Packaging has many uses. It can identify products, preserve freshness, prevent theft and more. But for all the improvements in packaging technology over the years, it has never really been updated for the digital age — until now.
Smart packaging — a new innovation that marries traditional packaging with modern, Internet-enabled technology — is already making its way to store shelves, and it offers unique value for brands and consumers alike.
Packaging that Talks
Here’s how it might work. Picture a wine enthusiast who’s considering buying a bottle of wine at a retail store. It’s a good vintage, but it’s expensive and she wants to be sure it’s the genuine article, not a counterfeit copy. So she taps her mobile phone against the bottle and the display instantly informs her that the label is indeed genuine and the seal has never been broken.
Verifying product authenticity is just one example of how smart packaging can help drive sales and customer engagement. Our hypothetical prospective customer could just as easily have received information about the wine’s pedigree, food pairings, sales promotions and more – all with a tap of her phone.
A smart package’s uses don’t have to end at the point-of-sale. Once the wine bottle is opened, for example, additional taps of a phone might reveal how long it has been since the cork was pulled or provide guidance on how to buy the product online or at a nearby store.
Brands can benefit, too. Since each individual smart package can be identified via its own unique code, marketers can potentially track who, when and where a specific product was purchased and even when the buyer opened the package, gaining invaluable insight into customer behavior.
In effect, smart packaging connects the physical and digital worlds, transforming packaged goods into members of the so-called Internet of Things (IoT) — a growing megatrend that augments mundane objects with electronics and sensors to enable data analytics and increase automation.
The Printable Electronics Advantage
What makes all of this possible at the level of scale required by the IoT are the latest developments in printed electronics. Unlike the rigid, printed circuit boards of years past, today’s technology makes it possible to print electronics onto hair-thin substrates using inks containing conductive, organic compounds. The results are highly flexible, both in terms of their bendability and in their applications.
In 2011, Thinfilm introduced the world’s first printed, rewritable memory and has since launched printed NFC (near-field communication) products. Now the company is helping lead the charge to apply these innovations to commercial packaging.
The company’s latest product, NFC OpenSense, can enable everything described in the hypothetical wine bottle scenario and more. The product authentication capabilities of OpenSense are a key advantage, particularly in industries where fake products and knockoffs are rife. For example, although exact estimates are tricky, it is thought that as much as 50-70 percent of all wine sold in China is counterfeit, particularly among bottles with high-end labels.
OpenSense works by combining printed electronics technology with near-field communications, a wireless protocol that’s used to exchange data between devices such as smartphones, printers and cameras. NFC uses very little power. In fact, the OpenSense tags require no power source of their own, being activated entirely by the electromagnetic field emitted by a smartphone or reader.
Today, however, not every mobile device is NFC-enabled. While high-end smartphones from many vendors have come equipped with NFC for several years, Apple — the market leader in the United States and China — didn’t offer the technology until the release of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus.
But the low cost of NFC circuitry — combined with the fact that Apple is using it to enable its homegrown electronic payment system — suggest that adoption of NFC across the mobile device industry will only continue to increase. It’s also interesting to note that Apple recently joined the NFC Forum and has a seat on the group’s board. Already, even low-end handsets are shipping with NFC circuitry included, particularly from Asian vendors.
OpenSense itself is similarly inexpensive, particularly as it relates to technology using traditional silicon-based electronics. In fact, driving down cost was a key concern for Thinfilm during the development of the product. Printed electronics technology allows OpenSense labels to be produced using ultra-high volume manufacturing techniques, which offer significant scale and cost benefits over competing technologies.
High-volume production capabilities and relative low cost, combined with built-in intelligence, makes smart packaging based on printed electronics an attractive option for any business that wants to transform its packaging from a passive necessity into an active, connected media channel that drives both data analytics and customer engagement.