RFID is likely the most talked-about smart label technology today, fueled by a flurry of mandates in recent years and the excitement that came with it. Despite lower-than-projected current volumes, RFID labels boast many uses in a variety of industries, and analysts are still optimistic about its future growth.
While many in the industry use the words smart label and RFID label as synonyms, others use a broader interpretation of the phrase, placing a variety of technologies under the smart label umbrella.
"The term smart label has been used to describe any type of label that provides additional knowledge as to the status of the product it is attached to. Early on, labels with chemical indicators fell under this category. In the near future, we expect to see more robust sensing features integrated into labels," says Amy Childress, marketing programs director for PakSense Inc., Boise, ID, USA.
For Rob Ryckman, vice president of sales and marketing for CCL Label, Hightstown, NJ, USA, a smart label is "a label that achieves some function other than looking good." Under his definition, RFID labels account for only about 20 percent of CCL Label's smart label business.
Whether smart labels are defined broadly or narrowly, the result is inarguably the same: The smart label industry is growing, both in terms of sales and technologies.
"It's fair to say that the smart label business in general has had an increase in activity and growth over the last five years due to things like mandates, regulations, laws or other things," says Ryckman.
The smart label industry is better equipped now to handle the demands of various industries than it was even a decade ago. Technology has shown significant improvements in recent years. "All of the different forms of smart labels have evolved enough through the use of technology that they are now cost effective to deliver a solution," says Ryckman.
While smart labels have been integrated into virtually every industry, two business segments that have particularly benefited from smart labeling technologies are the food and pharmaceutical industries. Below is a look at several emerging technologies.
Keeping it fresh
Spoiled food is rotten, in more ways than one. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that more than 76 million cases of food-borne disease occur each year. Although most cases are mild, more than 325,000 people end up hospitalized.
Different foods can cause food poisoning, including spoiled meat and poultry. In response to this common problem, Food Quality Sensor International Inc. (FQSI), Lexington, MA, USA, has recently introduced its SensorQ label, a proprietary smart sensor label that detects spoilage in meat and poultry.
Flexographic-printed on narrow web machinery, the label's most noticeable characteristic is its large "Q".
"The inside area of the Q "contains our all-natural, patent pending proprietary indicator material that measures the gaseous byproducts of bacteria and changes color in response to those byproducts," says Megan Owens, executive director of marketing and product management for Food Quality Sensor International.
SensorQ labels are attached to the interior of a meat package, facing out so that consumers can see it through transparent wrapping. The Q's color starts out orange. When 10 million total colony-forming units of bacteria per gram of sample are detected – a standard defined by the international scientific community – the label will turn to tan in order to indicate spoilage.
Cost, asserts the company, is reasonable. The technology costs less than 1 percent of the total value of the average package of meat or poultry.
Introduced last October, its first market test is currently in process at US lamb processor Superior Farms. "It has taken a great deal of work on the part of the FQSI team and cooperation of organizers like Superior Farms to develop a product that will economically serve the packers, the retailers and the consumers," says Marco Bonne, president and CEO of FQSI. "The fresh meat and poultry industry can now extend its reach directly into home refrigerators to give the added level of quality assurance so critically needed in this day and age."
While one converter has introduced a label to detect airborne bacteria in food, another has launched a label that digitally records temperatures during food shipping in order to ensure that food remains within acceptable temperature ranges throughout its journey.
Currently in use in the seafood, meat, poultry, produce, dairy, and wine industries (as well as a few other niche industries), PakSense TXi labels are applied to product or product packaging prior to shipment. "Labels are encased in waterproof, food-safe packaging and are identified by a unique serial number," says Amy Childress of PakSense.
The labels, which do not use RFID technology, record temperature fluctuations experienced during distribution. "All temperature readings stored in the memory of the PakSense label can be downloaded via the PakSense reader into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. Once downloaded, the spreadsheet is automatically saved under the serial number assigned to the label," says Childress.
The 1.6mm-thick labels contain electronics for measuring and recording temperatures and a paper based label stock, which are then inserted into a food-safe plastic pouch. Labels come in seven different temperature ranges, pre-programmed with standard temperature range specifications for frequently shipped perishable goods. Labels can also be customized to the client's needs.
PakSense labels are also equipped with LEDs so temperature abuse during shipment can be detected quickly.
The label and its accompanying system were recently adopted by processor JBS Swift & Company North America, headquartered in Greely, CO, USA, to monitor beef and pork transport from its processing plants to US customer locations.
"The PakSense label replaces a paper strip chart temperature monitoring device and is a technology upgrade," says Warren Mirtsching, food safety and quality, JBS Swift.
The pharmaceutical industry and ePedigree
The food industry is not the only segment to benefit from smart label technology. Pharmaceutical marketers are tapping the label industry to meet a major mandate. Although there is a push to extend the deadline to 2011, pharmaceutical manufacturers at the moment are mandated to comply with California's ePedigree law by January 2009.
"No one knows if it will be pushed back, so the sense of urgency is becoming tremendous within the pharmaceutical industry," says Raymond Dickinson, marketing and new business development for The Hewlett-Packard Company, headquartered in Palo Alto, CA, USA. "This is becoming a very, very squeaky wheel."
The law requires that individual pharmaceutical products carry unique identifiers, and that each change of ownership in a supply chain is tracked and kept in electronic records.
"What the law is saying is that we want you to track every container separately," says Ryckman of CCL Label. "The idea behind serialization and ePedigree is that you have a better idea of the supply chain. It makes it easier for recalling products and narrowing down diversion activities."
The mandate has had tremendous implications for label converters dealing with pharmaceutical clientele.
"Electronic pedigree does not mandate use of a specific technology, but you have to have the ability to provide the history of the product," states Ryckman, adding that RFID transponders and bar codes are the most practical ways to deliver the solution.
While a specific technology is not outlined in the mandate, "pharmaceutical manufacturers prefer to use 2D data matrix for item level serialization, owing to the significant cost advantage over RFID. At the case and pallet level, it may make better sense to use RFID technology for compliance," says Dickinson.
Hewlett-Packard has recently introduced HP's Product Tracking and Authentication Solution Portfolio. The system also allows for cost-effective, mass serialization and can accommodate additional authentication capabilities with printed variable security features. This provides a foundation for track and traceability required to meet ePedigree compliance.
HP offers all services needed – including IT support, to imaging, to print – in order to fulfill the ePedigree mandate.
Secure Symbology, Wayne, NJ, has also focused on 2D bar code technology to meet ePedigree requirements. The company offers its ESC System, a machine that prints 2D bar codes on labels. Converters simply leave a blank space on the finished labels and feed the labels through the machine, which will print the appropriate information.
Why go through the extra effort of using a 2D bar code when traditional bar codes are the norm? "Traditional, linear bar codes limit the amount of information you can put in there. Electronic pedigree requires a lot more information than what would normally be put in a bar code," says Kamal Mustafa, president of Secure Symbology.
2D bar codes come with their own set of challenges. According to Mustafa, the print quality must be excellent in order to be read by scanners.
Before the mandate, "widespread, commercial 2D bar codes were very limited commercially. Everyone figured that RFID made them obsolete," says Mustafa. "But RFID proved too expensive and there were technology problems. The other reason is that if you look at the entire retail market, everyone has a scanner. They are not going to have RFID readers for years to come."
The pharmaceutical industry is not only utilizing smart labels to meet the ePedigree mandate. Smart labels can play other roles aside from tracking and traceability.
CCL Label has recently launched its Istrip label. Although it can be used for a variety of applications, the Istrip label is especially useful for shipping biologics or vaccines, according to Ryckman. Its main goal is to detect inappropriate temperatures during shipment, which is especially important when vaccinations are shipped overseas.
The thin label is an economical freeze indicator, which changes state if the temperature has been compromised and doesn't change back. "The idea with these is to put it on a flip-off cap or end of a vial so you can see what individually froze" instead of throwing away entire cases, says Ryckman.
The smart label story isn't complete without mention of RFID. As is discussed in the RFID Label Market article in this issue (page 46), RFID plays an increasingly visible role for many industries.
According to The Freedonia Group's Labels report, "it is believed that several hundred million RFID tags have now been used worldwide at the item level, with apparel, pharmaceuticals and books among the leading applications, and smaller-scale applications are becoming increasingly viable."