent example is the new smart skin patch, which makes anti-blemish and anti-wrinkle ointment penetrate skin 16 times faster thanks to the bias from a disposable paper battery within. Indeed, the whole skin patch is cheap enough to be disposable.

Larger smart patches have even been submitted to the US Food and Drug Administration for approval for administration of hormones and the painkiller Lidocaine. In most cases, the smart patch is sold loaded with the medicine.

A very different form of electrical smart packaging is the electrical fly spray, which charges the droplets so they turn in the air like an exocet missile to track the insect, avoiding the need to saturate the room.

Instant chemistry

Chemical smart packaging: This includes diagnostic inks that reveal words or change colour to track acidity, humidity, temperature/time, light or oxygen ingress, pathogens, adequate sterilisation by gamma rays, ethylene oxide, heat, steam and so on, and limited re-use, for example, has it already been autoclaved four times?

It is even proving possible to detect specific bacteria and viruses using new responsive inks. This type of smart packaging also includes active packs that send gas inwards to preserve food.

Mechanical smart packaging: A good example of mechanical smart packaging is Reckitt Benkiser’s Harpic PowerJet disinfectant, launched in 2003, which will blast out a sink blockage. Another is the widget that foams beer from a can.

Electronic smart packaging: This is the hottest topic at present and the main focus of this article. A good example is the blister pack that records each tablet’s removal. Cypak of Sweden, B&O of Denmark, Information Mediary of Canada and, this year, DDMS of the US, can all demonstrate these. They improve the integrity of drug trials and become more generally useful as costs reduce. The need is certainly there. According to the US National Pharmaceutical Council, the US suffers 125 000 deaths annually from non-compliance with medication.

According to Newsweek, if an AIDS sufferer takes his tablets incorrectly only 5% of the time, they reduce their chance of suppressing the virus by 50%. However, compliance monitoring blisterpacks costs $15-30 today because they use conventional silicon chips and other components. As new printed electronics arrive, costs will tumble and capabilities increase. Timers, alarm clocks and the ability to talk out loud will all help these smart packs reduce non-compliance.

Visual impact

Helping the sight impaired: Thanks to ScripTalk of En-Vision America, some pharmacies in the US put a radio tag under the printed instructions on medication so the sight-impaired patient can hold a gadget nearby that speaks out all the details.

However, many pharmacies are too busy so, in September 2003, Strathclyde and Dundee Universities announced a ‘Tele-eye’ that can see the instructions on the packaging of medicines, food, etc. and read them out.

Error prevention and cost reduction in medicine: Error prevention, preferably with digitally recorded evidence that the correct procedure was followed, is a hot healthcare topic. Lawsuits must be defended and patient care improved.

According to the US Institute of Medicine, 44 000-98 000 deaths occur annually due to preventable medical errors, costing $17bn. Packaging will not help reduce the 1500 items wrongly left in patients by US surgeons but it is central to preventing blood and drug administration errors.

Thanks to AstraZeneca, about 30M radio-tagged syringes have been delivered over seven years, completely eliminating previous errors with anaesthetic doses. Because these tags do not employ a silicon chip, they only cost 15 cents each. Today 4.5M are used annually.

Radio tags: These range from the primitive Electronic Article Surveillance anti-theft tag that activates an alarm, to Radio Frequency Ident-ification tags, such as the AstraZeneca example, which send back an identification code. Most of the 6bn anti-theft tags sold annually are in packages and they reduce theft by up to 80%.

Sales may double in the next 5-10 years because the paybacks are better acknowledged and tag prices are dropping. Chinese companies are now quoting as little as 1.45 cents for some types of EAS tag and ‘source tagging’ is now usual.

Checkpoint and Tyco ADT (Sensormatic) are the leaders in EAS systems, having put over 1M ‘pedestal’ sensor alarms at shop and library exits.

EAS anti-theft tags and RFID tags in packs can even increase sales, if there are less ‘stockouts’. It took 50 years for 1bn basic (no battery) RFID tags to be sold but that figure is now being repeated in one year.

Definition of RFID: RFID is the use of radio frequencies to electronically read information on small tags with few problems of obscuration or orientation.

Indeed, with RFID you can read up to 1000 tags simultaneously, in contrast to barcodes, and they can be buried in packaging or product. Whereas EAS has just one use – theft reduction – RFID is an enabling technology successfully being applied in packaging for numerous purposes.

Packaging is the favoured location for radio tags because they could affect a product’s performance if attached and it is not feasible to tag a number of items such as food, drink and medicines. Moreover, consumers with privacy concerns can happily throw away the pack and thus the tag after purchase.

Transforming the supply chain: RFID is increasingly being used in the supply chain. Widespread tagging of multipacks and expensive packaged goods will occur in 2-3 years’ time when the tag price for billions of units reaches around 5 cents. We believe a sub 1 cent price is needed to replace most barcodes in supermarkets with something more reliable and versatile and that will probably not occur before 2015.

Replacing all barcodes and more: EPCglobal, owned by the barcode standards bodies UCC and EAN, is promoting a new ‘EPC’ numbering system and method of using the Internet to interrogate vast numbers of tags with unique identification numbers, unlike barcodes, which are generic. This provides more detailed information than barcodes and is automated.

It is believed that supply chain parameters from stocks, stockouts, to time to market and integrity of recalls can be improved 10-fold by RFID, saving industry and consumers hundreds of billions of dollars annually and improving safety, quality of service and more besides. However, the concept is equally applicable to archives, museums and postal services which handle a billion packages a year.

Supply chain out of control: A.T. Kearney finds that supply chain information efficiencies alone cost $40bn a year worldwide, or 3.5% of total sales in certain Consumer Packaged Goods, and the US Food and Drug Administration estimates that up to 20% of perishable goods have expired on arrival at the retailer.

The Efficient Consumer Response initiative of major CPG suppliers estimates that 1.5-2% of sales are lost through shrinkage worldwide. That translates to $60bn yearly worldwide that can be reduced!

Helping the developing world: RFID in packaging will help here too where, the World Health Organisation reports, 32M children under five die annually of food-related illness. Low cost packaging with simple indications of danger and low cost RFID tracking would greatly assist.

Reducing healthcare costs

Helping the advanced nations: Even the USA has 80M foodborne infections annually, resulting in 5000 deaths. The direct cost to its healthcare system is $6bn, according to CDC Atlanta, and there are reports this is rising now that 20% of US meals are taken in cars.

RFID tags with sensors already monitor blood, transplants and vaccines in transit, saving costs and lives.

Detering counterfeiting: Some 15% of perfume worldwide is counterfeit, 10% of car and aircraft parts and 6-10% of pharmaceuticals, with a figure of 30% of pharmaceuticals in the developing world. However, as mentioned earlier, anticounterfeiting is now central to smart packaging.

It is mentioned in this context because, with RFID, it can be an added bonus when the payback comes from something else such as cost reduction. That is not true of traditional anticounterfeiting features. Indeed, some RFID tags, installed for other reasons, will radio back to say they are being tampered with. RFID brings a new dimension to anticounterfeiting and antitampering.

Smart refrigerators and freezers: These are being developed by several major companies, including Electrolux, and will save commercial restaurants money and reduce errors by monitoring the RFID tags in the packs inside to ensure they are used before expiry and never run out. Proponents believe the payback on commercial smart fridges and freezers will be rapid, though the case for the domestic equivalent is less clear.

Tearoffs: Billions of battery testers in primary or secondary packaging have increased sales and permitted premium pricing. Tearoffs from packaging will soon be really valuable, including calculators (recently available inside writing books with no increase in cover thickness), video games and wristwatches – even disposable paper cellphones are under development.

Edible electronics

Printed transistor circuits: Versions called Thin Film Transistor Circuits are being developed by 30 companies. These circuits can be deposited on paper or low grade plastic film and are safe enough to eat. Paper is the toughest challenge due to its unevenness, but Infineon in Germany and ACREO, a Swedish consortium of TetraPak, Stora Enso and others, have already demonstrated basic capabilities.

Big opportunities will arise in packaging, for example the self-adjusting sell by date that senses when you opened something and how long you let it warm up and speaks clearly to you if in danger.

Indeed Arla Foods, European number two in dairy products, has developed a milk carton that says in a deep voice: “Put me back in the fridge!” if left out too long. While something of an interim product, this shows how large, serious companies are seeking to bring higher levels of safety and ease of use to consumers.

Much clearer human interfaces: Already some packs speak to announce prizes and Dow Chemical put the world’s first disposable moving colour display on Marks & Spencer’s Valentine cards in 2003. Packaging comes next. Increasingly, the disposable pack will, when necessary, flash, vibrate and talk loudly to you.

Packs may indicate when to take your pills and how many. Similar things may happen when a valuable package is stolen but with shrill alarms and flashing messages.

The package as part of the product: Brand managers will increasingly make the package a part of the product, not with the old disciplines of colour and shape but by showing the food is safe, cooked and so on.

Packs will entertain and inform in new ways and eventually even the moving television advertisement, training video or scrolled multilingual information on origin, use, contra-indications for drugs and so on will move to the outside of a throwaway package.

Ignore this at your peril: Those not keeping up with the subject of smart packaging imperil their business. Their products will quickly become outdated to the point of embarrassment. They will be commoditised when they could be premium priced. Others will provide great social services. The ignorant will be left behind.

Working at an item level

MeadWestvaco Intelligent Systems has developed an RFID tagging system for pharmaceutical and other products which it says “works at an item level” following collaboration with sister business MeadWestvaco Healthcare Packaging and US retailers like CVS.

Its solution, using EPC standard tags, tag readers and antennae, reportedly allows “unparalleled visibility” of goods through the supply chain. MWIS says it has been “evaluated and proven” in the US on pharmaceutical products and, in the past eight months, at UK Tesco stores at Sandhurst and Leicester on DVDs where it has “significantly improved product availability and stock control”. The technology also accords with the FDA Task Force’s RFID anti-counterfeiting technology recommendations.