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Smart and intelligent labels

Clearmark QR code

Before we can start any discussion about smart and intelligent labels, we need to define what we mean by these terms and the attributes they describe. A simple definition would be that smart labels become active in response to a trigger, like UV radiation or the physical action of filling a container. Intelligent labels, on the other hand, switch an application on or off in response to external stimuli – they can ‘sense’ an action and inform the recipient. 

The consultancy experts at Clearmark provide a more in-depth definition of a ‘smart’ label, describing it as an umbrella term for any labeling or coding system that uses technology to add functionality and data beyond a traditional barcode. This includes data-embedded barcodes, RFID, and QR codes and other emerging technologies.

‘Transforming a once single-dimensional barcode into a data-rich source for suppliers, packagers, logistics workers and advertisers, smart labeling can demonstrate the qualities and provenance of products, improve safety and reduce waste by tracking the products through the supply chain,’ says the company. 

So what are the main smart label technologies on the market?

Before we can start any discussion about smart and intelligent labels, we need to define what we mean by these terms and the attributes they describe. A simple definition would be that smart labels become active in response to a trigger, like UV radiation or the physical action of filling a container. Intelligent labels, on the other hand, switch an application on or off in response to external stimuli – they can ‘sense’ an action and inform the recipient. 

Quick Response codes 
Quick Response (QR) codes are used for item identification, product tracking and providing marketing information to consumers. They can be read rapidly by a range of devices including smartphones with an inbuilt QR code reader. 

QR codes can store a lot more information than traditional barcodes. Where a barcode has a 20 character capacity, a QR code can store over 7,000 characters yet can be read more quickly by machine readers.

Data embedded barcodes 
Data embedded barcodes are barcodes with extra functionality over and above simple product identification. Applications include storing information such as the food’s expiry date, batch information and product tracking data. One popular example is the GS1-128 barcode which provides a global standard for exchanging data. This is used by manufacturers to add features like traceability and to trigger a range of automated procedures which ultimately add value for the manufacturer, supermarket and customer. 

Radio-frequency Identification 
Radio-frequency identification (RFID) labels can be attached to products and can automatically track them through the supply chain using the presence of electromagnetic fields. There are a wide range of applications including brand protection and track and trace. 

To conclude our definition, we might say that smart label technologies allow complex information to be conveyed to a machine system or to consumers, retailers and brands. 

Time Temperature Indicators (TTI) 
Time Temperature Indicators (TTI) can be applied at point of manufacture, and stay with the product throughout the supply chain. If the product has been kept within the recommended storage temperature conditions, the label will change color in line with the expected shelf-life of the product. However, products are often subject to out of specification temperatures due to sub-standard refrigeration units or poor chill chain management, such as leaving refrigerated truck doors open. 

An example is Insignia Technology’s FreshTag labels, which help the supply chain enhance food freshness and quality. Using color changing technology, the quality and freshness of products can be clearly highlighted to businesses and consumers. Other applications include assuring cold chain integrity and revealing tampering or damage to the packaging. The labels change color faster if food has been out of its temperature limits, meaning the labels are more reflective of the true product life than the static date codes. 

Insignia also offers after-opening (or ‘secondary’) shelf life timers for consumers, which automatically start to change color once a pack has been opened, allowing the consumer to make more informed decisions on the freshness of opened food. When the pack of modified atmosphere packaging is opened (for example a pack of ham), the atmosphere around the label changes, triggering the color changing process. The center dot changes color from yellow to purple as the food becomes less fresh. This gives a clear indication of how long the pack has been opened. These labels can be used on a wide range of foods which are packaged under MAP.

Traditionally, RFID has suffered interference problems when tags are attached to metal containers. Items such as foil cosmetic packaging, aluminum cans, metal tools or electronic goods can create interference between the tag and reader, making it challenging to achieve the performance read rates required in retail. Now Avery Dennison claims to have solved this problem with a technology which also enhances RFID communication on containers holding liquids. 

The new tags have been optimized for performance when applied to objects containing metal, foil and liquids, reflecting retailers’ growing desire for RFID to play a larger role in enhancing and automating supply chains and retail, especially in the food and beauty segments.

Called on-metal, the new technology uses a unique inlay design and label construction to tackle performance limitations when applied to products that contain metal and liquid. The range features two inlay designs, which vary in size to accommodate required read rates typically beyond three meters.

Francisco Melo, vice president and general manager, global Intelligent Labels at Avery Dennison, explains: ‘With the new on-metal RFID solutions, we are removing these barriers, enabling more companies and industries to give everyday items a unique digital identity and digital life.’

Another company working hard on these kinds of difficult applications is Schreiner ProTech, part of the Schreiner Group.

An issue identified by Schreiner is that specialty labels optimized for use on metal are designed for operation in one of two commonly used frequencies worldwide: ETSI in Europe or FCC in the NAFTA area and Asia. This means that the label can only be read by one or other of these two frequency bands. It follows that RFID labeled products which are moved between the continents can no longer be read by a universal system.

Schreiner ProTech has developed two new products for optimum data acquisition on metal across all international borders: the ((rfid))-DistaFerr Global and the ((rfid))- DistaFerr Global LongRange. Both labels take the physical properties of metal into account. The integrated dual-band antenna enables the labels to be read by both frequency bands. As a result, they can be utilized in the commonly used frequencies worldwide and reliably function on metallic substrates. The two products are identical in terms of size and design. The only difference is the chip used and the related readable range which varies from three to six meters, depending on the version and frequency band in which the label is being read. In addition, the labels are extremely durable and, due to their minimal size and thickness can be used in a wide range of applications. 

For container marking on ESD (Electrostatic Sensitive Device) materials, Schreiner LogiData has expanded its ESD RFID label family with the ((rfid))-DistaFerr ESD, also now available as a LongRange version. This label is designed specifically for all commonly used ESD container versions and antistatic levels and delivers a readable range of about seven meters.

Hostile environment 
RFID Two hostile environments for RFID tag technology have been microwave ovens and areas of elevated temperatures. 

Avery Dennison has tackled the microwave challenge with its WafeSafe (AD-25Xr6-P) technology for microwavable packaging. Because of the danger of sparking from components in the oven, consumers are normally instructed to remove the RFID tags from food packaging items before microwaving them. 

WaveSafe is claimed the first microwave safe UHF RFID technology for item-level tagging of frozen packaged foods. WaveSafe is designed to prevent arcing or heat build-up during microwaving while still delivering accurate read rates for item tracking. 

WaveSafe tags have been used by Sodexo in its SmartFridge product to make users safer by reducing the spark hazards associated with RFID tags on microwavable packages. The company has also been able to simplify their operations, since there is no longer a need to provide warnings about the possible fire risk on food packaging or the pantry’s microwave. 

‘Safety is such a big issue and we take consumer health to heart,’ said Darwin Gosal, CEO at CryoWerx. ‘A few months after conceptualizing SmartChef, we were introduced to WaveSafe which was a great fit for our needs. Our sole focus now is expanding and accelerating the use of SmartFridge globally, which is extremely exciting.’ 

In terms of survival in hostile thermal environments such as industrial painting or drying processes, the Schreiner group has developed RFID labels capable of withstanding high temperatures while ensuring effective readability across several meters without optical line of sight. The ((rfid))-DistaFerr HighTemp 2 label is resistant to temperatures of up to 230 deg C and can be applied directly onto metal, which makes it particularly suitable for painting and other high-temperature processes, particularly in the automotive industry. 

Active electronics and flexible batteries 
Smart labels with active electronics have already been widely used in consumer-facing applications such as a flashing bottle for Cola-Cola’s Star Wars promotion and Budweiser’s 2018 World Cup glasses. 

The problem with these, and the ubiquitous singing greetings cards, is that the electronics required can be quite bulky, often driven by the battery format with a limited life span. Although this has not been an issue for marketing gimmicks or a birthday card, it is a problem for more practical applications such as wearable devices, a market that has doubled in size since 2014, according to industry analyst IDTechEx. 

The predicted ageing of populations offers a strong driver for wearables, as these are seen as a way to relieve the growing pressures on our healthcare systems. Longer life generally means more complex health issues and use of monitoring systems on-body and on-products could bring significant benefits. For example, self-adhesive skin patches that can monitor wound health or packaging that can track consumption of pharmaceuticals to help improve adherence and outcomes. 

There are two requirements to enable technology to be added to billions of everyday pharmaceutical and healthcare products. First is the reduction in cost of the electronics, the second is form factor. Batteries would need to be thinner, smaller and flexible. 

PragmatIC is an innovator in this area, delivering low cost flexible integrated circuits (FlexICs) thinner than a human hair and robust enough for embedding into high volume items. But other components are required, such as sensors, perhaps a small display, or maybe the ability to store and retain a small amount of data, to make a healthcare wearable device. 

There are some interesting technologies being developed in displays, as seen for example in the Coca-Cola promotion mentioned above. Current state-of-the-art flexible batteries, such as lithium iron or vacuum deposited lithium batteries are actually quite thick, 0.2-0.7mm, and have relatively low energy densities, in the order of 1-3mAh/cm. They are also quite expensive. All factors that make them unattractive for the healthcare wearables market.

PragmatIC is collaborating with a number of research establishments and companies to try and advance this technology to bring a low cost, thin, flexible battery technology that will complement its FlexIC products. One such public collaboration is called FlexiBat which aims to demonstrate a graphene-enhanced battery. 

At the same time Stanford University is working on improving the energy density of its stretchable battery, while ETH Zurich has its own ongoing project, and there are researchers working on transparent batteries as well.

Whoever does make flexible batteries into a commercial proposition will be well rewarded, since the potential market goes far beyond healthcare wearables. 

A key application is one we have already discussed – replacing traditional ‘best before’ and ‘sell by’ dates on food, drink, and indeed anything that needs to be kept within certain temperature limits from manufacture to consumer. 

These smart labels and tags usually require sensors, paired with decision-making logic and a small power source, which would be a perfect fit for flexible batteries. 

The value of the food and beverage packaging market alone was 320bn USD in 2018, forecast to grow to 368bn in 2030. This is bigger than the wearables market referenced earlier. Other potential applications could include consumer goods, toys, games and pharmaceuticals. 

Label converter opportunities 
Although much of the technology mentioned above is inevitably highly technical and bespoke, converters have a key role in bringing it to market for real-world applications.

Industry expert Mike Fairley, strategic consultant for Labels & Labeling, explains that converters can also develop their own smart label products based around clever use of existing converting technology and commercially available materials and inks. 

Among the ways to make labels smarter or more intelligent Fairley lists:
• Building in intelligence during label design
• Using special labelstocks
• Use of special inks and coatings
• Using clever press and converting technology• Utilizing interactive codes and images

Fairley also speculates on what is in the pipeline for tomorrow’s labels. ‘New developments in nanotechnology will be very important, including nano-coatings nano-sensors, smart dust, microwire, biological encoding and DNA encoding.’ 

An exciting future indeed.


Chairman of the World Label Awards, Tony White has decades of experience in the label and packaging industry and is a highly respected technical writer.

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