The rise of active and intelligent packaging

28 May 2020
Interactive IML by Verstraete IML

Andrew Manly is Communications Director at the Active & Intelligent Packaging Industry Association (AIPIA). By focusing on the latest technological developments, AIPIA aims on boosting the active and smart packaging solutions business. With 40 years of experience in the packaging industry, Manly is a reference when it comes to trends in the field.

What technological breakthroughs have shaped active & intelligent packaging so far?
Since QR codes made their entrance in the early 21st century there has been a rapid development of various technologies in a relatively short period of time. Think of RFID and NFC tags, smart labels, connected packaging and the associated Cloud platforms, embedded QR codes, digital watermarks, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), …  Identifying THE field-shaping application is difficult, if not impossible.

An absolute breakthrough moment however was about six years ago, when brand owners started to take the whole A&IP proposition seriously. Until then it had been a rather piecemeal expansion, quicker in apparel and some beverages, but not so impactive in food, snacks and pharmaceuticals as we would have wanted. Now that is all changing rapidly as brands realize the huge impact active and intelligent packaging can have on consumer engagement.

Why do brands mainly focus on this consumer engagement, when A&IP has all these other valuable benefits such as product traceability and authentication, anti-counterfeiting, reducing food waste, …? 
The reason for the focus on consumer engagement actually makes good sense: the rapid shift in the retail landscape. Brands noticed how traditional routes to the consumers were becoming less effective. Shopping and exploring a product’s provenance online has become easy and a normal part of the daily consumer experience. So both big brand owners and retailers had to respond or lose market share to smaller, more agile brands who were competing very effectively via social media and e-commerce. 

One of the tactics to cope with this changing retail scene was/is to build a solid relationship with consumers. A&IP has a high potential to do so: by enhancing the product’s image, start conversation, and so on. 
On top of that, A&IP has another valuable asset for brand owners. Because let’s not forget, consumer engagement is a two-way information exchange. The shopper gets a lot more assurance and information about the product. But the brand owners get a load of metrics about what motivates end-consumers to buy their products, including when, where and what keeps shoppers coming back! A&IP can thus deliver an extremely important set of data for brand owners. 

How do A&IP products fit into the wider context of sustainability,recycling and reuse?
Of course, adding a tag or antenna to a package can have implications for recycling and the wider issue of sustainability. A&IP is also not immune from the debates about single-use plastics and the whole environmental issue.
On the whole, the sector has responded positively to these challenges, there’s a lot of examples in the industry.

Perhaps the strongest case for A&IP in this whole debate is that it helps to reduce product waste, particularly food, and this waste has far more impact on the environment than packaging.
That said, the A&IP sector is aware it has a responsibility, along with the whole of the packaging world, to keep working on a more sustainable future for packaging waste.

Where are the big A&IP challenges and opportunities in the near future?

Sustainability and methods for effective recycling are of course high on the agenda.
As for opportunities, we see increasing activity in the blockchain concept, AR, NFC tagging, watermarks and QR code applications. Add to that the involvement of GSI [the global shopper insights program] in traceability through A&IP, an important development for our field. The best is yet to come, it’s an exciting time to watch this space!

Nico Van de Walle, Product & Circular Economy Manager at Verstraete IML adds: “Verstraete IML launched its first prototype of Interactive IML in 2012. As Andrew describes, it took some time for brands to get acquainted with intelligent packaging but clearly, they are more than ready to jump on the A&IP train. We waited patiently while further developing and finetuning the technology. We partnered up with Digimarc and Talkin’ Things so that today, with our Interactive IML, we’re ready to offer our customers a complete one stop shop solution for intelligent IML packaging.”