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Boxing clever with digital

Improvements in digital printing, and the use of packaging to drive integration between goods and the internet of things, means the technology is now a key to producing “smart” products.

But Paul Young, head of packaging services at DHL Supply Chain, warns it is important for companies to understand which problems digital packaging can solve, rather than simply following the trend.

QR codes, for example, have historically been the main form of digital communication on packaging and, while there have been some successful uses, there are also limitations.

Jon Wilkins, marketing manager of European Automation, says: “We are reviewing our packaging and, interestingly, we will be dropping the QR codes. Hardly anybody uses them and they’ve had no impact on the customer.”

Mike Banach, senior research manager at Plastic Logic, says he believes that in the short term packaging innovation will be focused primarily on labelling for security and prevention of fraud. The International Chamber of Commerce has estimated that the total economic impact of counterfeiting and piracy in 2015 alone will be between $1.2 billion and $1.7 billion.

“Brand owners are looking for secure labelling that has some user-input mechanism [image sensor or touch pad] and output device [display] integrated on the same tag,” he says. Plastic Logic’s flexible transistor technology is enabling the fabrication of these components on packaging substrates such as PET or polyethylene terephthalate. The ability to track high-value goods from development to point of use might have a significant impact on the ability to generate fakes.


Similar innovation is being driven by increased regulation in the food supply chain, especially following challenges such as the 2013 horsemeat scandal. Between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of food produced globally never reaches the consumer, often thrown away due to problems ascertaining its freshness. Smart labelling reduces the human-error factor by providing a visual indication of freshness, which crosses language and cultural barriers.

Companies, including ThinFilm and Insignia Technologies, have developed ways of monitoring temperature control in the global supply chain. ThinFilm is developing labels that monitor temperature changes during shipping and store the data for later analysis. Insignia Technologies has created labels using temperature responsive pigments that can be easily incorporated into plastic films and inks which then display these colour-changing sensing properties.

This type of innovation could also have a major impact in healthcare, particularly in the developing world, with the distribution of medicines and vaccines where lack of clarity about freshness or temperature changes in transportation can often lead to waste.

With the evolution of the digital age, brands can now easily channel and adapt personalisation to the mass market

Joe Morgan at Matter of Form says: “Medical companies are currently spearheading a revolution in digital pharmaceutical packaging with methods such as ‘dial-a-dose’ smart-cap concept for drugs. This displays the number of times medication is consumed as well as alerting the user when they need to take their dose and even connecting to healthcare centres to monitor consumption.”

Such innovations make it easier for patients to control their dosages, which is becoming increasingly important with ageing populations.

There is no doubt that the best-known developments in packaging have come about through innovation in marketing and brand communications. QR codes may have led the way in enabling people to get more information about products, but brand-consumer interaction is now moving further and faster.


As co-founder of EVRYTHING Andy Hobsbawn points out, the falling costs of technology, combined with the mass adoption of mobile devices and ubiquitous broadband connectivity, “enables brands effectively to expand the limited on-pack real estate into the digital world, turning their products into an owned digital-media channel, enabling them to develop a one-to-one marketing relationship with consumers”.

Katherine Torrence, global client engagement director at RedWorks, says: “Traditionally product personalisation was considered to be a high-end marketing technique that catered to the appeal of luxury brands. However, with the evolution of the digital age, several brands can now easily channel and adapt personalisation to the mass market. Coca-Cola’s ‘Share a Coke’ campaign is perhaps one of the most successful to capture the attention of the world.”

There are other well-known campaigns which have used an augmented-reality approach to generate customer interaction. LEGO created a campaign which enabled customers to scan a barcode and see a 3-D version of their planned build. Heinz made their ketchup label scannable, enabling access to a recipe, list of ingredients and a teaching video. While Appy used Tetra Pak cartons to expand their social media interaction with customers, through customising online photos.

New technologies and new ways of interacting with the customer are highly sought after, and it is this that will drive innovation. Of course, chipsets and active sensor tags may be currently economically challenging for consumer packaged goods. NFC (near-field communication) or RFID (radio-frequency identification) can cost up to 20p a pack, depending on volume, while chipsets using Bluetooth, wi-fi or other active technologies can cost upwards of £6 per unit.

But as Mr Hobsbawn concludes: “The key to the viability of design options is being able to justify the return on investment or ROI. Implementing a form of digital trigger on a pack will impact packaging cost to some extent, even if simply to include a URL and call to action, but if a brand considers it in the right way, there is an ROI case to be made.”