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After Pandemic-Related Innovation Pauses, Smart Packaging’s Back on Track

Andrew Manly of AIPIA, the Smart Packaging Association, catches us up with all things active & intelligent packaging. He gives us a valuable lens through which to view its recent and expected future growth on the back end (hopefully) of the pandemic.

Andrew Manly, AIPIA’s communications director
Andrew Manly, AIPIA’s communications director

Packaging World: First, explain to our readers what AIPIA is and who you serve?

Andrew Manly:  AIPIA is the Active & Intelligent Packaging Industry Association. It was founded just over 10 years ago by a chap called Eef de Ferrante and myself. The aim is to make AIPIA a network hub, an information hub, and a meeting place for the smart packaging sector; those who are interested in it, and those who want to use it. A lot of companies entering the smart packaging space are not necessarily coming from a strong packaging background, so they need to know and understand the ways of the packaging industry, which is where I come in. We’ve created a website, which is really a place where people can gain information about those people who are active in this industry. Also, we run a regular newsletter which brings you up to date with some of the latest trends and activities from members, from brand owners, and from NGOs, anything and anyone that’s of interest.

From that, we extended our role into running live activities, which translates itself into the Congress you’re attending here in Amsterdam. It is a meeting place, a networking hub for the industry to talk to those companies, particularly brand owners who are interested in these technologies and who want to really start to adopt and implement the smart packaging ideas into their daily packaging use. And that covers both active packaging—which is basically shelf extension and product safety—through to the sexier stuff, which is connected packaging. That can run from supply chain management, traceability, authentication, provenance, or anti-counterfeit, right through to the stuff that one of our regular exhibitors at the Congress showed you on the last session of the first day, which is how augmented reality can add a completely different dimension to your product, and entertain and engage consumers in completely new ways. 

Those are certainly top trends in packaging, but what specific technologies constitute active and intelligent packaging today? 

Obviously, technologies like RFID, NFC, QR codes, traceability, functionality, and all kinds of stuff around those, are where we’re at. And that’s a fast-moving and fast-developing sector. Particularly, we’re used to handle the digitization of packaging. And that includes not just the consumer-facing stuff, like the stuff [a consumer] can scan [on a smartphone], but also all of the background activity, the background software and search engines and data management and processing hubs that are so valuable, offering insights to the consumer in one way, and equally valuable to the product owners and the brand owners in the other.


   Interested in active & intelligent packaging? Read Packaging World's exclusive coverage of the AIPIA World Congress, held in November 2022, and read about trends, new products, and other applications using smart packaging.


A major takeaway from the brands I’m hearing from here at the AIPIA World Congress is that there are all sorts of interesting active and intelligent packaging capabilities available. But the challenge comes in knitting them together, often from several different suppliers and providers, with several different interfaces, into a practical, end-to-end product. Has this been your experience? 

There are lots of different technologies there, but one of the keys to opening and unlocking the usefulness of smart packaging is to combine technologies to provide a complete solution. And that’s one of the areas that AIPIA is working on, helping our members work together to offer the brands and the products a complete idea, rather than bits of ideas that need to be fitted together.

We learned very quickly that a lot of [active and intelligent packaging suppliers] were going to brand owners and saying, “Well, look, hey, we got this wonderful capability.” To which the brands responded, “Yeah, it’s interesting, but how on earth do we use it in a real-life environment?”

One of the things that we had to really do is educate backwards, explaining that you can’t just take an RFID tag and tell a CPG that it does this, this, and this. You’ve got to have the complete background, the software programming, and the sustainability issues, which now are quite an important part. It’s a moving target, also, because elements like sustainability have come on the scene. Which probably 10 years ago, whilst it was important, it wasn’t really something we related to. F Iller 1

What did you expect to see at this World Congress?

We had a board meeting just before the event, and we picked out three pillars that seem to be key elements. One is recycling, one is food waste, and one is supply chain management. And we felt those are the three areas we need to be focusing on, as an industry. But one of the other elements that came out of that discussion—and was echoed in a lot of the presentations that we saw—is that we need to get the consumer a lot more on board with the technology. They need to understand it. And that is in-part our role, but we can only do so much. It needs the retailers and the brand owners to buy in to the technology, and not just in terms of using it, but in explaining to consumers the benefits of it.

We’ve read that QR code adoption received a big boost among consumers since the outset of the pandemic, since touch-free ordering and menu access became prevalent. Was that evident at the event? 

I think one of the things that was the great benefit to the industry, from a perverse point of view, in the COVID-19 pandemic was that people got used to remote shopping, scanning at restaurants, and non-contact access like the QR codes. And the QR code development has been quite exponential. There are a lot more people using more QR coding with more attributes to it. One of the guys who was out sick from presenting at the Congress was from a company called Complete Inspection Systems, who is an American company and they’re doing really deep-dive QR codes. They can be quite difficult [secure] in terms of anti-counterfeiting, so that your own U.S. Defense Department can use them. But also, they can have up to four functions in one code. You’re not just getting the normal barcode functions, you’re also getting consumer engagement, you’re getting deep security, and traceability just off a QR code. And the beauty of that is that you don’t always have to download an app to use a QR code.

But even with this increased amount of adoption, the fact is that a lot of [consumers] don’t really understand what’s on the pack when they see an RFID tag or a QR code, because nobody’s telling them what’s there to use, or how to use it.

I’ve seen loads of bottles of wine with RFID tags in my local supermarket, but nobody knows that they’re there because nobody’s telling people that they’re there. And they’re not exactly huge and easy to see, because you don’t want big RFID tags on small bottles of wine. Adoption is happening, but education is a big issue, and we are scratching our heads a little bit about that at the moment. And we will continue to work with other stakeholders, and it is something that we all are going to have to work on together to get the maximum benefit. 

Another effect of the pandemic was that there were fewer events over the past three years. Given this longer than usual time interval between major events (AIPIA World Congress is typically annual), have any trends become easier to spot, or maybe have accelerated since 2019? Did anything surprise you? 

We’re getting much more of a feel that there’s a lot more interest from the brand owners now. They’re much more focused on it. Digitalization is a key issue and I’ve just literally today read a report from one of the big research and analytics companies that’s saying in some respects, they can see digitalization in packaging becoming as important or even more important that sustainability in the current circumstances. 

Whether they’re right or wrong, the fact that they’re even thinking about it that way shows how much the concept of digitization, smart packaging, and its use are getting further up the food chain.

Things like RFID are becoming a lot more ubiquitous, and not just in the apparel sector. We’re seeing a lot more uptake, and we are getting feedback from those companies who make them that there’s a lot more uptake, because obviously prices of the tags have come down and what they can do has improved. And you’ve got some big players, like Avery Dennison and others, who are really pushing the technology out so that you can now have, for example, RFID tags that can sit on metal and remain readable. Whereas, maybe five years ago, that was not a very distinct possibility. And they’re also much better in things like wet environments and other advances. Aipia 22 Paulus Van Dorsten 10

Does Moore’s Law apply here, where the technology improves and price goes down over time, as the hardware becomes more ubiquitous?

One of the inhibitors to using tagging or electronic antenna was that they had batteries, which contain some kind of conductive metal. We are now having companies like Wiliot, and they were here at the Congress, who have a battery-free tag which is much more feature driven. But it us also a lot easier to apply, is a lot more sustainable, and because it doesn’t contain [as much or any] metal, it is not as expensive to produce. 

Looking back to 2019, one of the key differences [between then and now] is that is that [suppliers] have continued to develop the technology so that they’re more cost efficient and more cost effective. Because one of the walls that we have had to overcome—and there are still a few walls left—is a lot of brands like to use these technologies for campaigns or for particular product promotions, things like that. But using them in a general rollout was not as common as we would hope or expected to be. And that is partly due, we think, to the disruption caused by COVID-19. But we are now seeing the other side of it. In America for instance, Walmart is now mandating a lot of its suppliers to use RFID or codes on whole range of SKUs, which is encouraging. But we don’t see that rolling out yet to other big retailers in the way that we hope it will. But then, like all small industries, we all hope to go faster than we actually manage to do.

What did you see that’s new in traceability or track & trace?

You’ve got scanning technologies like the one that Systech uses, which is clever because it doesn’t require any amendments to the landscape of your packaging. [What the scanners are] picking up is differences—tiny, tiny differences—in the print register on each pack, and it can therefore use it as a unique identifier. Because they’ve developed in the software as well, they’ve also added in a lot more with product identification, and not just the traceability aspects. But even going into the [consumer] engagement side, you can say that as well. This is one of the things that I think Haleon and GSK liked about the Securikett [which they chose as a winner of a supplier challenge, more on page 106]. One of the reasons Securikett came out on top in the challenge was because they have both the hardware and the software elements in which they’re fairly well-developed, so only one provider of a solution instead of several. Another exhibitor, Kezzler, also has done a lot of work in traceability. 

You already mentioned that sustainability, while important, wasn’t center of the bullseye for active and intelligent packaging as recently as five or six years ago. But that’s clearly changed. You mentioned recycling as a pillar, how and why is that? 

It’s very important, and the Holy Grail 2.0 project [active and intelligent sorting of plastics at MRFs in Denmark, Germany, and France] has really developed very fast. They’re almost beyond the pilot stage with it now. They ran a pilot at the beginning of this year with Henkel, and now they’re going to be doing some more with it. At the Congress, there was another presentation from a company called FiliGrade Sustainable Watermarks, with the brand CurveCode, which embeds readable information about the plastic into the pack itself [so materials recovery facilities can scan and sort more easily]. But the nice thing about projects like Holy Grail is that they’re consortiums that span right across the value chain. They’re not just the smart and active packaging industry technologies who are trying to convince people like Proctor and Gamble or Henkel to use these things.

Also, we’re getting into reuse as well as recycle, and there are smart technologies like RFID in a company called 1Less. They’re doing an RFID-tagged set of cutlery, containers, cups, and saucers, that can be used in big venues [like sports or music, or in catering situations]. The consumer uses them, then puts them into a smart bin [trash can] and they’re automatically sent for washing and cleaning and reuse. But the good thing about them is that you can put any trash in the smart bin, and it will sort them out. The consumer doesn’t really have to think about separating. 

Another sustainability-related pillar of yours was food waste prevention. What do you see happening there?

Angela Morgan from Aptar was here, talking about active packaging and food waste prevention. And it’s such a big thing now—I’m sure there are more active packaging products out there than we are aware of because it’s one of those that I call an invisible technology.

You don’t know whether your plastic film on your snack wrapper has had a treatment on it unless you’re told. Provided again we can make the retailers understand both the consumer benefit and the cost benefit, I think that we’ll see a lot more active and monitoring devices on packs at item level, rather than at batch level. On your supermarket shelves, you might see some of these color changing labels getting going, stuff like that, because food prices are going through the roof. And people are becoming a lot more cost conscious and therefore, that should translate into better management of the food that you buy. 

That’s where you get into nifty areas like dynamic pricing, correct? 

There are a few dynamic pricing models out there. I’m not going so far as to say that everyone’s going to end up with an intelligent refrigerator. There are fridges like that already that will tell you when to use your products, but they’re probably quite expensive. And people don’t just change fridges every day because there’s a new feature. But in stores you’ll see active and compliance packaging. There was a lot of talk, if you recall, of GS1 rolling out coding and traceability standards, and there’s better promotion of the benefits of it now. That’s thanks to GS1 being a world network, and there’s a lot of people working with them now. A lot of drive comes from regulation, and I can only see regulation getting heavier rather than lighter in the next few years. I’m not talking about sustainable packaging. I’m talking about food regulation and food safety, and active and intelligent packaging can help there. So, those things are good for our industry. 

Coming out of this latest AIPIA World Congress, where are you seeing active and intelligent packaging gaining the most traction?

In the early days, we thought that the things that would really excite the brands would be anti-counterfeiting and traceability, market diversion, avoidance, and all that. Actually, the thing that they really bit on was consumer engagement. It’s making a much closer relationship with their clients, with their consumers. And I don’t see that going away at all. Marks & Spencer had to cancel, but their contribution to the Congress was roughly going to be about consumer engagement aspects of active and intelligent packaging. And that was the thing that they as a retailer were interested in; in engaging their consumers more closely. We sort of went to the background elements of smart packaging a bit during COVID thing because other things, like safety, security, and traceability seemed to become more the focus. But now you’re getting a bit more relaxed again. We’re going to get more consumer engagement features, I think. PW

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