Smart Packaging or: the smart packaging of today and tomorrow
Smart packaging connects the physical with the digital world. Depending on the type, modern smart packaging brings itself and the products or the latter, the manufacturers, retailers and consumers significantly closer together – interacting and/or communicating with them. These somewhat different “conversations” are already taking place in various ways, and there will be even more ways and means in the future. We venture to take a brief inventory.
What is Smart Packaging?
The term smart packaging refers to packaging with enhanced functions. Generally, two types are distinguished:
– active packaging
– intelligent packaging
So-called active packaging interacts with the contents. This interaction improves the quality and shelf life of the contents during storage. It can take place in two ways
– certain substances are released to the product
– specific substances are extracted from the product or its immediate environment.
Active packaging can be realized, for example, by light-filtering or moisture-regulating materials, antimicrobial surface coatings or the introduction of ethylene and oxygen absorbers. Here, the selected active component can be integrated directly into the packaging or added separately instead in the form of appropriate inserts.
Two practical examples:
– Typically, plastic beer bottles contain an oxygen absorber in the screw cap. By vehemently preventing oxygen from penetrating the inside of the bottle, the agent extends the shelf life of the beer from three to six months.
– Film packaging of food products is often provided with ethylene absorbers. Such active packaging absorbs the ripening hormone ethylene during storage, which in turn has a positive effect on the shelf life of the food.
Intelligent packaging does not only serve to provide safe accommodation for the respective contents, but also has (at least) one additional benefit. Commonly, it is the special communication with the outside world that makes such packaging “intelligent”. Here are a few examples of what the additional benefit can look like in concrete terms:
– Diagnostic and indicator functions: By means of integrated sensors or sensors placed separately inside or on the outside, the smart packaging monitors the condition of the contents and provides important information, for example, about tightness, temperature, storage time or freshness. For example, a change in the color of the packaging can alert the retailer or consumer to a lack of tightness or an interruption in the cold chain.
– Automation and protection features: Smart medication packaging with built-in RFID chips, tiny speakers and LEDs register the removal of pills and sound the alarm in case of misuse or even automatically inform the attending physician. Packaging equipped with NFC chips enables the medication to be reordered or the package insert to be read aloud, for example, by means of a suitable NFC reader (smartphone).
– Information and marketing functions: So-called Extendend Packaging gives consumers with smartphones the opportunity to obtain additional information about the product, for example on the ingredients, production conditions or origin, by scanning barcodes or RFID chips via an app on the Internet. Packaging with augmented reality elements also falls into this area. For example, by photographing or filming the packaging, recipe ideas, operating instructions and so on appear on the smartphone screen.
The development of smart packaging
Logistics is considered a pioneer in the field of smart packaging. Seamless tracking of the transport route in real time has long since been standardized. Viewed comprehensively, smart packaging is still in its infancy, but it holds enormous potential for the future, as the above examples suggest.
There is certainly no shortage of ideas and options for smart packaging. Rather, there are two organizational problems for which optimal solutions still need to be found:
– high manufacturing costs
– difficult recycling of the packaging
Note on the second aspect: if the packaging is “decorated” with technical materials, the consumer cannot simply dispose of the entire box in the waste paper container; after all, the technical parts belong in hazardous waste. This complication is not in the interests of the environment or the consumer, who is generally positive about smart packaging because the need for comprehensive information is constantly increasing. But he also attaches great importance to simplicity and the associated convenience…
Conclusion and outlook: Smart Packaging as a Building Block on the Way to Industry 4.0
As things currently stand, smart packaging can be seen as an extremely exciting building block for the packaging industry on the way to the increasingly frequently cited Industry 4.0. Already today, smart packaging “communicates” with the manufacturer, retailer and – most importantly – the consumer. This communication will continue to increase in the near and distant future – and thus the real world will increasingly merge with the digital world in the area of packaging as well.
The fact is that smart packaging opens up almost unlimited opportunities for individually oriented online retailers to interact with their customers and retain them in the long term.