The Active and Intelligent Packaging Association (AIPIA)'s recent World Congress convened practically all the relevant smart packaging stakeholders to discuss the steepening adoption curve for connected packaging. This growth is due in part to regulation, especially in Europe, and in part to sheer utility for brands and retailers. More importantly, the brand owners employing smart packaging are beginning to take better advantage of the full suite of applications. One way they can do so, and perhaps take advantage of all three legs of the smart packaging stool in supply chain, consumer engagement, and sustainability, is by adopting a 2D barcode, called Digital Link.
GS1’s Digital Link is a standard 2D code barcode architecture that, when printed on a package, singularly accomplishes a lot of parallel tasks for supply chain stakeholders and consumers alike. At AIPIA, Dominique Guinard, VP of Innovation at Digimarc and founder of EVRYTHNG, which Digimarc acquired, explained that Digital Link is about ready for prime time. The standard has matured over the six years since its 2018 launch, emerging out of the mission-specific workgroup that Guinard co-chaired, and has graduated into normal standard maintenance for standardizing body GS1.
The Digital Link 2D barcode can be said to be the direct descendent of the good ol’ GTIN 1D barcode that has served brands and retailers for 50 years. The on-pack GTIN is what currently makes your packaged product go “beep” at the retail register when scanned. But that GTIN means nothing to consumers—it’s simply a serialization method for inventory and SKU management that’s used upstream in the supply chain, and again at checkout. Digital Link, on the other hand, unlocks a consumer component among many other functions carried in a single, unique 2D barcode.
“Digital Link is what has happened now that the GTIN 1D barcode has met the internet,” said Guinard. “The little change that had a big impact was transforming the GTIN into a URL, and representing that URL as a QR code, which made them smartphone- and scanner-readable.”
The big consumer brands are lining up to get on board.
“Consumers demand more information about the products they’re purchasing, regulators require the disclosure of more information and there’s an ongoing need to more effectively track and trace products through the supply chain. We can resolve this with 2D barcodes with GS1 standards inside—a single barcode that has the power to provide all the information consumers need and desire, improve traceability through the supply chain, and scans at checkout,” said Jon Moeller, chairman of the board, president, and CEO, Procter & Gamble, in a November letter sent to the Board of Directors of the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF).
In support of the advent of the Digital Link standard, the Sunrise 2027 program was launched as a project to popularize the technology with a benchmark date by which proponents hope to have industry (brands, retailers, consumers, and the supply chain that connects them) ready to move from 1D GTIN to 2D code for on-pack barcodes. This involves getting all scanner manufacturers, the printers, and the software that supports them, ready for the switch.
“Sunrise 2027 is less about the brands, they’re more or less ready. And it’s less about the smartphones, they’re ready to read the URLs. It’s more about ensuring the infrastructure is ready in the supply chain, like in scanners at point-of-sale in retail, and in warehousing and logistics,” Guinard said. “That change is primarily, even overwhelmingly, a software change only. Some older scanners or smartphones simply cannot read this code, but that’s very rare.”
The idea behind Digital Link was to start to make GS1 identifiers accessible to consumers, a segment that 1D GTIN had never reached. A lot of stars had to align for this to happen. The first was that nearly all mobile phones now have a native capability to read 2D barcodes. Apple was a holdout in offering this native readability. But now and going forward, a special app is no longer required for an iPhone to read a QR code. Also, consumer familiarity with QR and 2D barcodes received a big boost during pandemic, as contact-free menus in restaurants taught even luddites to scan QRs. And societally, consumers now demand to know a lot more about the brands they shop, looking for information on product provenance, package sustainability profile, or brand social stances, among other preferences.
Meanwhile, complex supply chains require more visibility and traceability, and Digital Link allows a brand to attach a singular identity to a product and follow it throughout its entire lifecycle—from printing on the package substrate, to packaging the product, through the supply chain to retail and the consumer in the aisle, at the checkout counter, after the purchase in a consumer’s home, and even post-disposal for package recycling purposes. That single product generates a lot of data through its lifecycle, but supply chains now have much more capacity and computing power for data than they once did, especially now at the dawn of AI. Broadly, supply chain stakeholders are better equipped to harness the data their scannable packages generate than they ever were before.
Simultaneously, in the EU, regulations like the Digital Product Passport (DPP) are pressuring brands to account for the end of life of their products’ packaging. Since Digital Link appears to be tailor made for DPP programs, it’s almost a surprise to learn that DPP didn’t have Digital Link specifically in mind to accomplish DPP’s goals.
“The stars really were aligning, and the time was really right to start to make the transition to 2D barcodes,” Guinard said. “We just needed a standard like Digital Link to align the language globally.”
Digital Link’s trick, to put it into layman’s terms, is that the singular URL code is so many different things to so many different stakeholders. The URL represented as a QR is always the same, but the information that’s extracted—each small chunk is called a key—is different depending on who is doing the extracting, and with which software. Consumers scan the code and are directed to a website, where a brand can place any consumer-facing information they choose—the provenance of a certain wine vintage, for example. A scanner at the checkout reads that same QR and goes “beep,” but the software resolves the URL only for a simple GTIN number key that also resides within the longer code. Every link of the supply chain might have a corresponding key that they use to extract relevant darta, such as batch information or a serial number for brands’ track and trace efforts, or an expiration date for retail inventory management. Any number of specific keys, or pieces of information, can placed within the code.
Interested stakeholders can experiment for free with building a Digital Link, adding and subtracting key components of your choice, by visiting digital-link.tools. The testing site also produces a 2D QR code to accompany the URL.
A URL could theoretically contain limitless information, but there are practical limitations on how much data can be usably coded into each Digital Link. The longer, more key-laden the URL becomes, the denser the pixilation of the 2D code becomes. When the QR becomes too granular to be read by a scanner or smartphone, the size of the QR code must increase. And fast-moving consumer products already have finite label space.
But the bigger picture is that standards like Digital Link work to erode a common challenge in smart packaging, and that’s interoperability between technologies and applications.
“Nobody gets fired for using a standard,” Guinard said. PW