Tetra Pak’s motto is “protect what’s good”, and its vision for connected packaging extends that sentiment beyond its usual remit of food and drink production and packaging. It wants to encompass the full product lifecycle from farming through to consumption and on to recycling in a circular economy model that saves money, time and space and protects the environment.

According to the company, future food containers could communicate with their surroundings using sensors that detect temperature, weight and freshness throughout the entire value chain. For example, if something went wrong with a refrigerated lorry door during transport and some packages were damaged by heat and sunlight, the distributor would need only destroy the minimum number directly affected.

Automatic payments, connected appliances, and smart packaging

When the product reaches a retailer, Amazon Go stores have already demonstrated how automatic payment could work, enabling you to walk out with your goods without queuing for a checkout, saving the retailer shop floor space and you time. The smart, connected appliances under development would bring this same level of innovation to the home; when a customer gets a dinner item out of the fridge, it will tell them how many they have left, and automatically re-order when running low.

The packaging will tell the oven or microwave oven how to cook it without intervention, and when a product is near expiry date, it will flag up to use it and even suggest a recipe using other items in the fridge. After use, the packaging will tell the consumer how to recycle it and at the recycling facility, it will automatically open the door to the appropriate bin.

This may be some way in the future, but Tetra Pak VP for industry 4.0 and digital services Johan Nilsson said during his Hannover Messe keynote that the enabling technologies already exist.

“We share a lot of big dreams,” he said. “We have a philosophy that we must start small because we must do something in practice now.”

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RFID technology could transform food manufacturing supply chains

Already in practice is digital printing technology, which is enabling every individual item in a product line to be issued a unique ID and become an ‘intelligent’ element of the supply chain.

“If our customer uses it for marketing schemes, or if we use it for a recycling incentive, we want to make sure one person doesn’t scan the pack many times because that kind of cheating will always go on,” he says.

Nilsson goes on to say that while printable radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags have brought down the cost, they are still too expensive to put on a single package, but they could be used on a distribution tray or a shrink wrap or a pallet for multiple items.

“For consumers, the big difference with RFID technology is that it is active,” says Nilsson. “A QR code requires someone to take up the phone to scan it, and in our experience much less than half of consumers that will actually do that, even if you can drive it up with different incentives. But an RFID tag you can just drive it by something and it communicates.”

Nilsson believes that RFID tags will play a big role in how food manufacturers manage supply chains. As part of the quality check process, companies carry out incubation of packages, keeping a store of a product to make sure that the packs are effective.

“That is why many food companies have huge warehouses,” he says. “If you then tenfold your stock keeping units (SKUs), you can’t tenfold that warehouse. But by always knowing where a tray and a pallet is, you have that warehouse moving instead of standing still. If there’s a problem with one, which happens very seldom, then you know exactly where it is and you can find that one immediately.”

The cost and complications of introducing smart manufacturing

Nilsson estimates the cost needs to go down to 10% of what it is today to be more widely used, which will come with improved manufacturing technology and greater volume. Printed RFIDs are also more sustainable because they contain the very minimum amount of metal in the antenna.

Another big driver for Tetra Pak is attaining through-connect for packages to incentivise recycling; its customers want to be recognised as having green credentials. Nilsson offers the example of Cabify, the Spanish Uber, as a problem and a solution model from Turkey.

“When you take a ride with Cabify, you get a small package of water to refresh yourself,” he says. “People leave all those packages in the car and then that becomes litter because the driver dumps them somewhere. Think if you could have a system where if you return your package back and you could identify that it’s actually me returning it, I could get some points towards another trip later.

“In the Istanbul Metro system, if you deposit your plastic bottle you get points for the Metro to incentivise people to return it. This whole thing of driving up recycling for the circular economy and so on is very useful for the brand owner; it has a value for them which is why they are willing to pay for it.”

Smart manufacturing could, however, initially make production much more complex when introduced; an increase in product variety will mean the number of SKUs a factory will produce will multiply.

“It may go from 100 to a thousand or ten thousand, we do not know,” says Nilsson. “Do we fully believe in this unit of one and that all of us will order a completely unique product? Maybe not, that will take a bit longer.

“I read there are 5,000 people in Sweden alone who have a chip inserted into their bodies. Will that tell you that you need a product that is configured slightly differently? If there are five variants of a product now, in the future there will be 50 to fit a bit better to these needs. When that happens, manufacturing will get a little bit more complicated to produce this increased variety in the same factories. These factories need to be much faster and we intend to contribute to that.”