Packaging Matters

Smart Packaging: Intelligent Packaging Part I

Smart Packaging: Intelligent Packaging Part I


It’s been almost a decade since the word “smart packaging” began to appear on the specialized press, and yet, it still seems to be giving its first steps. There have been some hyperbolic forecasts about its market size ( $39.7 Billion by 2020 in 2014 and $26.7 Billion by 2024 in) that have been and for a time it looked like one of those packaging trends that never seem to take off.

But what exactly is smart packaging? A good definition could be:

” Smart packaging provides enhanced functionality that can be divided into two submarkets:  Active packaging, which provides functionality such as moisture control, and Intelligent packaging, which incorporates features that indicate status or communicate product changes and other information.”


Active Packaging is accurately defined as “packaging in which subsidiary constituents have been deliberately included in or on either the packaging material or the package headspace to enhance the performance of the package system” (Robertson, 2006).  This phrase emphasizes the importance of deliberately including a substance with the intention of enhancing the food product. Active packaging is an extension of the protection function of a package and is  commonly used to protect against oxygen and moisture.  Intelligent   packaging   can   be   defined   as   “packaging   that   contains   an   external   or   internal indicator to provide information about aspects of the history of the package and/or the quality of the food”  (Robertson,   2006).

Intelligent Packaging: Beyond the Data Matrix

Intelligent Packaging is   an   extension   of   the   communication   function   of traditional packaging, and communicates information to the consumer based on its ability to sense, detect, or record external or internal changes in the product’s environment.

Source: AWA Alexander Watson Associates

So to sum it up, it seem that Active Packaging is relate to the Protection function of packaging and Intelligent Packaging to the Communication function.

However this is a very limited vision, since Intelligent packaging is also related to brand protection or to the unique codes used in E-retailers warehouses and distribution (a glimpse of the future int he video below).


So in the first post I’m going total about Intelligent Packaging, mainly reviewing some recent innovations.

The first thing associated to smart packaging is usually to engage the customers by offering additional contents, such as product information, promotions, links to websites, videos… etc.

But among other important applications  are the ones related to:

  • Authentication/ Tracking /Brand protection /Anti-counterfeiting
  • Internet of Things  (for instance for product replenishment)

So let’s take a look to the different technologies that allow the mentioned features.

What is the Matrix? (Smart codes)


A Data Matrix Code is a two-dimensional (2D) code that consists of black and white modules, usually arranged in a square pattern. As more data is encoded in the symbol, the number of modules (rows and columns) increases. An entire Data Matrix symbol can store up to 2,335 alphanumeric characters.

QR  (Quick Response code is another type of 2D code that consists of black modules arranged in a square pattern on a white background. The information encoded can be made up of any kind of data such as binary or alphanumeric.

Consumers’ mobile and smart devices have become the aggregators and curators of their personal, social and professional lives. QR codes are used to help consumers make informed purchase decisions. Additionally, manufacturers can supply information on sourcing, nutritional values, dietary concerns.

Here’s an example form Amcor, that shows some of these:

Zego’s allergen-free protein bar as a good example of how QR codes can pass on value to the customer.

In the US, programs such as SmartLabel provide instant information about thousands of products is accessible via QR code and the web.

Data matrix code are also used for serialization. Serialization means that each individual package is assigned and marked with a standardized unique identifier that can be read and communicated across the supply chain.

Am example of proprietary smart codes is  HPLink, a digital watermark i from HP Inc. developed in partnership with Digimarc Corporation.

This technology uses identifiers embedded in visible and invisible marks that allow counterfeit deterrence, product diversion, document tracking, and other security services. These markerss are read with LinkReader, a free app available for iOS and Android.


(RFID) Radio frequency identification has been around for years.

It consists on encoding digital data (traditionally on an electronic chip), usually applied to a substrate to form a label (or tag), that’s affixed to a product, case, pallet or any other package. The information it contains may be read, rewritten and/or recorded. An antenna in the tag transmits the data to the RFID reader that converts the radio waves to a more usable form of data, and sends it to a computer.

RFID has several advantages over barcodes. The most notable is that RFID tag data can be read outside the line-of-sight, whereas barcodes must be aligned with an optical scanner.

An NFC enabled phone or tablet s can be used as a reader (but a separate reader is required for an iPhone).

There are to types of tags: passive and active. Passive tags are the most widely used, as they are smaller and less expensive. They must be “powered up” by the RFID reader before they can transmit data. Active RFID tags have a power supply (a battery) that enables them to transmit data at all times. For a more detailed discussion, refer to this article.

RFID Tags and Smart Labels

Smart labels differ from RFID tags in that they incorporate both RFID and barcode technologies. They can be encoded and printed using desktop label printers, whereas programming RFID tags is more time consuming and requires more advanced equipment.

Inkjet Printed RFID tags

A few years ago, printed RFID tags were the subject of academic studies.

Now there re companies offering RFID tags with integrated antennas. Nanoparticle Silver Inks are the most frequently used material in Inkjet printing.

CustomWave RFID antennas can be printed onto labels. Source:


Near field communication (NFC) is a relatively recent technology. It is a close cousin of RFID as it operates in the same bandwidth of high-frequency or HF RFID which is 13.56 Mhz. NFC can function both like active or passive RFID, where the tag can simply bounce back radio waves it is beamed or actively emit radio waves towards the NFC reader using a small battery. it works only at short distances.

NFC readers are common on smartphones today with most Android and Windows phones carrying them, but the biggest drawback of this technology is that its read-distance is extremely low (in the range of a few centimeters only).

Since it is capable of two-way communication it can be used to make payments. In fact, this technology was developed to enable only close proximity reading applications such as credit card authentication, or smartphone-based payments. It can even be used in medicine (to read tags attached to the patient’s body to send end vital signs to a smartphone).

Green NFC

Please check:

The increased awareness in sustainability, and stricter government regulations, have made many brands and distributors constantly look for ways of making their packaging “greener”.

RFID and NFC markets haven’t been traditionally concerned with the environmental impact of their products.

The focus has been more on specific government standards and guidelines such as RoHS for hazardous substances (lead, mercury, cadmium, …), REACH and US and EU food safety requirements such as FDA 21 CFR.

With NFC tags becoming more ubiquitous, and the consumers more aware of them, manufacturers are also focusing on reducing the environmental impact of NFC tags. One possible step is replacing PET with a paper-based substrate for the antenna and NFC chip.

On the other hand, NFC can reduce the amount paper used for printed advertisements, flyers or coupons, since users would just have to approach their smartphone to access the related information about an event or a special offer.


By scanning NFC chips embedded in packaging, consumers could gain access to additional specific info about product features, applications or instructions (for instance in food products: recipes, cooking instructions, ingredients info…)  increasing the amount of information available and helping to increase brand engagement.

And while not exactly a packaging innovation, I think it is worth mentioning that NFC allows customers to interact with products via NFC tags on shelves.

DualWing RFID/NFC. Source:

Anti-counterfeiting is another important application. For example, in China up to 70% of the wine imported is estimated to be counterfeit. By tapping the lid with a smartphone the user can then find out if the bottle is genuine. The NFC  chip can also tell you when the bottle was opened s(to check if it has been resealed), and it can offer additional information to the consumer such as provenance, grape type, vintage year..etc.


Sometimes NFC anb RFID can be combined to provide information for both supply chain and end user, as in the DualWing integrated tag, that uses common identification data that can be shared or updated by both NFC and RFID devices.

Already in 2015 the Johnnie Walker Blue Label smart bottle prototype was unveiled at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. It used  OpenSense NFC technology by Thinfilm that allows the bottle to be tracked across the supply chain,  and senses the ’sealed’ or ‘opened’ state of the bottle.


Bluetooth® Low Energy (BLE) is a key technology within the IoT. It connects BLE-enabled products to smart mobile devices.

It is mainly designed for periodic transfers of very small amounts of data. BLE provides huge opportunities in markets including automotive, healthcare & fitness, smart home entertainment and controls.

BLE tags are usually called beacons, and are similar to active RFID tags. They have inbuilt batteries which provide them with long read-ranges.

BLE applications. Source:

It’s an alternative to RFID in supply chain applications.

It features real-time location (by using a GPS chip in a GSM device or through cellular triangulation), and it boasts a higher read range and less power consumption than RFID.

On the next post more about anti-counterfeiting, the Internet of Things and more Intelligent Packaging examples.
To be continued.

September 2018


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