The “smartphone” is not the only innovation growing at a rapid pace. A product’s packaging is also evolving. In fact, labels boast capabilities that never before seemed possible. Consumers can now interact with labels and packaging – and vice versa.
Thinfilm, a global provider of printed electronics, defines a smart label as a near field communication (NFC) tag that is integrated with consumer products, thereby making them “smart.” The labels, which do not contain batteries, rely on smartphones to facilitate an interaction, pull content from the cloud and deliver unique digital experiences to consumers.
“We see growing interest among consumer brands of all sizes – from smaller niche players to global enterprises,” explains Bill Cummings, senior vice president of corporate communications at Thinfilm. “Companies have been exploring solutions in this area for the past 2-3 years, and many are now taking action. Today, we have more than two dozen customers in-market with our solution, and we anticipate that the number will grow in the coming weeks and months.”
Smart labels and tags can affect the retail experience in a multitude of ways. Substrates and self-adhesive materials supplier Avery Dennison operates a facility in Miamisburg, OH, USA, that is dedicated to smart solutions. With RFID technology, companies enjoy track-and-trace capabilities that can be useful in a variety of end-use applications, including apparel. RFID tags can dramatically change the way stores track inventory and deal with loss prevention.
“Consumers today – certainly the millennials – won’t go into a store if they don’t know they have the item they’re looking for,” says Francisco Melo, vice president and general manager, Global RFID for Avery Dennison. “They check the availability on their phone, and if the store has it, then the customer is probably going to go there to check the fit, and touch and feel the product. Creating seamless consumer experiences is the fundamental goal and how to achieve that through technology is the process we improve upon with our customers, as well as how to build up the ROI.”
According to Melo, intelligent labels are normally comprised of pressure sensitive substrates. In terms of printing, the most common form is thermal printing, with inkjet also emerging. “We also have companies that are using offset and flexo,” he says. “We could do it in nearly any way, but thermal is the most common one.”
Avery Dennison has constructed labels and store simulations to show customers how smart technology works, from inception to practical use in stores. “We show the whole supply chain here in Miamisburg,” explains John Powell, vice president of Avery Dennison Americas Services and Systems Integration Division. “We show a lot of pieces in our different labs that were really built for adoption. We bring customers through here, vendors, and give them a quick education, depending on their understanding of RFID, throughout the whole supply chain.”
Avery Dennison offers NFC solutions, as well. The company’s TT Sensor Plus is one example of a smart tracking label that records a product’s time and temperature. This can be useful in food and pharmaceutical applications.
“Essentially, what we do is work with the converters,” explains Mary Greenwood, director of new technology and business development at Avery Dennison. “We work with converters that can insert and program either traditional RFID or NFC, and we supply the inlays to those converters and help them insert those into labels that they already provide for their customers.”
Thinfilm’s solutions focus exclusively on NFC technologies. The company’s offerings range from conventional NFC tags to PDPS (printed dopant polysilicon) tags. PDPS tags are printed on a very thin, flexible stainless steel, which enhances durability. The tags are made through a unique process and will soon be produced in ultra-high volumes (billions per year) through roll-to-roll processing.
In addition to RFID and NFC capabilities, companies are exploring the use of augmented reality (AR) and Bluetooth. Smart technologies are versatile and can be applied to a variety of end uses, including wine and spirits, craft beer, beverages, cosmetics, health and beauty, foods, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, tobacco products and more.
Smart labels are beneficial for brands, too. Although the label will cost more to produce, it is a far more effective marketing tool. “What often happens during the point-of-purchase process is that the Googles, Amazons, Facebooks, and Yelps of the world end up ‘intermediating’ the conversation,” says Cummings. “As a result, brands lose control of the message and the experience. Our solution helps brands re-establish that direct dialogue with consumers, without the large platforms getting in the way. And what’s really interesting to brands is that the dialogue with consumers can take place in-store, at home and on the go.”
Avery Dennison’s smart solutions facility in Miamisburg offers customers the chance to see smart labels and tags, from creation to application, in a retail setting. The company has set up testing labs, as well as store simulations to explain how its products work in the real world.
“Up in the store, we’ll do what’s called a horse race, where somebody will perform the bar code scan and another person will RFID the room,” says Avery Dennison’s Powell. “It’s amazing, the speed and the accuracy of the process. The accuracy level on the bar code scans is about 70%. With RFID, we’re bringing it up to almost 99%, and there are a lot of other values going into that for the retailer. That’s really where the ROI is on the store side.”
RFID technology can allow stores to track items for customers, perform cycle counts and deal with loss prevention. “When we talk about loss prevention, you can put an antenna and a camera at the doorway, and if someone shoplifts you’re going to know right away,” adds Powell. “The scanner will read what they shoplift and you’re going to have a picture of them. There are a lot of loss prevention capabilities that can take place within the stores.”
Avery Dennison’s RFID UHF (ultra-high frequency) tags either utilize 865 MHz or 915 MHz frequency bands. “These tags propagate their signal across distance, so you can read the tags anywhere from 2" up to 40 feet,” says Elizabeth Sowle, manager, RFID Applications Test, at Avery Dennison’s RBIS division. “This is really great for retail because you can take the population of an inventory of items instead of touching or scanning the bar code on every single one.”
Avery Dennison’s capabilities run the gamut from tunnel scans, designed to ensure accuracy, to anechoic chambers for running calibrated fixed tests. The anechoic chambers, which is Latin for anti-echo, allows the company to test smart tags in a controlled environment. “We’re able to very precisely characterize tags against each other,” explains Sowle. “As we’re bringing on new chips, we can see what the improvements are, and when we’re creating new products and new antenna sizes, we can see those improvements. We start with the tag itself and put the tag on different materials to see how it reacts.”
Avery Dennison will also chart data integrity. After a customer receives a roll of labels, the company wants to ensure that the printer or encoding device encodes the label in the proper place. “You have to tell the printer – per position – which label to look at,” says Tim Hill, RFID systems engineer/electronic designer at Avery Dennison. “The reason that’s so important is because you don’t want to print something on one label and encode something different. We make sure the printer sees the correct label and encodes it correctly. The reason antennas are different is because they go on different substrates.”
In addition to testing, Avery Dennison performs real-world simulations. Prototyping is also an area of focus for the company. Currently, Avery Dennison has more than 30 smart applications in ideation. Real-world testing ranges from refrigerators and microwaves to washers and dryers. The goal is to make sure that these tags can withstand various elements.
get smart, and ready
Consumers can now receive information from a label like never before. Product information, coupons, videos and more can all be accessed by tapping a mobile phone to a label.
According to Thinfilm’s Cummings, the results have been extremely positive thus far, and the potential could be “significant.” “We’ve released case studies that show NFC mobile marketing does work and, in fact, even outperforms more traditional marketing channels like display ads and social platforms,” he says. “We believe an inflection point is fast approaching, and that brand adoption of NFC solutions like ours – and related tapping activity by consumers – could increase exponentially over the next few years.”
For converters interested in getting into this burgeoning space, the key is being RFID-ready “The converter being in a ‘ready mode’ to integrate this technology into their label and packaging applications is fundamental,” says Avery Dennison’s Melo. “In some industries, the retailer totally gets it, and others it’s a work in progress. At some point, the integration with packaging and labels is going to happen. The way that converters are going to help simplify this process is by integrating it.”
Although this technology is rapidly evolving, many brands have been reticent to implement it in their products. Cost has been one of the most prohibitive factors, especially when smart labeling was in the early stages of its development.
According to Thinfilm’s Cummings, adoption is steadily growing, though. “Using a smartphone to tap NFC tags and interact with ‘smart’ products – while gaining momentum – is still relatively new in the market,” he says. “Tapping products will be learned behavior over time, and activity will increase as more and more interactive products appear on store shelves and in the community.”
NFC capabilities are becoming more readily available, which should help the acceptance rate of smart labeling. In addition to Android smartphones, Apple recently expanded its NFC functionality beyond Apple Pay with the release of iOS 11. Cummings adds that the iPhone 7 and more current models can now read NFC tags.
One of the main challenges is product knowledge and a willingness to accept new technology.
“It’s about readiness to adopt new technology,” explains Avery Dennison’s Melo. “It’s true that the technology helps, but it’s also true that you might not be able to act on the information and the data that the technology is providing you. For a retailer, it is key to understand inventory accuracy levels and that there are technologies that can help in bridging that challenge.
“There’s also an element, specifically when talking about retail, of having disciplined store operations,” he adds. “You need stores that are going to comply to standards and have management support.”
As education and opportunities surround smart labeling increase, its acceptance should increase, as well.
“Many brands are just beginning to understand the value proposition associated with the technology and the ability to connect directly with consumers,” adds Cummings. “These barriers and hurdles should decrease and disappear as more smart products enter the market and consumer tapping behavior increases as individuals become more aware and educated.”
RFID UHF tags are seeing exponential growth, according to Avery Dennison. The company also notes that prices are nearly one-third of what they were a decade ago. “The growth over the years has been astronomical,” notes Avery Dennison’s Powell. “It’s grown from eight year ago, and it’s grown consistently. If the price continues to drop, absolutely you’ll see adoption. The price has dropped down to places we never expected it to with the invention of new technology. With more advances, the price could drop even more rapidly.”
“At some point in the future, every item will have a unique digital identity,” Melo concludes. “Our ultimate goal is to provide the technology for all these items to be born digital. Working with a worldwide converter base, RFID is a unique technology that will allow us to achieve that. There will be a world where every item is digitized, allowing us to bridge the physical and the digital into a frictionless experience.”
eAgile Inc. has announced that it has completed the world’s first installation of the newly launched HP Indigo 6900 digital press to expand security and brand protection services with its new eLink label security solution.
eAgile has been a provider of large-scale serialization deployments utilizing IoT/RFID solutions for healthcare and highly secure asset tracking. Digital printing on the HP Indigo 6900, with high-performance data RIPing power combined with eAgile’s RFID technology, opens the door to a full array of smart packaging and product authentication solutions to brand owners. It utilizes covert and overt security print, serialization and RFID to make the supply chain safe, visible and efficient.
“Global brand owners already trust HP for the highest quality digital print for all of their consumer facing products. eAgile is pleased to be collaborating with a true leader to bring a turn-key security and authentication solution for brand protection,” says Gary Burns, CEO of eAgile Inc.
The eLink solution will bring an affordable and potentially self-funding security system to industries that need to protect against counterfeits and diverted products. eAgile is already providing multiple Rain RFID and NFC solutions to the healthcare marketplace, primarily pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals, two industries where these issues not only cost brand owners billions in direct and indirect damages, but potentially put lives at risk.
“Everyone from the brand owner to the consumer has common interests, they want products that are safe, authentic and compliant. The assumption by consumers is when a product is on the shelf, it has been validated by upstream checkpoints,” says Peter Phaneuf, president of eAgile. “This holds true in many traditional situations but with the expansion of online purchasing, international distribution models and an increasingly savvy counterfeit industry, there are limited ways to affordably police your brand at all levels and in all places. By providing an effective authentication process powered by a smartphone, nearly everyone will have access to safe and secure goods.”
The combination of HP’s high-speed security digital print and eAgile’s proven RFID/IoT based smart packaging platforms has created eLink, an actionable strategy for a secure, authentic and traceable supply chain rich with real-time data analytics.