What Is Smart Packaging? How It Reflects on the Pharmaceutical and Cosmetic Sectors

02 Sep 2021

Has the product arrived in optimal preservation conditions? How to confirm if the cold chain hasn’t been broken during transport? In whose hands has the product been at each moment? These are some of the questions that smart packaging is already answering.

The basic purposes of packaging are to identify, store and preserve the products in the correct conditions. However, sectors such as the pharmaceutical industry need accessible and cross-referenced information, given that they handle very sensitive products. This is why the packaging sector has been required to take a step further, developing into today’s smart packaging.

What is smart packaging?

The term smart packaging refers to a type of container or package that protects and relays information about the product thanks to incorporated sensors and other technologies. The concept of smart packaging originates in the union of three key elements:

1. Intelligent packaging

Containers have sensors and materials that react to changes that might be detrimental to the product’s proper conservation. This way, the packaging itself can take the appropriate measures to protect the goods, such as notifying if a thermolabile medical treatment has been exposed to temperatures above those required.

2. Connected packaging

Placing sensors in the packaging helps in monitoring the package’s conditions in real time. For instance, the package can show if the product has suffered blows and position changes that might have caused damage, or even communicate its location.

3. Design applied to smart packaging

The two previous points are supported by a user-centric design of the packaging, meaning it is geared towards making easier the use of the product, as well as improving the user’s experience with the brand. When talking about drug packaging, however, this may translate into the inclusion of personalised dosages.

The pharmaceutical industry has an increasing need for more smart packaging solutions

The smart packaging industry is in full expansion

The smart packaging industry will grow at a rate of an annual 4.15% in the following years worldwide, according to the Smart packaging market - growth, trends, COVID-19 impact, and forecasts (2021 - 2026) report by Mordor Intelligence. Other studies, such as the one by ResearchAndMarkets, which concentrates solely on the United States, doubles that growth and places it at an inter-annual 8.3% within that market.

Despite any reassessments implemented due to COVID-19 impact, the smart packaging sector is clearly expanding, mostly because of the following:

- The price of sensors has decreased: it is still a barrier for the development of generalised smart packaging solutions, but the prices have gone down, as can be seen in the following chart:

The cost of the sensors has decreased notably, according to Goldman Sachs’ data

The possibility to read and scan codes with smartphones: when talking about the differences between Data Matrix and QR codes in medical treatments, a key point is which kind of devices are needed to scan. In this sense, current smartphones are able to process QR or NFC codes, which means companies don’t need to spend money on new barcode scanning systems for their smart packaging solutions.

- Because of the experience amassed in the last years, and the current technological development, innovation can be directed towards solving practical problems at an operational level.

Which sectors are leading the development of smart packaging solutions?

Nowadays, the logistic challenge linked to the transport of COVID-19 vaccines is ever present in general media headlines. These news reflect issues that we packaging professionals of the pharmaceutical sector know very well, given that many drugs require specific and demanding conservation and manipulation conditions throughout the supply chain.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries lead the way in current applications of smart packaging solutions, despite the fact that this trend is still in a very emerging phase, generally speaking.

The pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries lead the development of smart packaging solutions

5 technologies smart packaging leans on

It is essential to know the main technological advances that are making it possible for the packaging industry to take such a qualitative leap:

1. Smart ink: they contain thermochromic substances, which react to temperature changes, or photochromatic, which change depending on light exposure. Once integrated into the packaging, they actively communicate valuable information, since they clearly show the conditions the package has been subjected to.

2. RFID tags (Radio Frequency Identification): compared to traditional QR or barcode scanning, the advantages of RFID tags is that reading systems don’t require direct contact with the package and they can log several tags at once. This saves a considerable amount of time in logistics management and stock control.

3. NFC sensors (Near-field Communication): unlike RFID, this system is compatible with smartphones and has the same basis as the technology for contactless payments, which means the product’s end user is familiar with how it works.

NFC technology, which enables contactless payments, is also used in smart packaging

4. Augmented reality: the combination of NFC or QR codes and smartphones has made it possible for the packaging to become a way to bring extra features to the users. This way, the brands can include additional information and collect relevant data for marketing and loyalty programmes.

5. Digital watermark: these codes are invisible to the naked eye when looking at the package, but they can be recorded with barcode scanners or smartphones. As well as boosting the interaction with the package itself, it also hugely complicates product counterfeiting.

Practical applications in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries

Here below, we mention a few professional areas that are making the most of smart packaging solutions:

1. Control and management of logistics tracking

The most widespread applications are tracking control and cold chain monitoring, but connected packaging makes possible operational improvements of great impact at a company level, since it eases automatic resupply management and even detects when non-authorised suppliers handle the goods.

Smart packaging with RFID tags can optimise logistics management

2. Product protection and safety

Technically, it is a more complex type of packaging, and the use of features such as digital watermarks can help prevent counterfeit products. Moreover, certain tags can bring to light any undue manipulation or evidence of tampering, since they react to blows or attempts to open a package.

3. Digitalisation and sustainability

Indirectly, the digitalisation of the containers and packages through smart packaging has favoured sustainability, since it optimises logistic management and, consequently, limits the huge environmental impact caused by transport.

4. Fostering loyalty among cosmetics’ clients

With smart packaging solutions, the container becomes a bridge between the brand and the end user. The unboxing is an essential moment in building the client-brand relationship, especially when the products were purchased via e-commerce. When it comes to this particular topic, the cosmetics industry is advancing fast, given that they include packaging as a key point in their programmes to promote customer loyalty.

5. Tracking pharmaceutical products

The patients’ health depends largely on the proper use and handling of medical treatments, which is why smart packaging can not only preserve them during transport, but can also help the user in tracking the drug while it’s on its way.

On the drugs’ folding cartons, certain codes can be included, which can:

1. Link to an online medication package insert, to instructions in an audio format (another point in favour of accessible packaging), or even to video tutorials explaining how the drug should be handled.

2. Activate alerts and reminders so that the patient does not forget to take the medication in the assigned dosage.

The future of packaging has arrived

Technology is one of the cornerstones in the development of smart packaging, which is why at Essentra Packaging we follow very closely any current advances in solutions that can fulfil the needs of our clients within the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries.

Without a shadow of doubt, smart packaging is outlining the exciting future that awaits our sector. If you don’t want to miss anything, we encourage you to subscribe to our newsletter, and receive the latest articles published on our blog straight into your inbox. We are waiting for you!