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Smart Packaging Experts Talk Tech and Options
It’s not a level playing field in packaging—connectivity in Levels 3-5 turns a box or carton into an Internet of Things device. Image courtesy Jones Healthcare Group.

Smart Packaging Experts Talk Tech and Options

Managers from vendor Jones Healthcare Group and consultancies Ahead of the Curve Group and TUKU provide a close-up look at IoT-connected packaging.

It turned out be a smart move on my part to attend several of the weekly webinars on packaging topics managed by PAC, Packaging Consortium. One of those hour-long sessions was on smart packaging, where webcast attendees gained up-to-date information, insights, and advice from those in the know. PAC Next consultant Andrew Mcdonald moderated the session that featured presenters…

  • James Lee, director innovative solutions group, Jones Healthcare Group, a 100-year-old provider of advanced packaging and medication dispensing solutions based in London, Ontario;
  • Christina Cvetan, cofounder,  Ahead Of The Curve Group, a consultancy that specializes in smart-phone enabled packaging for engagement and brand protection; and
  • Mark Baldwin, president and CEO, TUKU, Inc., which offers brands a platform to power connected packaging and interactive retail experiences.

Smart Packaging Levels 3, 4, and 5 are the most exciting.

Leadoff presenter Lee set the stage by defined smart packaging as going beyond traditional packaging that promotes and preserves with added features and capabilities. Lee shared the company’s internal scale of five levels of packaging (main image) going from non-bar-coded dumb boxes at Level 1 to Level 2 with a scannable bar code. Levels 3-5 include technologies such as radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips or tags or near-field communications (NFC) tech.

Levels 3 and 4 refer to smartphone-enabled units and the smartest, Level 5, Jones described as standalone packages that connect to the internet or mobile network without the need for a smartphone.

“Adding connectivity to a package makes it an Internet of Things device,” he pointed out.

According to study data Lee referenced, smartphones are growing virally; in 2015 less than 15% of smartphones offered NFC readability, today that number is close to 90%.

Because Jones operates in the healthcare space, regulatory requirements mandate that it provide 100% inspection of enabled packaging including read and verify quality checks of the smart tag.

Interestingly, the company is proficient at using conductive inks to print circuits directly onto paperboard and plastic substrates.

Current best practices keep the NFC tag hidden and protected inside the packaging. “That also saves valuable on-pack real estate,” he added.

Image courtesy Jones Healthcare Group.

The company’s in-market “CpaX” brand connected packaging is used in one application for monitoring consumers’ medicine compliance. For example, when a patient opens a blister pack to access a medication, a notification is sent to a caregiver.

NFC, dual-level QR codes, and blockchain.

“We’re a small company with big aspirations,” said Ahead of the Curve Group’s Cvetan, who has 20 years’ experience in packaging development working with brands and retailers.

The company’s smart applications are in three areas: Consumer experience, Product integrity, and Inventory and Lifecycle.

“Product integrity is increasingly important for consumer brands,” she noted.

Image courtesy Danone.

Cvetan singled out several exemplary applications in the market that included a dual-Quick Response (QR) code for traceability and authenticity for multiserve containers of Danone baby formula distributed in China. An exterior outer QR code provides consumer-engaging information and an inner one is used to establish blockchain-level security in a market fraught with counterfeit products.

Cvetan also pointed to another application for CBD cannabis products with similar goals that uses an NFC tag to create a unique, verifiable identification number for the package.

And she referenced one of the largest smart packaging programs to date, which was done by a major brand working with a major retailer. Packaging Digest reported on this case study of Kraft slice cheese at Walmart (image below) in True Shelf Life in Real Time: There’s an App for That, published March 2020.

Image courtesy TPG Rewards

Cvetan's company offers the proprietary TapScan platform. She informs Packaging Digest that it “provides brand owners the ability to control their message when and where it matters most, at the right time at the right place.” It is available for global executions.

The influence of COVID-19 and brand advice.

Mark Baldwin of contactless engagement specialist TUKU kicked off his presentation by noting that the effect of the coronavirus pandemic has been to “effect a decade of change in a few months.”

What should brands do? His advice: In the light of smart packaging they should adapt to survive and prosper by embracing brand control, digital, and data.

“Brands best avenue to do that is through connected packaging,” he said. And he said that brands…

  • Are in the information business whether they know it or not.
  • Need to own and control those relationships rather than allow retailers to do that.
  • Will be rewarded for understanding the data and information…the power is what you do with it.
  • Should respond in real time to engagements that are made in real time.
  • Should tailor the user’s content, user experiences, and offers to specific markets.

Options and considerations in smart packaging, markets, and engagement. Image courtesy TUKU.

Q&A: Sustainability, privacy, and more.

The questions and responses at the end of the webinar were illuminating. Several attendees asked about packaging sustainability for some engagement technologies that may require devices or printed circuits.

“Carbon graphite [inks] are acceptable,” responded Jones’ Lee, “though we don’t know about nanomaterials. However, EAS packaging devices have been collected and recycled for years [without problems] so we don’t expect any risks associated with recovering these materials for recycling."

Brands can also leverage the technology itself via a targeted response to an inquiry about the package's recyclability. “Brands can communicate by location of engagement the local recycling guidelines,” offered Cvetan.

Also, the question of data collection and privacy came up. “Brands must adhere to all privacy requirements—they’re not tracking personal information…in that respect, it’s similar to a standard website interaction,” said Baldwin.

The need for collaboration was a common recommendation. “Open your company up to using partners, especially good ones,” said Cvetan.

What technology to use?

“The engagement method depends on the market, for example QR use is high in Asia, but not so much in North America,” said Lee.

Rather than pick one tech, best practice is to use both NFC tags and QR codes.

We close this report with this advice from Lee: “Don’t use the tech just to use it, use it to solve a business challenge.”

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