We label our packaging with smart technology and let the package do what we must do for it in the past. For example, code dates, tell us where they are in the supply chain, show the status of perishable foods in the package, and even worse, change the gas density of the package to adjust the packaging environment for perishable foods. In the past, we often put a shelf life on the packaging bag, and the intelligent packaging can tell us if the shelf life is up. The change in the color of the printed ink on the label can warn consumers whether the food is suitable for heating in a microwave oven. Films controlled by temperature changes can control the oxygen/carbon dioxide balance in the package and extend the shelf life.

These are just a small part of smart packaging applications.

Unresolved RFID technology
Everyone is talking about RFID tags. Almost everyone is trying to do this. The rules published by Wal-Mart require that suppliers start tagging RFID tags on cartons and pallets this year. Many manufacturers began to explore and adopt some form of RFID system.

Then, many just stopped trying. Label makers, code readers, and labeler suppliers claimed that the success rate of the technology was around 90%. However, the research results of many professionals in the industry showed that the technology is currently successful. The rate is only 30%.

According to the US Freedonia Group’s introduction, the US requires that the total sales of smart labels reach 460 million US dollars by 2007, an increase of 14 percentage points, of which the most effective one is the RFID tag part.

Technology, materials and equipment will continue to improve. At present, the focus is on the label, which will be transferred to the film in the future. The current tag is used to track the trend of the product in the supply chain. In the future, the tag will be used to carry and report various data. This is what we cannot imagine now.

Application challenges
The biggest problem facing RFID tags today is the vulnerability of small chips and antennas. With a little damage, the label will fail. There is the possibility of damaging labels everywhere in assembly, printing and labeling. This kind of damage not only refers to physical damage, but also includes damage to chip information caused by various electrostatic discharges. This is why RFID labeling machines must be equipped with inspection devices to remove information from damaged labels and check the validity of the codes.

Vendors have several different approaches to solving this problem. Avery Dennison's 64-05 labeling machine prints RFID tags at the speed of normal label processing, programs RFID chips inside the tags, and uses hot-printing technology to print a variety of data. The 64-05 uses a "jump-to-transfer" technology to automatically move the print head to the chip without damaging the chip.

Appleton uses Smart Strate technology to physically and electrostatically protect the chip. Smart Strate is a label material that contains a small bag that holds the chip, measures the printed surface of the label, and also buffers any possible damage to the chip caused by various impacts. Smart Strate can also add a special coating to avoid any static electricity.

Precisia is a division of Flint Ink that uses metallic ink to print the antenna of the tag, making it more flexible and more suitable for substrates. The chip is still relatively thick, hard, and easily damaged.

Today, RFID is mainly used for labels on cartons and pallets, so the labeling surface is relatively flat. Soft packers are waiting to see if the technology can be used on flexible bags, sleeve labels and other forms of flexible packaging. It is currently difficult to predict whether RFID technology can be used for forming/filling/seal.

Starting from chemistry
RFID is a representative of the current intelligent packaging technology. It has great help in tracking goods, inventory management and improving recall efficiency. This is very attractive to all manufacturers. Innovations in chemistry will benefit more flexible packaging companies. The following are the two most recent application examples.

The Intelmer pad developed by Apio will keep the freshness of the produce and replace the ice that must be used before. Intelmer gasket technology uses a pressure sensitive film to automatically adjust the oxygen/carbon dioxide balance in the sealed carton. This breathable film is coated with a side chain recrystallized polymer on one side. As the temperature changes, even if the change is very small, the film will adjust the gas density accordingly. When the temperature rises, the vegetables need more breathing and the film will release more oxygen and carbon dioxide. This technology effectively extends the shelf life of high-respiratory vegetables, such as broccoli, up to 17 days. Not long ago it was adopted by Chiquita Brands International for packaging bananas.

Sweden's Bioett AB has developed a TTB technology (time temperature biosensor) that monitors the packaging conditions of perishable products in the supply chain. Its core technology is the use of biosensor tags, which have a passive radio frequency circuit. Biosensors react to changes in temperature and time and increase signal strength. With hand-held scanners, signals can be saved and selected and graphically displayed as temperature changes to help the operator control the computer. This technology is very cost-effective and can effectively manage product quality in the supply chain.

New chemical materials
The use of special chemical materials is a smart packaging approach. Thermochromic inks, for example, can only develop color under certain temperature conditions. Manufacturers can use this ink to print information that consumers must know at a certain temperature. For example, sugar maple juice is heated in a microwave oven. After a certain temperature is reached, the word “Hot” is displayed on the package so that consumers can see it at a glance. In addition, there is an ink that can be displayed at low temperatures to avoid freezing the product.
These smart packaging not only benefit consumers, but also benefit the entire supply chain from the warehouse to the store shelves. The use of special ink packaging can always remind the staff whether the temperature of the cold chain is appropriate. The cost of the ink is not high, but it can help improve the efficiency of the quality control system, especially for foods that are sensitive to temperature.

The time-temperature indicator (TTI) is a sensory mechanism that utilizes the principle of chemical reaction and includes polymerization, enzyme reaction, diffusion, melting point, and the like. Just as a fruit matures, it becomes discolored, and then it rots, giving off an unpleasant odor. The deterioration of food can also be manifested in the changes in the color of the packaging using chemical reaction principles. In other words, the package can automatically display its shelf life. In France, this technology has been put into commercial applications and has been applied to more than 140 products.

Using sensory mechanisms, it is also possible to monitor the oxygen content of the package and the airtightness of the package. The chemical sensor is placed on the side of the product inside the package and uses ultraviolet light to display a certain color after packaging. Chemical changes in the product within the package will change this previously set color.

The Canadian Toxin alert company has developed another method of color application. The company applies a layer of special antibodies against certain pathogens on Food Packaging films. These antibodies themselves also have some coloring ingredients that can tell consumers whether they contain pathogens.

There is also a polymer that combines two porous membranes, one of which is coated with a layer of functional polymer that swells after encountering acid and the other layer expands with alkali. Once the PH value of the product in the package changes, the film expands or contracts accordingly, and the pump is used to adjust the pH.

Prospects
Smart flexible packaging is not an instant commercial application, but this era is slowly approaching us. Like any other transformation, it slowly walks toward us, constantly exploring between benefits and costs.

At present, we may still have some resistance to the adoption of RFID technology. Some manufacturers even put the label on the carton before the goods come on board, but this is definitely not the concept of smart packaging. Tracking the value of goods in the supply chain is obvious, especially for downstream packaging lines. The real application of RFID can track and record inventory information, and collect information on the operation of the packaging line, upstream packing conditions, etc.

This is true of all innovations in smart packaging. From the surface

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