Food packaging and the Internet of Things

By Paul Gander

- Last updated on GMT

How much supply chain information from intelligent packaging should be in consumers’ hands?
How much supply chain information from intelligent packaging should be in consumers’ hands?

Related tags: Food safety, Packaging

Can food packaging tap into the Internet of Things (IoT), or will cost and perceived risks restrict it to the periphery? We look at current trends in intelligent technology.

Active packaging and intelligent packaging are often bundled together as a generic type of feature.

But, while active solutions will extend product shelf-life by inhibiting the growth of micro-organisms, for example, intelligent options can communicate information about the condition of the product without seeking to change those conditions.

There are other important distinctions, not least in where and how these technologies are implemented.

According to global figures from Smithers Pira, over 75% of active packaging applications relate directly to food and drink. This compares with just 14.4% of intelligent solutions. In contrast, over 50% of intelligent systems function in the supply chain.

In one sense, this should not be surprising. After all, useful data on time, temperature, humidity and other variables can be gathered at traded-unit or pallet level, for example, but with packaged food, an equally useful active influence on shelf-life can only really be exerted inside the pack.

Additionally, active packaging only makes sense with short-shelf-life and sensitive products such as food and pharmaceuticals, while intelligent sensors can play a valuable role in shipping all sorts of consumer goods.

Meanwhile, the good news from the Smithers Pira report (‘The Future of Smart Packaging to 2021’​) is that the value of intelligent packaging is forecast to grow by 15% a year over the next four years.

What the 14.4% of intelligent systems applied to primary food packaging suggests is that in the vast majority of cases, intelligent features currently benefit supply-chain partners rather than consumers.

As commissioning editor at Smithers Pira John Nelson says, pallet-level systems for monitoring produce, meat and seafood are widely used.

“The technology components for this – antennas, sensors and basic circuitry – are available,”​ he says.

“The main impediment to doing this at the individual pack level is cost. Even if you use a lower-cost solution like printed electronics, which developers believe could cost as little as 10p each, that is probably too high for everyday use, unless there is a compelling reason.”

Internet of packaging (back to top)

BillerudKorsnäs Venture, a subsidiary of the Swedish-based paper and board group, has invested in businesses which overlap with the concept of the ‘Internet of Packaging’ (IoP).

“It boils down to incentives, and whether you can create enough customer value to make the investment worthwhile,”​ says the company’s venture manager for the IoP Martin Neselius, who adds that its is imporant to look beyond cost issues.

But, longer-term, he is not put off by any apparent mismatch between the low-cost priorities of most food and drink packaging and the relatively high cost of new intelligent technologies, especially electronic ones.

“The whole of society is moving into more and more digitisation, and packaging needs to be part of that picture, too,”​ he says.

In the future, neither cost nor the availability of the various technologies will be a hurdle, Neselius predicts, given the speed at which those technologies are moving and the ability to scale up production, if required.

“It comes down far more to how the technology will be implemented in business processes and communicated to consumers,”​ he says.

“You have to look at what’s happening in the market. E-commerce and new models for last-mile delivery will drive these smart technologies much faster.”

At UWI Technology in Scotland, chief executive and inventor of the company’s time-indicator label Pete Higgins points out that development times, as well as costs, remain challenges in the intelligent packaging sector.

Initially, UWI developed a microfluidic label, which is not dependent on any sort of electronic system. The simplicity and clarity of this colour-based system account for much of its attractiveness. But more recently, customers have started to ask for labels covering periods up to six months.

“You need to test any label, and it might take anything up to a year to develop a fully-validated six-month label,”​ says Higgins.

The electronic time-indicator label that UWI is now developing not only spans longer periods but is also more accurate, and can track temperature, humidity and other parameters – as well as sending an electronic alert if required.

Rather than using near-field communication (NFC) or other relatively high-power solutions, it uses a low-output system. Even so, while the microfluidic labels might cost 2p each, says Higgins, the working prototype of the electronic tag currently costs over £1.

“This price will come down, and these systems will be viable in time,”​ says Higgins. “Printed electronics is moving so fast, I think our type of electronic label will be priced below 10p within around five years.”

Near-field communications (back to top)

Digital agency Evrythng ties together marketing, smart packaging and software. Two years ago, working with Diageo and hardware supplier Thinfilm Electronics, it helped develop a prototype NFC tag for whisky, which provided tamper-evidence, authentication and ‘consumer engagement’ benefits.

Given the history of radio frequency identification (RFID) tagging, and the conflict between its much-discussed item-level benefits and the prohibitive cost, many see the future as being led by the simplest low-output or even passive solutions.

Evrythng co-founder and chief marketing officer Andy Hobsbawm says: “One option, which we have been exploring in a European research and development project with other brand and technology partners, called TagItSmart, is to use QR ​[quick response] codes on packaging in combination with advanced inks that change colour based on environmental conditions.

“[The unique code] can change its link if the ink has been triggered - if, for instance, a frozen product has been kept at too high a temperature for too long.”

Of course, much of the debate in this area is not about the technologies themselves but about the risks and the benefits. “A real-time data solution to monitor product freshness and provide that information to customers makes complete sense,”​ argues Hobsbawm.

“Retailers can ensure they are complying with regulations about food storage, plus they can anticipate spoilage and promote products accordingly, reducing the impact of end-of-life discounting on their margins.”

But whether brand-owners and retailers want to arm consumers with any information at all about supply chain conditions is questionable.

This, perhaps more than whether a tag is low-cost or even zero-cost, seems to hold back supply-chain rollout. So, what hope is there for electronic item-level solutions, even if they do dip below the 10p price threshold?

Supply chain systems (back to top)

Perhaps, more importantly, the environment and structures within which the supply chain operates are already evolving and are likely to carry on changing even more quickly.

BillerudKorsnäs Venture has invested in two IoP-linked businesses: parcel-tracking technology from UK company Hanhaa and Norwegian serialisation specialist Kezzler.

The Kezzler technology is, says Neselius, suitable for mass markets such as food. “Once you can identify every unique pack, that opens up a whole raft of possibilities,”​ he explains.

As well as with 2D codes, there have been many developments with image-recognition. As in so many areas, Amazon is taking a lead here, Neselius points out, applying it to its Amazon Go store in Seattle. This is a technology that works on the micro as well as the macro level.

“As a paper manufacturer, we are interested in the way that paper fibres can constitute a unique fingerprint, and an identifier, for a package, though this type of application is still a long way from being commercialised.”

Amazon is also experimenting with Dash, its push-of-a-button reordering tag, which is effectively a battery-powered mini-computer able to connect to the internet in the home via Wi-Fi.

However, some technology applications will prove to be little more than gimmicks, Neselius warns. “They may be fun to interact with once or twice, but how do they have a sustained role in day-to-day life?”​ he asks.

Like BillerudKorsnäs, UWI does not consider technology availability to be a barrier. “Intelligent electronic tags are not on consumer products now,”​ says Higgins.

“But in the future, this is a possibility. The technology already exists. It is just a matter of joining the dots, so that a jar sends a message to a fridge display and, for example, the fridge reorders product directly online.”

There is understandable concern that the novelty factor will wear off. The first stage may be to build infrastructures primarily benefitting the brand-owner and retailer, and without handing consumers too much visibility over the supply chain.

At Food Manufacture’s 2017 food safety conference ‘Food safety 2020: preparing your business for change’, the role of smart packaging in reducing the incidence of food poisoning in the home will be discussed by Andrew Manly, communications director of the Active and Intelligent Packaging Association.

Visit the Food Safety Conference website​ to register your interest.

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