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Bridging the Gap: The Opportunities and Obstacles of Adopting Electronic Packaging and Smart Labels

By Roy W. Bjorlin, Global Commercial & Strategic Initiatives Director, Sun Chemical Advanced Materials | July 5, 2016

In the short term, it is likely the focus will be on sensors that can be printed directly onto labels and hang tags.

Traditional packaging will soon begin to add electronic functions to their packages and labels. That’s because Consumer Packaging Groups (CPGs) have begun to understand how these new technologies will enhance the consumer experience and drive data acquisition for retailers by providing valuable information, including buying habits.

The adoption of printed electronics of packages and labels by CPGs will also drive enormous volumes which are significantly higher than traditional OEM driven electronic production.

While there is great excitement for printed electronics on packaging, certain hurdles remain, especially the separation between traditional manufacturing infrastructures in printed electronics and consumer packaging. Bridging the technological gap between CPGs and converters will require an evolution of traditional manufacturing infrastructures and strengthened support for both converters and CPGs.

Printing: The Common Thread

Printing is already one of the most common processes for producing electronics, including printed circuits. In fact, complex and simple circuits are manufactured via screen printing, roll-to-roll flexographic printing, dispensing, and conformal coating material, which can all be adopted by progressive-minded converters.

On the other hand, more advanced digital and aerosol jetting processes are becoming more popular in the 3D circuit market. Additionally, many 3D electronics manufacturers are beginning to use nanosilver or silver inks, which function as printed electrical pathways, resistors, dielectrics, lighting and many other components.

Currently, printing is the thread that links traditional packaging converters and manufacturers of electronic packaging and smart labels. The adoption of electronics into packaging is a lateral yet difficult movement away.

Furthermore, the relationships between CPGs and converters in the packaging industry offer significant advantages when compared to the relationships between original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and original design manufacturers (ODMs) in the electronics industry.

Whereas the relationship between electronics manufacturers and OEMs is entirely technology or specification driven, CPGs and OEMs already work in collaboration with an ink supplier. The relationship between the CPG, converter and ink supplier allows the converter to identify and adopt new technologies which will benefit the CPG in entirely new ways.

However, this natural difference in mindset amongst CPGs and traditional electronics manufacturers remains one of the reasons why electronic packaging has not yet been widely adopted.

Innovative Smart Labels for Packaging

It is likely that smart labels will be the first technology to bridge the gap between traditional electronic manufacturing and everyday consumer packaging.

Label converters or narrow web and tag manufacturers already have the tools needed to introduce printed electronics into their infrastructure. At this moment, converters have already adopted smart labels in blood glucose sensors, NFC applications and RFID.

It is estimated that by 2020, the smart label market with grow from modest adoption to $15 billion. While the blood glucose test strip market is already worth $5 billion a year, it is safe to assume that interactive labels and tags with be the first point of entry for electronic packaging.

Additionally, the data compiled by smart labels will allow brands to grow exponentially, thus increasing demand for functional packaging such as smart labels.

The Price of Electronic Packaging and Smart Labels

Value-based price points will continue to be another potential obstacle for the widespread adoption of electronic packaging and smart labels. Manufacturing costs for electronics are typically dependent on where they are manufactured, and recently Asia has become the home of most traditional electronic manufacturing.

While this presents limitations in design interaction intimacy and logistics, packaging converters naturally have logistical advantages and design intimacy when it comes to design interaction with CPGs and ink suppliers.

The introduction of new technologies will continue to be a struggle for traditional electronic manufacturers because they do not benefit from the transparent acceptance stream that is present between CPGs and the converter base.
 
Innovative, Convenient Technologies for Electronic Packaging

Certain technologies, such as Touchcode from T+Sun, only requires one or two additional print stations to incorporate the functional electronic inks into packaging. T+Sun is a collaboration between T+Ink and Sun Chemical that was created to develop innovative solutions for the packaging industry. After T+Sun inks are printed, standard graphic inks then complete the package.

On the other hand, technologies such as NFC and RFID are more powerful and allow non-contact connections between the package and smart devices. However, they require more complex manufacturing capabilities. The same can be said for lighting, including OLED and electroluminescent lighting.

To initiate the emergence of electronic packaging and smart labels, converters will start with simple applications, but it is inevitable that more complex manufacturing processes will be adopted once the experience curve develops.

Conclusion

Eventually electronic devices will be printed directly onto packaging. In the short term, it is likely the focus will be on sensors which can be printed directly onto labels and hang tags. The adoption of printed electronics and smart labels will not happen immediately, but these simpler technologies bridge the gap for a total paradigm shift in the coming years.

These initial printed sensors and smart labels will include data storage capabilities and antennae to provide convenience to consumers as well as product data for marketing purposes or temperature and moisture detection.

Materials such as silver and graphite conductors, reagents, conductive inks, release coatings, adhesives and graphic inks are all printed, so it is only a matter of time before traditional packaging converters adopt these innovative technologies.

The ultimate goal of electronic packaging and smart labels is to enhance the consumer experience and strengthen brand loyalty. New smart devices will inevitably become the new normal and CPGs will then search for new functionalities to continuously achieve the best possible packaging.

To initiate this shift, the relationship between converters, ink suppliers and electronic material suppliers will be central to delivering the tools needed to provide value to CPGs.

The paradigm and infrastructure shift will not be immediate, but it is clear that CPGs and converters should be ready to evolve their manufacturing capabilities in order to deliver the next revolution in packaging.

Roy Bjorlin is the Global Commercial and Strategic Initiatives Director of Sun Chemical Advanced Materials. Sun Chemical Advanced Materials manufactures an extensive line of silver and graphite conductive inks, nanosilver inks for inkjet printing, and membrane touch switch performance inks for printed antenna. He can be reached at 201-218-8820 or at Roy.Bjorlin@sunchemical.com.