When most people think of supply chain technology, packaging may not be the first thing to come to mind. However, despite these preconceptions, smart packaging technology is a fast-growing and exciting field.
Smart packaging technology is a broad field covering new technologies integrated into packages themselves or playing a crucial role in the packaging process. Here are 10 of the most disruptive of these technologies changing the industry today.
1. RFID and NFC Tags
Devices that wirelessly transmit real-time data about a package are some of the most useful packaging technologies. Today, radio frequency identification (RFID) and near-field communication (NFC) are the two leading examples of this tech.
Both RFID and NFC can send data like a package’s location, contents and even the quality or health of those contents to nearby devices. That way, customers can verify their orders and logistics professionals can manage their inventories more efficiently. Some RFID systems can even transmit data up to 25 feet, enabling easier scanning.
2. Printed Sensors
RFID and NFC tags make important information more accessible, but they may require other devices to gather this data in the first place. In the past, that meant placing bulky electronics inside packages, which isn’t practical. Today, businesses can use printed sensors to provide the same benefits in a more convenient form factor.
New technologies can print fully functioning circuits on thin adhesive strips. Adding quality sensors, vibration monitoring or other data-gathering systems is then as easy as placing a sticker on the inside of a package. As a result, businesses can enable more data-tracking without sacrificing packaging space.
3. Active Packaging
Some smart packaging technology goes further and protects shipment quality instead of simply reporting it. Active packaging interacts with its components, in turn extending their shelf life and protecting them in transit.
This type of packaging can take several forms. At its simplest, it uses chemical ingredients to absorb unwanted elements or emit desirable compounds — like an oxygen absorber to prevent beverage oxidation. However, it can also be more high-tech. Mechanical or digital technologies inside a package can monitor and emit antimicrobial solutions or block UV radiation.
Nanotechnology — tech dealing with components on a nanoscopic scale — is another disruptive example of packaging tech. Many materials exhibit unique qualities on this scale, and capitalizing on these characteristics is helping companies make packaging safer, sustainable and more reliable.
Some aerogels made of nanomaterials offer effective insulation from heat and shocks without taking up as much space as conventional materials. Other nanomaterials provide biodegradable alternatives to traditional packaging materials like plastics and waxes. In other cases, logistics companies use nanoparticles to prevent microbial contamination in pharmaceutical shipments.
5. QR Codes
Quick read (QR) codes are a more familiar technology for many, but they’ve only recently grown in packaging. Just as RFID tags can send critical data to logistics workers, QR codes let end customers learn more about their packages with a simple scan. Unlike data transmitters, though, customers can read these codes with just a smartphone.
Companies can use QR codes to reveal more product information they couldn’t fit on the package. That could entail nutritional info, best-before dates, warranty explanations or tips for usage. Whatever the specifics, these codes provide an easy gateway for customers to get more out of their products.
6. AR Packaging
Augmented reality (AR) takes these customer-packaging interactions further. AR displays virtual images over a real-time view of the real world. Packages can capitalize on this by using QR codes to unlock unique AR experiences for customers.
Some companies have used AR to promote new products or giveaways. When users scanned the packaging of their products, they’d hear music from a label’s musicians or unlock an interactive experience to enter them into product sweepstakes. These unique experiences may encourage more people to buy products with this packaging so they can see the novelty first-hand.
7. AI Package Design
Some smart packaging technology focuses on processes around the packaging instead of the package itself. One of the most groundbreaking and practical of these is artificial intelligence (AI) in package design.
AI can consider thousands of possibilities and perform complex calculations far faster than humans. Its speed and accuracy in these decisions make it an ideal way to find ways to improve packaging, like coming up with designs that use fewer materials. Businesses using AI to generate novel package designs can create stronger or more cost-efficient packaging in less time.
8. 3D Printing
Similarly, 3D printing, also called additive manufacturing, can make better packaging designs. 3D printers work faster than conventional production techniques and don’t produce as much waste, making them more cost-effective. They can also produce more unique shapes than traditional methods, enabling more customization in packaging.
Since 3D printing is more efficient and can use more sustainable materials, it makes packaging more eco-friendly. Considering how 60%-70% of consumers say they’d pay more for sustainable packaging, that advantage is crucial.
9. Blockchain Tracking
Blockchain is a newer but increasingly viable smart packaging technology. While these distributed ledgers are most famous as the underlying technology behind cryptocurrency, they offer significant advantages in logistics.
Blockchain tracking solutions can store updates from in-package sensors to improve tracking throughout the supply chain. Because blockchain records are unchangeable and transparent to anyone, using them here would help fight fraud and boost supply chain visibility. In turn, blockchain tracking would offer end customers more trust in the brands they buy from.
Robots are another increasingly important technology in packaging. Manufacturing packaging, folding boxes, loading trucks and fetching packages from a warehouse are all repetitive, heavy physical tasks. That makes them hazardous and inefficient when people do them, but those kinds of workloads are where robots excel.
Robots could automate these repetitive tasks to accomplish them much faster and more safely. Human workers could then focus on more nuanced, engaging tasks. In turn, packaging centers would reduce errors, lower operating costs and maximize throughput.
Smart Packaging Technology Has Significant Potential
These technologies are just a sample of the enormous scope of today’s smart packaging technology. As tech advances, new solutions and improved innovations will emerge and become more accessible.
Smart technologies like these make the packaging industry more transparent, efficient, sustainable and reliable. As more companies take advantage of them, they’ll soon become the norm in the sector, transforming packaging for good.