The AIPIA World Congress proved smart packaging holds promise for brand objectives like traceability, recyclability, consumer engagement, food waste reduction, and supply chain logistics. Can tech suppliers band together to deliver total solutions?
Packaging World was in attendance for the first live AIPIA (Smart Packaging Association) World Congress since 2019. Given the longer-than-usual three-year interval between installments of a typically annual event (thanks, pandemic), we expected to see some pronounced vaults forward in the technology. We weren’t disappointed. Parent Roll For Hand Towel
While the world was mired in the pandemic, creators and suppliers in the active and intelligent packaging space kept pushing the envelope on technologies. This has kept many of them roughly following Moore’s Law, with quality and capabilities improving, and costs dropping. For instance, we’re seeing a shift away from the need for expensive, material-heavy batteries for RFID functions. Wiliot’s light, battery-free Pixels, for instance, need only ambient energy, propagating in space through radio frequency waves, to power them. Also, the stalwart QR code, which was a basic building block technology of active and intelligent packaging three years ago, emerged in 2022 capable of carrying multiple loads at once in ways it couldn’t before, including consumer engagement, insight gathering for brands, traceability, security for all, and achieving that pleasing GTIN “beep” at a checkout counter.
But smart packaging adoption undoubtedly experienced pandemic-related delays. While the suppliers kept moving the ball down the field technologically, brands and CPGs had to shift their focus away from R&D and toward more practical realities—like simply keeping production facilities procuring, producing, packaging, and meeting orders. Brand packagers reading Packaging World know that precious little packaging line space could be spared for R&D or new product testing; you were struggling just to keep up. While brand owners did the hard work of navigating the pandemic, many active and intelligent technologies that seemed to be just on the cusp of scalable adoption in 2019 were shelved for a few years.
But there were some silver linings in the interim that lead AIPIA delegates to believe active and intelligent packaging is primed to come roaring back. For one, many of the underlying supply chain inefficiencies that the pandemic revealed could have been far better managed with active and intelligent packaging. Having navigated their own pandemic supply chains, brands see this now more clearly than ever. Consider all the supply chain efficiencies afforded by digital printing, digital watermarks, digital twins, and sensors reading those marks. Brands now know they could be following individual packs through the chain, collecting actionable data, and responding to it in real time. Recent innovations in smart packaging demonstrated at the AIPIA World Congress include Wiliot’s battery-free IoT pixels (RFID), that power themselves by harvesting ambient radio waves.
Another result of the pandemic is that consumers became better acquainted with QR codes in bars and restaurants when traditional menus were deemed unhygienic. Apple first cleared the way by making QR codes readable to the native camera in iPhones in 2017. The pandemic accelerated adoption, and by the Super Bowl in 2022, we saw a QR code dancing enticingly on the TV screen in an unimaginably expensive 30-second commercial spot. No brand or messaging was revealed, just a 2D barcode. Did you scan it? Did one of your friends at the Super Bowl party?
Despite setbacks based on a pandemic pause in R&D, AIPIA Director Andrew Manly says, “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. Digitization is becoming the key issue.”
Bottom line? Most of the technologies and connected packaging capabilities being discussed at AIPIA are inevitable, and our industry will be a major vector in implementing them. Speaker Anita Etrati of consultancy Accenture posed this question, “What does an industrial revolution feel like?” answering, “Just like this, like this moment, right now; it doesn’t feel momentous until we see it in the rearview mirror.”
What remains to be seen is the relative speed and ease of scaling active, intelligent, connected packaging in the global economy.
A coordination challenge currently vexes many leading-edge suppliers seeking to get brands on board with their smart packaging tech. Most end-to-end active or intelligent packaging solutions require several layers of disparate technologies and capabilities, and they may involve a network of software providers, hardware suppliers, and Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to accomplish. That means layers of suppliers working together—an ecosystem that isn’t yet fully formed. There is some consolidation occurring in the industry that may alleviate this disconnect over time—for instance the recent sale of EVRYTHNG to Digimarc—but it remains a sore spot for brands. This dynamic was evident in the Active & Intelligent Packaging Challenge. But first, more on the challenge itself.
Long a fixture of this event, the AIPIA Packaging Challenge gives technology suppliers the opportunity to pitch their smart packaging solutions to a major brand owner in a “lightning round” of tailored presentations, each only three minutes.
Challenging these suppliers was a duo of consumer health giants: brand owner Haleon, a new primarily OTC entity holding brands such as Sensodyne, Aquafresh, Advil, Theraflu, and Centrum, and brand owner GSK, from whom Haleon was spun off (demerged) in early 2022. At the show, Haleon’s Alex Orchard and GSK’s Anu Gadhiraju viewed product pitches from nearly a dozen active and intelligent solutions providers to see if there were any fits between technology and brand.
It’s worth first mentioning that Haleon recently made a splash on the smart packaging front, teaming with Microsoft to launch an enhanced version of its Seeing AI app, which it says will advance inclusivity and improve accessibility. This new collaboration aims to help people who are blind, have low vision, or have difficulty reading packaging labels due to low literacy. On World Sight Day in October, just before the AIPIA World Congress, Haleon launched its Always Read the Label campaign, hoping consumers will be able to access more detailed labeling information directly from Haleon by scanning the product barcode and using the app. In short, Haleon is no stranger to this space.
In advance of the event, the Haleon/GSK duo instructed technology providers that it was seeking a “trusted, circular, inclusive solution with an advanced UX (user experience).” More plainly, the request was for safety, security, sustainability, accessibility, and consumer engagement features. Ticking all five boxes would be a stretch for any single smart packaging solution provider, which brings into sharp relief the coordination problem between brand owners and the many disparate packaging tech companies that seek to supply them. Brand owner Haleon, which judged smart packaging pitches in the Active & Intelligent Packaging Challenge, recently teamed with Microsoft to launch an enhanced version of the software giant’s Seeing AI app to improve accessibility for people with limited sight.
Suppliers presented their cases, pitching digital temperature indicators to avoid temperature exclusions, individualized interactive experiences that could boost adherence, reusable packaging systems that are sustainable and engaging, QR-adorned tamper-evident labels for safety, and more. It came down to three winners: Ennoventure (anti-counterfeit solutions), Securikett (cloud platform for non-transferable, paper-based, tamper-evident labels), and AlmaScience (paper- and bio-based electronics), that will continue their conversations with Haleon.
Why did the new brand owner select these three companies? The winners had demonstrated the fullest end-to-end solutions, the most complete ecosystems, with clear paths to implementation.
Alex Orchard at Haleon had this to say at the awards soiree after the winners were announced: “Someone this morning brought up the notion of it taking a village [to get smart packaging adoption off the ground], and we talk a lot about ecosystems, but [in the real world], many of the pitches are still happening where everyone has individual solutions. I think it’s very, very powerful if you are pre-connecting as an ecosystem of solution providers and instead come into a pitch with that pre-connected vision and set of solutions that are more integrated, as far as facing the brand owners. Some brand owners do have resources internally, where they can start to sort that out, but many times they don’t. So, it’s much more powerful if we can see your value chain and know who the other players are that are needed to make an integrated proposal. And then for you to bring that pre-connected, integrated proposal to the table. That would be quite powerful in the future.”
Another misstep smart packaging tech suppliers make in pitching to brand owners is getting ahead of themselves. They know their own products so well, and have so deeply thought about their potential, that they are prone to think several steps down the road, pitching a final solution or “endgame” without describing what it might take to make it happen. Orchard invoked Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a pyramid-shaped model to help tech suppliers approaching a pitch—you need to cover the basics, the structure, and the roadmap, before you promise a complete solution.
“You really need to help us understand what you believe are those foundation stones, the value-add, and [only] then the endgame and the aggregate effect of the topic you’re bringing to the table. We need to see the direction of travel, so we can make the endgame come alive, and then can we build the stepping stones towards that. You must understand that with some of these topics, some of the brand-owning companies are very early stages. We need to understand how to learn to walk before we run, before we fly,” Orchard advised.Tom Quinten (left) with anti-counterfeiting specialist Ennoventure receives recognition from Alex Orchard with home health brand owner Haleon. Orchard suggests smart packaging providers present entire ‘pre-connected’ ecosystems, rather than disparate, piecemeal parts of a total active or intelligent packaging solution.
According to Angela Morgan, PhD, from Atpar, 931 million metric tons of food are wasted per year globally, with 570 million metric tons at the household level and 361 between foodservice and retail. For obvious reasons, food waste is a burden to waste management, and it aggravates food insecurities. About $400 billion is lost to food waste before products even reach the market each year, or about 14% of all food produced. This wasted food is also a lost humanitarian opportunity. According to Morgan, 690 million people are hungry, and 3 billion cannot afford a healthy diet. On the environmental front, “food lost in waste, if it were its own country, would be the third largest source of greenhouse gasses behind China and the United States,” Morgan said.
We can agree that food waste is a problem. What can active and intelligent packaging do to help? She mapped out a representative set of options for AIPIA delegates.
Antimicrobial Active Packaging—One technology that offers an array of solutions to help cut down on food waste is antimicrobial packaging. Aptar’s InvisiShield is a three-phase polymer that uses chlorine dioxide to protect produce from pathogens. The technology is integrated into sealed packaging with “channels in it that will release in a controlled way that chlorine dioxide gas into that headspace of the pack in order to extend the shelf life, reduce food waste, and make the product safer,” Morgan said.
The Antipack from Handary is a commercial film that uses a coating of nisin to inhibit mold growth on solid food products, like cheeses. Another mold inhibitor from SoFresh uses ethyl pyruvate. “It can either be spray coated inside a bag or extruded, and it inhibits mold in bread,” Morgan said. Angela Morgan, PhD, of Aptar lays out a wide swath of active and intelligent technologies, from several different categories, that can have a positive impact on global food waste.
The UltraZap XtendaPak from Novipax extends the shelf life of produce by using carbon dioxide. The product is placed inside the package to wick juice away and generate carbon dioxide to inhibit microorganism growth. This product is also focused on produce and comes in the form of a sachet.
Also available from ParxMaterials (formerly ParxPlasics) “is a multilayer structure where in their sealant layer they have a non-leaching metal,” Morgan said. This is used in the poultry space to prevent cross-contamination of bacteria.
Edible Coatings—Edible coatings are applied directly to the product using spraying, dipping, or brushing, and “you really wouldn’t know that the coating’s there,” said Morgan. “It’s protecting, but it’s really invisible to the consumer.”
For gas barrier protection, polysaccharides stemming from seaweed or the chitosan layer on insects are an ideal solution, said Morgan. Protein coatings derived from corn, soy, or wheat also make great oxygen barriers, she added. And finally, the hydrophobic nature of lipids makes for an effective moisture barrier. Brands can use a blend of these methods to create an optimal edible coating for specific products.
Akorn Tech is one example of a protein coating that uses a “corn coating with other plant-based ingredients” to preserve produce, Morgan said. Also on the market is Apeel, which uses the acids from natural peels and stems for produce protection.
Active Packaging with Nanotechnology—Nanotechnology holds its own place in active packaging, while sometimes intermixing with other categories. One example is Copptech, which uses nanoparticles including copper to produce antimicrobial textiles. Another is Danaflex-Nano, which makes a flexible pack with a rigid top that uses silicate nanoplates to extend shelf life. In doing so, it’s also reducing the volume of preservatives that must be used.
“It’s lighter weight and fully recyclable, and it can be thermally processed [retorted] and reheated in the microwave, so it is shelf stable,” Morgan said.
The European Union is funding a project to continue advancing the use of nanotechnology in packaging. The three-year NanoPack project aims to develop antimicrobial packaging solutions for perishable foods based on natural nanomaterials. Again, the aim here is to extend shelf life of food to reduce food waste.
Indicators Built Into Packaging—Indicators are a wide-ranging category with several key functions depending on the product, from time temperature indicators (TTIs) to gas sensors. Morgan said RipeSense is an example of a gas sensing indicator. She cited its use with pear packaging, where it “indicated the crispness, when you should actually be consuming that pear for it to be at its optimal crispness.” A newer technology in this space is pH indicators. Using a milk application as an example, Morgan said this technology can indicate lactic acid bacteria production, “and so it will change color from pink to purple when the milk is starting to sour.”
The MonitorMark from 3M is one example in the realm of TTIs. This indicator monitors the product’s exposure to a range of temperatures over set times, with an adhesive backing for application to secondary packaging. Varcode digitizes TTIs with the Smart Tag app. Users can scan a barcode-based temperature tracker using their phone, and track the temperature changes over time via the app.
Exhibiting at AIPIA was Mysteria Colorum (MyCol), whose TTI labels feature symbols printed in inks that remain invisible when at room temperature and only appear when outside of either a low or high exclusion temperature. These inks are irreversible, so they continue to indicate that the product was outside of the exclusion temperature range, even when it is back within the preferred temperature parameters. On the low side of the equation (Low Temperature Irreversible Thermochromic Labels), the threshold can be customized from freezing through chill to room temperatures up to 50°C. On the high side (High Temperature Irreversible Thermochromic Labels), the threshold can be customized from 50° to 200°C.
Scavenging Technologies–Oxygen scavenging is an established active packaging category that already has several innovative examples in use. Carlsberg’s ZerO2 cap is a scavenging technology placed in the liner of the beer brewer’s bottle caps that prevents “skunking” in beer. The liner actively absorbs oxygen to prevent beer from spoiling. Fruit Brite by Hazel Technologies uses ethylene in its scavenging, making it ideal for produce that is climacteric, or ripens quickly after harvesting.
SavrPak is a moisture scavenging sachet that prevents soggy food. “That one became really popular during the pandemic because people were ordering a lot of food that was ready to eat, from restaurants,” said Morgan. Another sachet-style smart packaging addition is the Multisorb oxygen scavenger.
Finally, there’s a coating option, more specifically a dual coating for oxygen and moisture, Ageless by Mitsubishi.
Smart Labels and Inks—Avery Dennison’s Freshmarx is a dissolvable label solution targeting foodservice that includes a full suite of back-of-house data management and printing applications, like general TTI functions in its smart label capacity. But then, these labels completely dissolve in the presence of water (when a tray is being washed, for instance), so they leave no residue that could house bacteria or microbes and don’t clog the sinks.
SmartLabel, which comes from industry but is now operated by the Consumer Brands Association, allows consumers in retail settings to scan a QR to access more product information (ingredients, nutrition, recycling profile, etc.) than could ever fit onto a label. There’s also a post-retail, online component, so a consumer doesn’t have to have the pack in hand to use it. About $400 billion is lost to food waste before products even reach the market each year, or about 14% of all food produced.
Finally, straddling the on-pack indicator and smart ink categories are colormetric time indicators used on CO2 gas-flush packages. There are many iterations of these stickers that use smart ink to indicate freshness to consumers. This isn’t overall shelf life, rather it’s use life once the consumer starts using it, since “upon opening is actually when it activates,” Morgan said. “And it will have that color change based on the time temperature that it sees. And that can actually be calibrated to the food product itself.”
RFID and NFC Tags—Another category that’s been growing in food waste reduction circles is RFID and NFC tags. Price once was a factor here, but prices are coming down over time, and for more expensive product, the functionality can outweigh the cost.
WaveSafe from Avery Dennison comprises specially designed RFIDs for item-level tagging of chilled and frozen packaged foods, avoiding arcing or excessive heating “that could burn consumers” when being prepared in a microwave.
DipoleRFID, designed for drinks, vegetables, and meat, provides all-around traceability. “If there were to be a pathogen outbreak, they’d be able to quickly recall that product,” Morgan said. “It’s also communicating shelf life and constantly measuring the headspace around the product.”
Finally, there’s the ultra-splashy Ovie Smarterware system. This in-home, consumer-aimed smart labeling system “is helping the consumers know what product is going to expire, it might recommend some menus that they shouldn’t be using in order to manage their inventory better and reduce the food waste at the household level,” Morgan said.
After all, when it comes to food waste, she reminded AIPIA World Congress attendees, most of it comes at the household level, not foodservice and retail, which have optimized their operations to avoid it.
Food waste clearly impacts sustainability, and that’s why it has always been a key element of active and intelligent packaging. But in the three years since the last AIPIA World Congress, perhaps the biggest sustainability developments in active and intelligent packaging have come by way of digital product passports (DPP).
Proposed EU regulation, called Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation (ESPR), is driving brands toward the DPP model, where manufacturing and the packaging’s plastic resin information travels with each and every individual product through the supply chain and is easily readable by sensors at a material recovery facility (MRF) for sortation. Europe leads the U.S. in digitization of products for better end-of-life sortation and improved reuse circularity. Reasons for that are varied, but in general, it’s a mix of greater political will behind sustainability, alongside more practical, scarcity-related motivations. Jan Merckx, sustainability lead, GS1 Netherlands, explains how digitalization, digital twins, and ultimately, a digital product passport, can unlock sustainable packaging streams.
“The basic reason is, of course, to slow climate change, but also, we are lacking in resources, especially in the region of Europe,” said Jan Merckx, sustainability lead, GS1 Netherlands. Circular economies that better recover materials at end-of-life help fill the resource void. “The EU made up this plan and identify the most critical areas they should work on. These are electronics and batteries, textiles, construction, packaging and plastics, and food and water. These are high material-consumption categories, so that’s where they’re starting.”
Under the packaging subset, called the Packaging & Packaging Waste Regulation (P&PWR), the EU’s goal is that all packaging on the EU market will be reusable or recyclable by 2030. A revision to this proposal, released shortly after AIPIA on Nov. 30 that’s meant to further harmonize regulations among different EU regions, muddied the waters on what would be required, by whom, and by when. But the basic DPP technologies underpinning the future state of a European circular economy remain.
Eventually, DPP will consist of a structured collection of product-related data with a predefined scope, agreed data ownership, and access rights conveyed through a unique identifier. It’s believed that this will be operated in a decentralized system, linked with the European Dataspace for Smart Circular Applications (EDSCA). The scope of the data will encompass information related to sustainability, circularity, and value retention for reuse, remanufacturing, and recycling.
So, why should Americans care? “What’s happening in Europe is important because Europe is a big market,” says Frits van den Bos, manager innovatie, GS1. “All these regulations, in the end, also apply for everything that’s being imported into Europe, and anything manufactured here.”
“What’s underneath the DPP will be the license to be on the European market in the future,” Merckx adds, comparing the rising tide to a tsunami, slowly gathering strength but eventually becoming overwhelming. “It will start slowly and gradually, product line by product line, product category by category, but it will arrive over the next decade.”
Leaders in the DPP space at the show included Avery Dennison, Kezzler, and Digimarc. Also present, Reath from the U.K. uses DPP for reusable/refillable packaging models for retailers like Marks & Spencer and brands like Bower Collective (READ).
Related directly to the collection phase of recycling, CurvCode demonstrated a sorting technology based on a type of DPP with a lower informational load than the multi-pronged offerings, this time a digital watermark consisting of a curving line of dots. In Europe, a lot of high-quality, potentially food-grade PCR (from PET, polyethylene, or high-density polyethylene streams, among others) ends up being “downcycled” into lower-quality, non-food grade plastic. Or worse yet, it’s frequently incinerated. This is due to sortation practices that intermingle high-quality content with lower quality, reducing the quality of each bale. CurvCode seeks to maximize the amount of high-quality material captured for true food-grade to food-grade plastics recycling. The problem it seeks to solve is that on-pack barcodes, or even the new 2D QR codes, can be obscured to sensors; vision systems find them difficult to reliably locate and read. This is especially true when a disposed-of package is compacted or still dirty from its product contents. The European Committee says by 2024, every package should contain at least 25% recycled content. Systems like CurvCode aim to help sorters and recovery facilities divert valuable, high-quality, potentially food-grade PET, PE, and HDPE back into food packaging applications, instead of downcycling or worse, incineration.
“This is the reason why we designed a special watermark, and the watermark is either embossed or printed on the pack. Printing can be almost invisible to the consumer. And also, for the embossing, we do as much as possible to make it as invisible as possible… happily, the European Committee has decided that there is new regulation for 2024. And at least 25% of every package should be recycled content, [so CurvCode will help] to get the amount of plastics needed for this purpose,” said Johan Kerver, chief engineering officer, FiliGrade Sustainable Watermarks b.v. and CurvCode.
He says this new sorting technology delivers a profit to every stakeholder in the value chain. There’s no need for extra ink for print purposes—the system allows for the efficient embedding of sorting-key dots into plastics that are easily read, with limited computer power. Using what he calls a straightforward, single-purpose digital watermark technology, Kerver said all value-chain participants can harvest the added value coming from fast-growing market demand for recycled materials. The system offers three unique features. First, the code is single-purpose; the effective sorting of plastic and fiber-based waste is the sole purpose of CurvCode, whose software does not store sensitive brand-owner data. Kerver said it’s also low-cost compared to alternative technologies, plus it’s reliable. The simple and fault-tolerant ICT architecture and the use of standard components (monochrome cameras and LED lighting) requiring minimal PC power ensure reliable operation of CurvCode detection systems in the challenging conditions encountered in waste-handling and sorting facilities.
The business model implies that a brand owner will pay for a license fee, per [metric] ton of plastic, and they may benefit from reduced extended producer responsibility (EPR) commitments. Brand owners and their upstream converter partners only need to embed the codes in molds or in printing files, which Kerver says is easy and low-cost. The sorters and MRFs must only invest in CurvCode reading systems and possibly improved sorting infrastructure to accommodate the system, but the high value of collecting more food-grade PCR should offset that investment.
With so many weighty topics like recycling regulations or world hunger-aggravating food waste being discussed at the AIPIA World Congress, the consumer engagement piece of smart packaging can sometimes seem lighter fare, more the realm of marketing than of solving global problems. But it’s highly complex in its own right. And the value to brands could be great, because by using Augmented Reality (AR), on-pack marketing doesn’t have to be a one-sided conversation. There are two stakeholders in the AR relationship. You have the consumer, and he or she needs some sort of motivation or incentive to take their phones out of their pockets and scan. The other stakeholder is the business, and they need to extract some commercial value out of it.
Anyone can build a pleasant or informative landing page to take customers to with a scan of an on-pack QR. But that’s a one-way street. Maximizing any investment in this space—connected packaging—should include some form of a consumer insight feedback loop that provides actionable data back to the brand, either on how their product is being consumed or what could be done to improve the product or experience. It should also foster continued interaction and conversation, via drip campaigns, push notifications, or smart discounting. And all the while, the brand should be gathering more data to better customize the experience to the individual, improve their product, and maximize sales.
“My bold claim is that by 2030 (this is my fictitious number), there’s going to be no such thing as an unconnected pack,” said Martin Stahel, sales director of AR provider Zappar. A real, live interactive experience on a smartphone at the World Congress while Martin Stahel, sales director of augmented reality provider Zappar, presents.
“I think brands really need to start looking and researching now to understand what it is that a connected pack means for them. They need to start researching and testing now, so they don’t get left behind on this trend. And a connected pack can mean a whole lot of different things for different people.”
Stahel said he’s passionate about packaging from a marketing sense because it’s an untapped media space for many brands. It sits there in people’s homes, it’s on their kitchen tables, or it’s on their desk at work. But until now, packaging has been an analog proposition in a digital world. Now, it represents an untapped media channel.
“That’s because we as people are all connected,” he said. “And we all own these very powerful devices and have them in our pockets. And unfortunately, the time that we spend connected to these screens is only going up, and love it or loathe it, that smartphone is taking over more and more of our time. But we can harness that for good and deliver value to the consumer—deliver them a service that helps them—but also delivers value back to our brands.”
Don’t just take his word for it. Manolo Arroyo, the global chief marketing officer of Coca-Cola, said that QR codes are arguably the most unexploited and underleveraged media vehicle that exists out there. He’s rolling out the three-year plan to put QR codes on all Coke’s products. And he said even pessimistically, if Coca-Cola only gets a 3% redemption on the 1.9 billion products it creates per day, that really moves the needle. But only, Stahel said, if it can harness the value of that at the other end.
Why are these brands on board? Not on a whim. There’s science behind it. Zappar teamed up with a company called Neuro-Insight to test a couple of hundred people’s subconscious brain responses to AR compared to traditional media, such as print, video, and websites. The results revealed that AR delivered a 95% increase in visual attention compared to TV viewing. AR also delivered a 60% spike in emotional intensity, and because people learn through making emotional connections as well as then learning through doing (including interactive, on screen), it was observed that AR delivered a 70% increase in memory retention.
But to achieve that value, you have to get the consumer to use the technology. A linchpin term Stahel used in describing how brands should deploy AR is “value exchange.”
“More brands are understanding that value exchange,” Stahel said. “What do I need to offer the consumer to get them to pick the phone up and invest their two or three minutes of time in our product? Because, sorry guys, nobody is going to scan just to watch your latest TV ad. We’ve got to give them something more valuable. Something that’s fun, useful, or interesting to them when they’re holding that product. Only then can we give the brand an opportunity to monetize that time.”
The original barcode is 50 years old and looking forward to retirement. That means something is coming from GS1, the not-for-profit, international organization developing and maintaining its own standards for barcodes and related identifiers.
The QR code is set to replace it, but how can it do everything the exiting barcode does and include more information like serial numbers and expiry dates, be the entry point for consumer interactivity, and importantly, still go “beep” at the checkout thanks to the all-important Global Trade Item Number (GTIN), traditionally housed in the legacy 1D barcode?
Launched in November 2022 at AIPIA was a new standard, called GS1 Digital Link URI format for 2D in retail, that Phil Archer, director, web solutions at GS1, said can do all of the things necessary to earn the real estate it will occupy on your product’s package or label. The GS1 Digital Link URI aims to let a single 2D QR code accomplish the tasks of many.
So why is the organization that has been promoting the barcode and infusing it into commerce for the last 50 years wanting to get rid of it? Barcodes translate into text or characters, and with some variation by symbology, a traditional linear barcode can hold a certain number of characters, maybe as many as 85 characters. The goal is to replace it with a higher-capacity, 2D code that can accomplish a lot more, serve a lot of different masters, and do so in a lot less space.
It bears repeating that the popular conception of what a QR code does is often limited to the consumer engagement piece, because that’s how we as consumers interact with it. But a 2D code like QR can be used for traceability through the supply chain, or for batch and lot number for inventory control, or to keep data to handle recalls. Serial numbers are important for things like deposit return schemes—you need a serial number to make sure containers are only exchanged for a deposit once. And at the end of a container’s life, a 2D code can be scanned at material recovery facilities (MRFs) for sorting and proper recycling.
“We also need more information printed on the back in a way that can be automatically read by a machine, without going online to get that extra information,” Archer said. “So within this large list of things we want this QR code to somehow do, consumer engagement is just one item. A new barcode has got to earn its place on the pack, it’s got to do lots of things, not just one thing. Otherwise, you end up with a bag with seven QR codes—on one product in China, we actually counted seven QR codes on one pack."
That’s where the new standard, GS1 Digital Link URI format for 2D in retail, comes in. It has a few key features. The first and most important is that it contains the GTIN item, so it scans at register and makes the familiar “beep” noise. Current testing by the University of Memphis shows the 2D barcodes are reading at retail checkout line speeds.
Also important is the consumer interaction piece. “It’s connected to the brand’s own domain name. Remember, some people think QR codes are scary and will take them to the dark web. If your brand name matches the domain name you’re taken to, you’re going to feel more confident about scanning them,” Archer said. “What that means is, this is done and maintained by the brand, not someone else.”
It’s important to note here that the new QR standard encodes a single line of text, similar to (but not identical to) a URL, that has a standardized structure, a predefined order of information. As QR codes only really contain text, this text can be structured in a defined way, and then a device can recognize that structure and correctly interpret it. Phil Archer, director, web solutions at GS1 (lower right) summarizes the rollout of the GS1 Digital Link URI.
And in a structured line of text, anything can be added to that. “We can add batch numbers, we can add serial numbers, we can add expiry dates, and the structure of that is as precisely defined as the way we would convey a Wi-Fi configuration, or contact details, or anything else we would encode into a 2D QR. That structure was not made up. Now, you can’t drop in any old URL, it’s not going to work, you have to use that standardized structure.”
The important thing is that by having that information in a defined structure, it can be extracted without having to go online. And Archer claimed that every major scanner manufacturer in the world, that GS1 is aware of, is building new cameras to recognize the GS1 Digital Link syntax. And software updates help scanners translate DGS Digital Link barcodes and parse data from those barcodes.
“But we can do better. We can be smart,” Archer added. “We can put a little sort of service in the middle. And then service can respond to specific requests. What we’re doing is turning that product into an API. So, you can ask for specific things. Ask a specific question to get the answer back or get back the data that allows you to present those things to your end user. The standard effectively creates a common API for every identified thing.”
Archer hopes that “roundabout 2027,” GS1 can start officially putting the 1D barcode to pasture. And as a parting piece of wisdom in what’s soon to be a 2D digital barcode world, Archer advised that as the manufacturer of the product containing a QR code, make sure you know exactly what’s in any QR code on your product and make sure you remain in full control. PW
Anita Etrati, senior manager of consulting and strategy at consultancy Accenture, was giving out gifts well ahead of the holidays at the World Congress in November. She directed attendees toward a free-to-access, 30-page market report titled,“Reinventing packaging: Companies can use packaging—a new contributor to the digital thread—to better engineer and manufacture products.” Accenture and AIPIA collaborated in 2022 to produce and publish the report (click here to access the entire report).
Recognizing that the full report would take some time to digest, Etrati also provided AIPIA attendees with more instant gratification in the form of three quick, actionable steps to drive toward packaging digitization at their brands. This was her advice.
1. Empower the right functions Provide your product design, engineering, and manufacturing functions with an “innovation mandate” to build digital packaging solutions that not only provide data to consumers about the product, but also pull relevant data from the consumer to improve the quality of the product experience across its lifecycle.
“If you’re not in those departments, connect with them, listen to what they need, help them to break down the silos,” Etrati said.
2. Be ready to thread incoming data Weave a digital thread across functions so that they are ready to share data collected by smart, connected packaging. Establish appropriate governance and collaboration mechanisms to ensure friction-free and responsible distribution of data among functions.
“When you have data in a certain department, how do you communicate it?” she asked. “How does it tie back to other departments, is something like that in place? If not, try to requestion your status quo. It’s okay to question and try to find the right partner in the company to help you to tie it back to the product manufacturer and the manufacturing departments.”
3. Build a technology architecture to start breaking silos Invest in a flexible and intelligent technology architecture to break data and function silos. The value threaders are already using cloud, AI, and advanced analytics to help functions collaborate and build value with packaging data.
White Couche Paper You have to be “thinking from end to end, which creates a feedback loop, which is actually a circle. It’s not just in one direction, it should also come back,” Etrati said. “Look at what kind of technology solutions you have now, a lot of new technologies are available. Start to see how much you rely on a certain technology, and then be open to other technologies that are available.” PW