Does smart labelling have the answer?

20 April 2015

Does smart labelling have the answer?

Does smart labelling have the answer?

Smart, innovative, intelligent... These are all buzz words in packaging that get thrown about in meetings and at trade fairs. But what do they really mean? What makes packaging smart, and what innovations really offer something different? Emma-Jane Batey spoke to decision-makers across the supply chain to find out more.

Packaging that offers active functions beyond simply containing a product can be described as smart or intelligent, but while there is currently no legal definition of just how active those functions need to be: the terms are used without any need for proof. For converting companies and brand-owners that are keen to go above and beyond the standard level, the possibilities offered by smart packaging are practically endless. With integrated features such as intelligent traceability, shelf life extension and fresh thinking reusability, smart packaging makes sense - for the retailers, the brand-owners and the consumers.

For leading 'nutrition, health and wellness' multinational Nestlé, innovative packaging needs to achieve all the functions of performance and shelf appeal whilst meeting its not-inconsiderable and highly visible sustainability targets. Representing famous brands such as Kit Kat, Smarties and Nescafé, Nestlé UK currently exports products worth over £346 million to more than 70 countries. That's a lot of packaging. Nestle has achieved a 92% recyclability for its packaging, with the remaining 8% coming from mixed plastics, and its aim is to get that to 95% by the end of this year.

By investing heavily in research and development regarding how to both reduce the raw materials used in its packaging and to make the packaging 'work harder', Nestlé is one of the first food and beverage companies to adopt Inclusive Design, or ID. Truly meeting the term smart packaging, ID is a process that aims to ensure that the packaging and the product within will meet the various demands of the consumer, regardless of their age or health concerns.

Co-operating with Cambridge University, Nestlé's dedicated ID team is working on integrating ID into products so that, for example, customers with dexterity issues can open boxes easily.

Alison Ingle, group packaging manager, explains: "Using ID, our team at York found that the packaging we used made it difficult for one million consumers to open the boxes containing our famous Black Magic chocolates. These have now been redesigned so that everyone can enjoy them. We now host our own one-day workshops to ensure all brand teams across Nestlé are incorporating ID into their products. Among the exercises we use are gloves which replicate the impact arthritis has on dexterity, and goggles which replicate blurred vision, as well as goggles to make it difficult to see different shades of colour."

As Jules Lejeune, president of FINAT, the trade association for the self-adhesive labelling and adjacent industries, highlighted: "The world of labels is undergoing a dramatic change in innovation in materials, formats, printing technologies, equipment and brand-owners' requirements." Lejeune's appreciation that labels play an important, yet transient, role in a product's life is illustrated in FINAT's focus on promoting and supporting the label industry's 'broader horizon' through facilitating developments in shorter-run, JIT delivered, multi-versioned labels, as well as long-run budget label print for private retailer brands.

Hip to be square
Nestlé is also integrating Quick Response (QR) codes into its product packaging. These 'square barcodes' provide nutrition information for the consumer, as well as details of the environmental sustainability of the product, and can also be used to deliver marketing messages.

This move into QR codes reflects the comments from Steve Webster, sales director for Piroto Labelling in St Albans. Specialising in the design and manufacture of labels, tags and identification systems and products for a wide range of applications, Piroto is enjoying a time of rapid growth.

Webster told Converting Today: "We have long focused on integrating active functions into our products, and we are being asked more and more [frequently] for QR codes to be applied to labels for traceability purposes, and I see this only increasing in the future. The traceability products we supply currently are either metal detectable or sequentially numbered, or barcoded, and we have invested considerably to be able to offer these items."

He said traceability was gaining increasing importance across industry sectors. "We also work with printer manufacturers and process software developers, as we believe that having a clear understanding of our customers' equipment is essential for the supply of a trouble-free product. A specific traceability product we offer that highlights this is the Trotrac range of abattoir tags that we developed specifically for the Meat and Livestock Commission, when BSE first became evident - all manufactured in our hygienic factory to BRC hygiene standards.

"We also have recent developments including metal detectable tags for high-care food processing plants, a variable printing system that allows us to offer sequential numbering and barcoding, and a 100% electronic label inspection that ensures the integrity of each label within the roll. We have also worked on an RFID tag for use in the food distribution chain of a major UK retailer.

"All of these smart innovations are representative of Piroto harnessing its understanding of its customers' changing requirements, its own packaging industry expertise, and the very latest possibilities in technology for labels and packaging."
Leading globally active converter Sleever International is also seeing an increase in demand for labels and sleeving with strong sustainability and performance characteristics.

Marketing manager Ellie King said: "After five years of research and development, we launched the LDPET solution at Emballage 2014. LDPET allows 100% recycling of sleeved bottles while producing a completely pure recycled resin, which is a prerequisite for manufacturing new bottles. That's just one example of our commitment to constantly enriching our scope of service to labelling, including various smart innovations, such as tamper-evident seals, traceability and sales promotion - all the value-added services our customers are demanding and Sleever can implement."

Smart packaging = better branding
For brand owners, smart packaging is a great way to add value while acting responsibly. Consumers are increasingly choosing a product that reflects their own views on issues such as sustainability, or integrates additional features. Fast-rising, trendy snack delivery company is the perfect example of how smart packaging helps to grow a brand, the cleverly designed boxes being a key part of the company's brand identity.

Ben Fox, packaging buyer at, explained: "We're really proud of our graze box. The card is really strong, so it's great at looking after the snacks inside, but it also uses as little material as possible - and it's 100% biodegradable and recyclable. We also use messages on the packaging to show how it can be reused or repurposed; they're perfect as herb planters, which seems to appeal to our customers."

At M&H Plastics in Beccles, the understanding that offering custom-built packaging in addition to a huge range of more than 1,200 standard products is key to ensuring the smart packaging trend is met. Delivering a one stop shop for plastics bottles, jars, flexible tubes and closures for the personal care, pharmaceutical, pet care, food and household product sectors, M&H knows that smart packaging cannot be style over substance.

Marketing manager Howard Frost explained how the company was addressing the latest trends in smart packaging.
"It's about the appliance of thinking instead of only throwing money at a problem. Our smart packaging solutions are valued by big brands as well as the smaller brands, which appreciate how funky, flexible packaging help their product stand out on the shelf. A good example is our latest product, the revolutionary Fusion bottle that has a cap that fits on all three bottle sizes. It has a smooth-line and easy-grip with a flip-top cap, and can be opened, closed and dispensed with just one hand, making it suited to the on-the-go sector as well as for consumers with dexterity issues. The product has to work brilliantly as well as bringing something extra to the party."

With a range of new materials and innovative ideas to ensure its portfolio is meeting the ever increasing demand for smarter products, M&H Plastics offers post consumer - and post industrial regrind, which are recycled or recovered materials from industrial processes. The company has also successfully completed trials for a biodegradable plastic that is totally broken down within five years and is now available in various bottles, tubes and flexible packaging options.

It is clear that the benefits of thinking outside the box are not to be sniffed at; using fewer raw materials is ecologically sound, but by integrating features such as RFID and traceability, there's less waste in the first place, and by creating three-in-one closures, manufacturers can use the same machine or bottle for more applications. So it's understandable why there is no clear definition of smart packaging - all aspects of the converting and packaging supply chain can be smarter if we just let ourselves think differently.

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