Pack to the future: next-gen packaging materials

28 February 2012 (Last Updated February 28th, 2012 18:30)

Are 4D materials, talking papers, power-charging and self-cooling boxes the next generation of packaging? Elisabeth Fischer takes a look into R&D labs of today's leading companies and scientists to find out how we could package the products of tomorrow.

Pack to the future: next-gen packaging materials

Advanced technology for extended shelf lives and fresher looking products, moisture-proof boxes, UV penetration, bio-degradable packaging and tiny, integrated counterfeit technologies. Packages of today already offer so much more than consumers and manufacturers could have ever imagined some fifteen or so years ago.

Driven by changing laws and regulations, the globalisation of know-how and technology, as well as increasing competitiveness, the industry has evolved to a dynamic and fast sector with new technologies being released onto the market at an ever faster pace.

There is no doubt that futuristic technologies such as three-dimensional holograms, 4D wrapping and talking boxes are already available today.

Even though the industry has so far shied away from investing more time and money in adopting these futuristic ideas, a number of exciting projects are underway.

The revolution of printed electronics

"The paper is printed with conductive inks, which transmits information to a micro-computer that contains audio files when applied with pressure."

All science fictional packaging visions aside, a large majority of research today goes into the area of printed electronics. While RFID and barcodes are already well-established in food and pharma packaging to fight counterfeit products, new technologies such as near field communication (NFC) tags and laser surface authentication are just about to hit the market.

Another up and coming idea is to provide energy from printed batteries or solar cells in the packaging. Being the key to animated images or advertising jingles, they could also be used to keep food cool.

Even though the technology is by no means ready to be commercialised, first steps have already been made, Going under the slogan 'Converting light to electricity - anywhere', US-headquartered photovoltaic (PV) company Konarka has introduced solar cells that one day could also be used for packaging.

By using a wider spectrum of visible and invisible light sources to create power, the plastic could be manufactured thin enough to be printed or coated onto flexible substrates. Produced from semi-conducting polymers and nano-engineered material, it could then be pressed between printed electrodes, the substrate and the packaging material to reach a final thickness of only 50µm-250µm. It then absorbs photons to trigger the discharge of electrons to create electricity.

While the plastic is currently mainly used for building-integrated photovoltaic in architecture, the company admits it might expand into the packaging sector to further scoop the technology's potential in the future, according to Konarka vice president of sales, marketing and business development.

Talking packaging: tech to shout about

The idea of a package that talks and interacts with consumers seems very far-fetched. But already in 2007, scientists at the Mid Sweden University introduced a talking paper, predicting that within some years it could be used for a wide range of packaging applications.

The key to the technology is a layer of digital paper that is embedded with electronics, squeezed in between a thick cardboard sheet and another sheet printed with product information. The paper is printed with conductive inks, which transmits information to a micro-computer that contains recorded audio files when applied with pressure. Printed speakers, which are formed from more layers of conductive inks and sit over an empty cavity to form a diaphragm, then play back the sounds.

However, five years on and the technology is still in its infancy, as Mid Sweden University research coordinator Mikael Gulliksson explained: "In the last few years we've tried to miniaturise the technology but it's still not usable for commercial packaging. It's still too bulky and too expensive to be applied in packaging."

The packaging industry itself seems to be one step ahead of the scientists. At the international packaging fair Interpack 2011, German manufacturer Wipak introduced a talking package, the SelfTalk. Instead of touch sensors, the pack uses a pen-shaped reader to retrieve and replay audio information that is stored in a printed 2D code on top of images and texts. Only by using a special varnish and without the use of RFID or microchips, the sound reacts to the pen and plays the sounds.

Even though it is still a prototype, Wipak Waldsrode director pack design Adolf Ahrens is convinced that "this system breaks absolutely new ground for manufacturers and retailers to address their customers, supporting the demographic change and the related challenges to retailers and food producers."

Apple leads the way

As with consumer electronics and computers, Apple has always been a pioneer in packaging its products. As brand consultancy Interbrand Cincinnati executive director Scott Lucas put it, the company's packaging supports everything the brand stands for, representing everything the brand is trying to be.

"Being the key to animated images or advertising jingles, printed batteries or solar cells could also be used to keep food cool."

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the company could soon go a step further and introduce a package that delivers real functionality to its products. With a 40-page patent filing in January 2008, Apple secured the rights to an 'active packaging' that can plug its media devices into an integrated power source to enable it to display videos or receive firmware updates while waiting to be purchased.

In the filing Apple writes that the ability to fully view or interact with the products is "severely limited in most packaging designs". To solve the problem, the package would provide power and data to the products either via external power supply or by one or more electronic wireless devices.

Data signals may also be provided via an integrated wireless network interface, showing adverts or media content. In addition, Apple suggests that the backings of the packaging could be printed with wire traces to supply power and data to the device through the hooks or clasps that hold the device onto the backing.

The technology giant currently does not comment on its future product developments, which includes the development of an active packaging, but it is definitely worth keeping an eye out for this technology to be released in the future.

4D packaging: a new dimension for brands

Positively influencing customer behaviour is the ultimate branding goal, with packaging playing a major role. If buyers want to touch a packaging again and again, the true merit of a package design is realised. This is the main idea behind 4D packaging, which is heralded by its creators as a new paradigm for printed packaging.

One of the technology's advocates is the company Eastwood Harvey, the creator of think4D, a print technology that claims to take packaging to the fourth dimension.

By creating a material that provides texture mapped to colour, it transforms "a commodity product into a point of differentiation". The material, which is patent-secured until 2025, connects with customers on a sensory and emotional level by using 3D printing, tactile inks, sensory elements, as well as metallic and holographic effects, the company said.

Eastwood Harvey president and CEO Harvey Kalef explained: "think4D technology is a bold new page in print's ability to communicate ideas. We believe think4D holds great potential for the packaging and print industries, and many of its customers." Even though the company is currently specialised in luxury packaging for high-end products it could see itself going into retail, pharmaceuticals, toys, homeware appliances, technology and custom packaging.

Real future for futuristic ideas?

"As with consumer electronics and computers, Apple has always been a pioneer in packaging its products."

However, when looking at these high-tech materials, the real question to be asked is whether there is a real need for them or if they are simply the shenanigans of a few tech-savvy scientists and developers.

According to Mikael Gulliksson, futuristic ideas such as the talking paper are probably suitable only for the high-end market, at least in the short term.

"One of our projects at Mid Sweden University is to bring light into packaging, using the coating as a light carrier. This is completely targeted on high-end markets, including all adjustments and add-ons. With these technologies we're still trying to get the low-hanging fruits in the packaging arena," he explains.

Most of the technology is still too expensive, too bulky and too complicated to be applied for everyday packaging. In the case of the new Apple packaging, the energy factor plays also a crucial role, with Apple losing out on its core goal of sustainability in all its products.

Treehugger suggested in July 2009 that the idea of integrating electronics into the packaging via magnetic induction, such as suggested by Apple, would use enormous amounts of power. Moreover, the disposal of the packaging could become complicated because of its integrated electronics.

In the end, current packaging designs are currently trending against these futuristic high-tech visions, as Interbrand's Scott Lucas put it: "A big trend that we're seeing is the idea of simplification. Less information, less imagery, less claims in the sense that a package can be more successful with less." How these futuristic technologies fit into this trend will only tell in the future.