Smart Packaging: Time to Chip In

Once seen as merely a warehousing and inventory management tool, radio frequency identification technology (RFID) brings value throughout the entire lifespan of packaged products.

Next-gen RFID Labeling Benefits Everything From Pre-production to Point-of-purchase – and Beyond

By Guido Moosmann and Katharina Totev with Schreiner ProTech

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re an executive at a prominent printer company – a supplier of printing machines for both businesses and home use. While a significant revenue driver for your business is, of course, the hardware, there’s an after-sale element that also provides a steady income stream: ink cartridges.

Business is… good. But it could be much better, and the singular reason is that ink cartridges are among the most regularly counterfeited products in the world. Counterfeit printer ink is a $3.5 billion industry – one so prevalent and far-reaching that some major printing companies conduct SWAT-style raids to catch frauds red (or black, or blue) handed.

Fortunately, there’s a solution to this perpetual profit-draining theft: An ink cartridge that identifies itself as original before a printer can use it.

And that, is just one of the ways radio frequency identification technology, or RFID labels, can literally unlock added benefits for brand owners around the world. Once seen as merely a warehousing and inventory management tool, this evolving technology can bring value spanning the entirety of packaged products’ lifespans – from pre-production validation and post-packaging verification to supply chain efficiencies and end user touchpoints.

Now even packages and products with metal surfaces – which conventionally hindered frequency range or viability – can incorporate RFID technology. Image courtesy of Schreiner ProTech.

Comprehensive authenticity – and much more

Before packaging materials become a branded final product – indeed, before they are even formed into final shape for product filling – it’s just a substrate. For example, a roll of plastic. But in today’s packaging landscape, all plastics are decidedly not created equal. Not only are there varying degrees of stock weight, but an increasing amount of sophisticated resins mixtures designed to make packages more recyclable. Here, RFID technology can provide the newly prerequisite step of verifying that the packaging substrates packagers receive are the exact ones they ordered.

Of course, substrates aren’t the only aspect of packaging growing increasingly complicated. As packages in multiple industries – pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and spare car parts, to name a few – continue to become more sophisticated, some now comprise a surprisingly high number of components. Often, one or more of these components are invisible once the final package is completed, filled and sealed. Here, RFID enables stakeholders to confirm a critical component’s existence despite being unable to see it. In certain cases, this approach also can eliminate the need for reassuring or even required language on a package’s exterior, freeing up valuable marketing real estate.

RFID labels make information accessible throughout the supply chain and product lifecycle.

Technology’s value in warehousing and supply chain security

Post-packaging, we arrive at more familiar usages of RFID labels. The technology’s value in warehousing and supply chain security has long been understood, and need not be reiterated here. However, what is worth noting is the evolving – and often devolving – landscape in this mid-lifecycle product stage.

Alternatingly overstocked and understocked warehouses, typically with too few workers, can benefit from RFID technology. For instance, supply chains feeling the personnel shortage pinch, may be doing little to quell concerns about product counterfeiting. However, today’s brand owners have more reason than ever to keep close, transparent tabs on their high-leverage goods, and RFID labels afford that in spades.

Authenticity verification for retailers and consumers

Last, but certainly not least, come the consumers, who have become increasingly accustomed to finding point-of-purchase prompts on packaging for additional details, instructions, promotional opportunities or other information. Historically, many of these smartphone-enabled touchpoints have come via QR codes. But whereas QR codes are replicable, RFID labels are exceptionally difficult – and expensive – to copy, and can be accessed via smartphone just as readily as their less-secure counterpart.

Past all the manuals, directions, advisories and promotions, consumers want to know that the products they are purchasing are authentic. And the more expensive or mission-critical (i.e. medicines, high-end cosmetics, etc.) the product, the more this reassurance becomes paramount. Here, RFID labels provide everything a QR code does – plus authenticity verification, which is consistently at or near the top of the value proposition wish list for retailers and consumers alike

RFID technology unlocks track and trace capabilities, and supports authenticity verification.

Why aren’t RFID labels already a mainstay of packaging in various sectors?

More than anything, the answer is the platform’s fragility – or rather, its perceived fragility. RFID chips can be cumbersome to protect, a drawback that has limited its use to certain settings and, especially, certain packaging surfaces and substrates. But perceptions are just that: perceptions. They are general consensus gleaned from a snapshot in time. And in the RFID labels landscape, times they are a-changin’.

The latest generation of RFID labels are robust in ways once only dreamt of. For starters, they can be applied to an ever-expanding set of surfaces. Plastics have always been fair game, but now even products with metal packaging surfaces – which conventionally hindered frequency range or viability – can incorporate RFID technology. We referenced spare car parts earlier, and automotive components and parts are certainly a segment where the ability to utilize RFID technology on metal surfaces is highly beneficial.

Temperature toleration also has been significantly expanded, making RFID technology more viable in applications where labeled components require, for example, a high-temperature drying step following painting or cleaning processes. Another historic hurdle – RFID’s compatibility with containers housing an abundance of liquids, which can dampen frequency range – has largely been overcome. Promising progress also has been made to protect RFID chips on packages that endure repeated mechanical stresses, including pharmaceutical vials and other vital, counterfeit-prone items.

The benefits of RFID labeling technology

Finally, RFID labeling brings the benefits of… well, labeling. Compared with other RFID technologies, labeling can be performed more automatically and at higher speeds without slowing or interfering with other production processes. It’s essentially a drop-in solution that can be seamlessly tacked on to an existing production line with as little fuss as possible.

For now, RFID labeling falls squarely into the “emerging” category. But given this tremendous upsides of this packaging powerhouse, radio frequency is primed to become far more radio frequent.

About the Authors

Guido Moosmann is Head of Business Unit, USMCA for Schreiner ProTech, a Germany-based developer and manufacturer of functional labels with value-added benefits for the automotive, engineering-based and other industries.

Katharina Totev is Product Manager RFID + Printed Electronics for Schreiner ProTech, whose solutions include those addressing thermal-transfer printing, laser marking, RFID technologies pressure compensation seals and printed electronics.

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