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  • 23 Oct 2019

The real meaning of ‘smart labels’

The real meaning of ‘smart labels’

From a certain point of view all labels are smart because they all try to convey important information. In its simplest form that might just be a date or batch number. In more complex formats this includes several layers of detail – everything from weight or volume, ingredients, nutrition values and, of course, sales messages and branding.

Then along come these upstart intelligent packaging developers who decide to take the name of smart labels (or indeed smart packaging) all for themselves.  Is that fair? Is that terminology correct? And what do they really mean by ‘smart’?

Having been in this world of active and intelligent packaging since the earliest of days, l have come to the conclusion that what defines a smart label today is more how it conveys the information and what is done with it, not just what that information actually is. It’s a bit like a layer cake, we’ve added extra layers, but made it simpler to understand.

l suppose ‘simpler’ does depend on your talent with a smartphone to some extent. But then most consumers, whatever their age or gender, do want more tailored information about the products: Is it organic? Is it tested on animals? How much sugar or salt? There is no easy way to provide everything on an already overcrowded landscape. So, adding layers of information via your phone, or other forms of prompting, does make sense.

Labels have always been passive sources of information. Not any longer. Active and intelligent components on labels can now alert the consumer (or the logistics company, warehouse manager, stock controller and retailer) about the condition of the product, whether it has been tampered with, undergone a temperature excursion, been dropped in transit, or just if it has taken too long to reach its final destination.

It does not end there. Smart labels are now a vital component in the fight against counterfeit or diverted goods. Advances in printing and coding have made this much more attainable. But the fakers are very good at catching on fast (just think holograms.) So how to stay one jump ahead is where the focus for these applications most certainly is, and must continue to be.

Several innovations made their debut during the recent Labelexpo Europe in Brussels. One eye-catching development showed how several companies, with complimentary expertise, can combine to provide an effective and commercially viable product. UPM Raflatac announced a ground-breaking integration between Xeikon’s digital printing presses and Magic Add’s Internet of Packaging platform for its intelligent label, RafMore by UPM Raflatac.

Magic Add’s IoP platform, which powers the RafMore smart labels, now sends unique IDs to Xeikon digital printers directly from the Cloud. The printer automatically and securely prints the smart labels with unique digital identities in the form of any standard, machine-readable code with shorter turnarounds and in greater quantities than ever possible before, the companies say.

The point of this example is not to say it is better than any of the others attempting to do the same or similar things, but to show that not one single technology – whether it is digital printing, Cloud platforms or clever coding – is the complete answer to being a Smart Label. Furthermore, it shows that the meaning of smart label is currently a work in progress and continually expanding and changing to meet different needs as they develop (and as the technology expands, too.)

So why did all those minds working so hard on the Falsified Medicines Directive come up with the idea that a 2D barcode was going to be ‘secure and effective’? Better ask them l suppose.

This fast-moving technology is gaining much more traction as the cost of things like NFC tags and printed electronics comes down dramatically (we now have scalable production of NFC tags at under 5 cents a unit.) In addition, the functionality is expanding continually. And it’s not just a one-way information highway toward the consumer. Valuable marketing and consumer metrics can be gathered and interpreted almost in real time if necessary.

To stay on top of this fast-moving sector AIPIA brings together a complete ecosystem of active and intelligent packaging practitioners and potential users annually. It tries not just to present the latest innovations but interrogate them, too. The next edition of the AIPIA Congress takes place in Amsterdam on 18-19 November 2019. It includes two brand owner challenges, always lively and challenging events. For full details of the agenda go to

Andrew Manly is the communications director for AIPIA, the Active & Intelligent Packaging Industry Association. A 40 year veteran of the industry he has written about packaging technologies for almost as long as he can remember and travels the world lecturing and presenting on the latest trends and innovations in the sector.


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