Although in its infancy, smart packaging is already saving lives, preventing sickness, reinvigorating brands, and reducing costs, errors and crime. It can be electronic, electrical, mechanical or chemical. Electronic and chemical smart packages are the most important and will remain so, with electronic smart packaging growing fastest.

Smart packaging can involve primary, secondary or tertiary packaging. Examples include primary packaging that automatically lets the bad gases out to preserve meat, secondary packaging that is radio tagged for automated traceability and data capture, and tertiary packaging, radio tagged as an automated tamper alert.

Smart packaging can make a product perform more than one function, such as the new Harpic PowerJet disinfectant container from Reckitt Benkiser (2003) that can also blast away a sink blockage. Another example is the Clear-vu magnetically locked DVD cases in Blockbuster in the USA that prevent the anti-theft tag within from being removed, not just the DVD. Well-applied multiple smarts increase the benefits. Two and two really can equal five.

Monitoring behaviour

Smart packaging may greatly enhance a product, for example, the blister pack that records when each tablet is removed. Cypak of Sweden, Bang & Olufsen Medicom of Denmark, Information Mediary of Canada and, DDMS of the USA can demonstrate this. This advancement will improve the integrity of drug trials and become more generally useful as costs reduce.

Packaging is available that indicates if certain pathogens are present, even specific bacteria and, experimentally, viruses. Other packaging only lets certain gases in or out, thus preserving food.

There are many applications for speech and even voice recording packages. Gift packs record your voice and play it back to the recipient. In the USA, some pharmacies 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, thanks to ScripTalk of EnvisionAmerica.

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However, many pharmacies are too busy to do this, so, in September 2003, the Scottish universities of Strathclyde and Dundee unveiled a Tele-eye that can see the instructions on the packaging of medicines, food etc and read them out.

Eventually, we will have large numbers of packages that call out their details when you simply touch them or display large, clear, even self-lit, moving colour images. The UK National Institute for the Blind estimates that a massive 20 per cent of the UK population is sight impaired.

Anti-theft and RFID

Radio tags consist of the primitive electronic article surveillance (EAS) anti-theft tag that sets off an alarm to radio frequency identification (RFID) tags that send back an identification code and sometimes more. Most of the six billion anti-theft tags sold every year are in packages – they reduce theft by up to 80 per cent. Checkpoint and Tyco ADT (Sensormatic) are the leaders in this area. EAS antitheft tags and RFID tags in packages can even increase sales in many ways.

The supply chain

RFID is increasingly used in the supply chain, starting with vehicles and conveyances such as pallets, totes and crates, but progressing to multipacks, expensive packaged goods and finally, one day, everything on supermarket shelves, replacing bar codes with something more reliable and versatile.

The Auto ID Centres in the USA, UK, Japan, Australia and China have been set up by 105 sponsors to promote use of a new EPC numbering system and method of using the internet to interrogate vast numbers of tags with unique identification numbers. This provides more detailed information than bar codes and it is automated. Bar codes too often involve unreliable readers with moving parts and unreliable people on the end of them.

Service improvements

It is believed that supply chain parameters from stocks to time-to-market, and integrity of recalls, can be improved by a factor of ten, saving industry and consumers hundreds of billions of dollars annually and improving safety, quality of service and much more besides.

AT Kearney finds that supply chain information inefficiencies alone cost $40bn every year worldwide, or 3.5 per cent of total sales in certain consumer packaged goods (CPG). The US Food and Drug Administration estimates that up to 20 per cent of perishable goods have expired by the time they arrive with retailers.

The Efficient Consumer Response (ECR) initiative of major CPG suppliers estimates that 1.5-2 per cent of sales are lost from shrinkage worldwide. This term encompasses theft by staff, consumers and others, misplacement and damage before sale, all prime targets for today’s RFID programmes. That translates into $60bn annually worldwide.

Healthcare everywhere

RFID in packaging will help in the developing world as well, where 32 million children under the age of five die every year of food-related illness according to the World Health Organization. Low-cost packaging with simple indications of danger, and low-cost RFID tracking would greatly assist. Even the USA has 80 million food-borne infections a year, resulting in 5000 deaths. The direct cost to the US healthcare system is $6bn according to CDC Atlanta. There are even reports that the US figure is rising.

In packaging, RFID tags with sensors already monitor blood and vaccines in transit, saving costs and lives. RFID can also help with counterfeiting. At the moment 15 per cent of perfume worldwide is counterfeit, 10 per cent of car and aircraft parts and 6-10 per cent of pharmaceuticals, with a figure of 30 per cent for pharmaceuticals in the third world.

Several major companies, including Electrolux in Germany, are developing smart refrigerators and freezers. They will help commercial restaurants to save money and reduce errors. They will also monitor the RFID tags in the packs to make sure they are used before expiry and never run out. Proponents believe that the payback on commercial smart fridges and freezers will be rapid, though the case for the equivalent in the home is less clear.

Drug packs will no longer have micro-printed instructions inside them that few people, least of all the elderly, can read. Statistics demonstrate that we usually take more pills in the last year of our lives than in all the preceding years put together. The proportion of the population made up of dependent elderly is increasing in most nations. The outside of medicines will scroll a moving colour image in a large font, providing an unprecedented amount of information.

Testers and tear-offs

Billions of battery testers in the primary or secondary packaging of batteries have increased sales and permitted premium pricing. Tear-offs from packaging will soon be really valuable, including sophisticated video games, libraries of books on something the size of a postage stamp, colour changing wristwatches, even disposable paper mobile phones are under development. The possibilities are vast, and progress is accelerating.

Dramatic new smart packaging technologies will soon be available. They include disposable moving colour displays that glow. These are called organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs), and they have already appeared in 2003 on mobile phone displays, as have transparent laminar loudspeakers from NXT that give a superb quality of sound. Both are deposited on glass, but the race is on to deposit them on common packaging materials at a cost where they can be disposable.

Printed transistor circuits called thin film transistor circuits (TFTCs) are being developed by 30 companies that can be deposited on paper or low-grade plastic film. They will be safe enough to be eaten, like the 2¢ paper batteries that are already appearing in paper calculators in writing books, timers on hair dye and sensing RFID smart labels.

Paper is the toughest challenge because it is so uneven, but Infineon in Germany and ACREO, a Swedish consortium of TetraPak, Stora Enso and others have already demonstrated basic capabilities. Origami electronics will allow the smart package to be reconfigured after use to become something useful or amusing.

Big opportunities that will arise in packaging, such as the self adjusting sell-by-date that senses when you opened something and how long you let it warm up, speaks clearly to you, and flashes if you are in danger. Indeed, Arla Foods has been developing a milk car ton that says in a deep voice ‘Put me back in the fridge’ if you leave it out too long. This is something of an interim product, but it shows how large companies are seeking to bring a much higher level of safety and ease of use to their consumers.

Environmental gains

If the pack is not thrown away because it is an electronic dispenser for the product or is as valuable as a proximity alarm or solar powered garden light, it means the consumer retains the brand. This sort of thing is best done with related products – for example, the package for school pens is a calculator. Brand managers will increasingly make the package a part of the product, not with the tired old disciplines of colour and shape, but by showing that the food is safe, is cooked and so on. Packs will entertain and inform in dramatic new ways and eventually even the moving television advertisement or an instruction video will move to the outside of a throwaway package.

Those not keeping up with the subject of smart packaging imperil their business. Their products will quickly become outdated. They will be commoditised when they could be premium priced. Others will provide great social services. Too late, they may become aware of new laws making certain types of smart packaging mandatory for the benefit of mankind.


Dr Peter Harrop PhD, FIEE, FCIM, is chairman of IDTechEx Ltd. He was previously chief executive of Mars Electronics, a $260m electronics company, and chairman of Pinacl plc, a $100m fibre optic company, and chairman of Flying Null, a chipless tag company. He has written several RFID-related management reports for the Financial Times. He has carried out RFID consultancy for Kodak, GEC, Manchester Airport, Diageo and many others. He lectures and consults internationally on low-cost RFID.

Further information

IDTechEx provides independent analysis on the development and application of RFID, smart packaging and printed electronics. The company gives strictly independent marketing, technical and business advice on these subjects in three forms: consultancy, publications and conferences.