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Smart packaging--gaining traction in the marketplace

The promise of smart packaging has always been impressive. Now, at last, some pretty intriguing commercial applications are starting to surface.
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What if packaging could do more than merely contain things? What if it could play an active role in collecting a record of events that could be stored for reporting purposes, in authenticating that a drug is not a counterfeit, in letting the consumer actively participate in the brand authentication process, in chilling or heating a product?

Guess what. Packaging is already performing such functions, and based on the success that has been achieved thus far, the number of applications is sure to multiply.

Welcome to the world of smart packaging. It’s a concept that can be defined in a number of ways, though one useful way comes from Paul Butler, a principal in the U.K. consultancy service known as Packaging Materials and Technologies (www.smartpackaging.co.uk). Says Butler: “Forget about all those numerous definitions—active, diagnostic, intelligent, smart, functional—to describe smart packaging. It’s all one big continuum of functionality.”

Butler figures a “smart package” is a package made smart by functional attributes that add benefits either to a participant in the supply chain or to the consumer. A perfect example of this enhanced functionality is seen in the temperature-monitoring labels now used on all inbound produce, fresh meat, and seafood shipments to the distribution centers of the Albertson’s chain of supermarkets. The monitoring label of choice, says Albertson’s, is the PakSense TXi™ Smart label from PakSense Inc. (www.paksense.com). It tracks the temperature of a perishable product’s environment during distribution and enables quality-assurance personnel to make better quality and safety decisions.

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“We’ve always monitored the temperatures of our perishable products during shipping,” explains Dave Dean, group vice president of procurement for Albertson’s. “But we found that the traditional temperature-monitoring devices were bulky and expensive. A quick return-on-investment analysis on the PakSense Label convinced me that making the switch would save us a substantial amount of money-and provide better quality assurance for our customers.”

What an improvement

To really appreciate how significant an improvement these smart labels are, it’s important to understand that the “traditional temperature-monitoring device” that they replace is a brick-sized device that is a reusable asset. Because it’s a reusable asset, a number of logistical inconveniences are inherent in its use. Not only does it have to be kept track of, cared for, and reused, but it also has to be sent back periodically to its manufacturer so that it can be recalibrated.

All of these logistical complications disappear when the temperature-monitoring device is designed with one-way use in mind. Now the meat or fish or poultry supplier shipping to Albertson’s simply snaps off the corner of a label and applies it to the side of a pallet. When a shipment reaches its destination, as long as the product has not been exposed to temperatures outside of preprogrammed parameters, the green LED on the label will be blinking. If temperatures have ranged too high or too low, the green LED will stop blinking, and instead, the up arrow or down arrow will begin to blink. So personnel on the receiving end know at a glance if the contents of a shipment are suspect or not.

Making all of this possible is a little thing called miniaturization. Contained in the PakSense label is a 1.6-g lithium manganese battery, the three LEDs, and a microchip-operated temperature-sensing device. Also on board: 4 kb of memory. Finally, near the top of the label are five contact pads—more on these in a minute.

PakSense programs the three LEDs to trigger at whatever temperatures the user specifies. The labels are then shipped to customers in boxes of 25. When the produce grower snaps off the corner of the label, it breaks a circuit and, in effect, “wakes up” the label. Anywhere from one to five labels may be placed in a given shipment. Albertson’s recommends three per shipment of meat and only one for fresh produce.

And the five contact pads at the top of the PakSense label? These permit extraction of data by way of a special reader. The reader can then be connected to the USB port of a computer running Microsoft Windows so that data in the reader can be downloaded into a computer. In minutes, quality-control personnel can be looking at a report for each label, each of which has its own unique serial number. On the report is a graph showing the temperatures to which a shipment was exposed and the times and duration of that exposure.

Measuring 2 sq”, the flat PakSense labels are sealed in clear food-grade film. They’ve been in use in the Albertson’s chain since spring of 2006. “We are embracing new technology so we can be at the forefront of food quality and safety,” says Albertson’s Dean. “With PakSense labels, we can sample temperatures throughout a trailer, not just on the top. We view this as another tool to ensure that our customers receive the freshest products available.”

What about cosmetics?

For years, the self-heating or self-cooling can has tried to make its mark on the beverage market. But it’s always been a tough row to hoe when the price point for most single-use beverages is so low and the upcharge brought by temperature-regulating container technology is relatively high.

One firm that seems to have found a way around this price-point conundrum is Thermagen (www.thermagen.com) of Forge les Bains, France. Unimpressed with the beverage sector’s progress in self-cooling cans, management at Thermagen decided to look at an application in the HBA sector, where price points range from substantial to hideously high. Thus was born Icy Beauty, a Thermagen brand that launched Ice-Source in 2004. This skin-rejuvenating cream is in a self-cooling container that cools the cream from 72° F to 36° F in a matter of seconds. This high-speed cooling reorganizes molecules in certain active ingredients in the cream so that it takes on unique “plumping” properties that smooth out wrinkles.

At the heart of this self-cooling technology is the principle of thermodynamics, a field of physics that explains the dynamics of heat exchange between a vessel and its surrounding environment. Figure 1 illustrates how the self-cooling container, made of steel, is contained inside a conventional polypropylene jar with a threaded PP closure. Figure 2 shows the working components of the self-cooling container. The 22 mL (0.7441 oz) of cream sit in a stainless-steel “heat exchanger.” Surrounding this heat exchanger is a small open space that’s filled with water under vacuum. And at the very bottom is what Thermagen calls an “advanced ceramic.” Separating this ceramic material from the space filled with water under pressure is a thin steel sheet with a valve in the center. A press of a button at the bottom of the container opens this valve, allowing the water vapor to be soaked up by the ceramic material. Due to the immutable laws of thermodynamics, the water vapor carries with it the heat that’s in the cream. So the cream drops rapidly in temperature, while the ceramic heats up. In two minutes, the thermodynamic reaction is complete. Depending on how much cream is applied, the 22 mL of product may provide up to 20 applications. By returning the PP closure to the jar, the product can be kept refrigerated and stay effective for several months.

Sold in high-end shops and over the Internet, Ice-Source sells for $300. Conscious that such a number is a bit steep, Icy Beauty recently came out with a similar product in a single-dose, self-chilling format. This time the functional components have been greatly miniaturized. The single-dose packs contain 2 mL of cream (0.07 oz) and sell for about $68.

Frothy coffee anyone?

Another intriguing example of packaging made smart by its functional attributes is the two-compartment thermoform that holds Café Switch. This concentrated, frothy coffee drink from Sara Lee division Douwe Egberts was introduced in May in the U.K. and is set to expand soon into continental Europe.

RPC Cobelplast (www.rpc-cobelplast.de) provides the multilayer forming stock. Precise material specs are not available, but it is fundamentally a polypropylene/ethylene vinyl alcohol construction. High-barrier material is essential to protect the aroma and product taste and to guarantee a longer ambient shelf life. Equally important, the structure must be rugged and flexible enough to withstand the pumping action that the package is designed around.

According to John Flamand, manager of packaging and hardware development at the Sara Lee Innovation and Quality Center, each compartment in the novel package is aseptically filled with 18 mL (0.6088 oz) of concentrated coffee. Flamand doesn’t name the lidding material or the maker of the thermoform/fill/seal system on which aseptic filling is done.

The unique functional attribute that makes this a smart package is its pumpability. Consumers invert the dual-chambered container and press their thumbs into the two cups so as to pump the liquid contents from one cup to the other. This brings the contents to a froth. After pumping for about 30 seconds, the consumer pulls a tab and squeezes the contents into a cup. When hot or cold water or milk is added, a delicious, frothy coffee drink is produced.

Introduced first in the U.K. in May, Café Switch is sold in six-packs for about $4.50. To differentiate its six packs, the firm selected molded fiber packaging from Huhtamaki (www.huhtamaki.com) rather than paperboard or shrink film. A pressure-sensitive paper label delivers graphic pop and carries whatever informational copy is needed.

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