A Smarter Future for Labels

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Labels of one form or another have been used for hundreds of years to carry information, identify products, describe contents, list ingredients, ship goods, and help to market items on store shelves. Many are printed in multiple colors and ultimately are used by the consumer when selecting and using products of many different kinds.

But this world of traditional label production and usage is beginning to change. The future potential and growth for labels will not be so much about the printed content and presentation of labels but increasingly about making labels cleverer, smarter, and more intelligent.

Indeed, think of a future for labels where they can be used to: keep food fresher for longer, absorb odors, stop moisture deterioration, offer proof of process control, provide evidence of compliance, or even monitor and track changes in temperature over a period of time.

Think these possibilities are all a bit too far fetched? Then what about labels that can detect gases; monitor expiry dates; indicate when food or drink is at its optimum to consume; detect and kill bacteria; and enhance food, drug, or hospital safety by identifying e-coli, MRSA, c difficile, bird flu, and other health hazards?

What kind of timescale are we talking about for the introduction and use of such labels? One or two years? Five years? Ten years or more? No. All of the label solutions mentioned above are either already available or are close to market acceptance with new products, joint ventures, partnerships, or new start-up operations.

Nanotechnology Is Driving Change
Much of what is being discussed currently is only the tip of the iceberg. New developments in nanotechnology, nano-coatings, nano-sensors, smart dust, microwire, and biological and DNA encoding already are starting to be applied to labels. These will have longer-term implications and applications for all those that produce and use labels. Indeed it has been stated that nanotechnology will change up to 25% of the food packaging and label business over the next decade.

Some of these innovations and developments are coming from existing label industry suppliers such as Avery Dennison, UPM Raflatac, or Tenza. Others are being created and brought to the label and packaging sectors by new and emerging companies currently unknown to much of the label industry. Companies such as Multisorb Technologies, Paksense, Espin Technologies, KSW Microtec, Ecology Coatings, NanoInk and Microtrace. Many more are already in the pipeline.

So why are label buyers and users so actively looking for these smarter and more intelligent label solutions? There are many diverse reasons for this:

  • To aid the automation of distribution, handling, and storage operations.
  • To keep food fresher for longer in transit, on store shelves, or in consumers' refrigerators.
  • To indicate damage or shocks to packs or goods in transit.
  • To show product deterioration of food or drugs.
  • To help asset management and assist returns control.
  • To provide a means of eliminating counterfeiting and improve brand protection.
  • To speed up checking and reading processes.
  • To offer a means of authenticating products or packs.

This list is far from exhaustive. It does not include some of the more traditional clever label solutions such as simple and multiple bar codes, snowflake or matrix codes, magnetic or optical encoding on labels, holograms, special designs, and images, scratch and reveal labels, aroma and scented labels, invisible or security print, anti-theft label technology, void and ultra-destruct labels, or leaflet, booklet or extended text label solutions, as well as tamper-evident label products—all of which have been around for many years.

It does not even include the developments that have been taking place in RFID smart labels over the past three or four years and which now are being implemented for tracking and tracing of goods in global shipping and distribution chains, airline baggage handling, drug and clothing industry supply chains, and for the monitoring of library and other books and various types of media products.

What we are talking about are many of the newer intelligent and smart solutions that have been introduced in the past one or two years or products that are just being launched in the market. In some cases it is new announcements that have only been made in the past few months.

Fresher & Safer
Just take some of the most recent advances in labels that have been developed for keeping food—or some types of drugs—fresher for longer or at least can stop the products from deteriorating before use. Labels, for example, that are oxygen- or ethylene-scavenging; moisture- or odor-absorbing; and those that are freshness, microbial growth, or pack leakage indicators.

Perhaps some of the more sophisticated solutions are labels that are hydrogen sulphide-indicating to warn of specific pack leakage and/or provide information on disruption in the cold chain, or specially designed oxygen-indicating labels that warn of pack leakage in modified atmosphere packaging, or labels that can be used to indicate the freshness of fruit or to stop it deteriorating too quickly.

The potential of such labels has enormous implications for the whole food chain. Much fresh food today only has a few days’ pack or shelf life after it leaves the packing and labeling station. Once in store, it may only have a few days of shelf life left before it needs to be sold.

For example, if unsold on a Saturday afternoon, the food may not last until the store re-opens on the following Monday. It then has to be disposed of or substantially reduced in price. Similarly it may deteriorate in the consumer's fridge if not used quickly. Using these new types of labels inside the pack to stop the food deteriorating can offer significant benefits to retailers and consumers.

In the case of soft fruits, such as raspberries or blackberries, these will start to go watery in clamshell packs after one or two days. They are still edible but look less appetizing. Placing a moisture-absorbing label inside the pack before closure can stop the fruit from deteriorating.

Similar issues arise with some drugs in tablet form. They will begin to deteriorate in the bottle if they are exposed to oxygen or moisture—which occurs each time the bottle is opened. Oxygen- and moisture-absorbing tags inside the bottle can extend the product usage life.

Perhaps the biggest potential for the food and medical sectors are new developments in labels that can detect—or kill—most bacteria and viruses. Such labels, of which the first are already now entering the market, will be able to detect e-coli contamination in food products and MRSA, c-dificile bugs and even bird flu and mad cow disease.

Opportunities for Converters
A whole new world is developing for label converters. Forget just competing on price to produce multi-color labels. Think about the opportunities to produce added-value labels that eliminate or minimize diseases; labels that can preserve and protect foodstuffs; labels that protect against bacteria and microbes; labels that provide proof of process control or reduce counterfeiting.

The future of labels and packaging is definitely getting smaller. Over the next five years, “nano” technology will offer solutions previously undreamed of by brand owners and retail groups—solutions that will revolutionize the way we pack, identify, brand, enhance, store, and sell all kinds of products.

But like many other types of label production, there is a downside to providing these new types of smart/intelligent label solutions. First, converters need clever and creative personnel that come up with the ideas and applications. Second, they need clever converting materials, technology, and presses to be able to make the products and, third, they need skilled sales and marketing staff to present the benefits to potential customers.

Many companies may have one or two of these requirements in-house but seldom have all three. It requires forward-thinking management to put the right personnel, procedures, systems, and ideas into practice, to monitor all the new developments, and to create a business environment that looks to the solutions of tomorrow rather than the products of the past.

Mike Fairley is director of strategic development for Labelexpo. The latest developments for smart label solutions will be on display at Labelexpo Europe in Brussels September 26-29. Visit www.labelexpo-europe.com for more information.


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