What are Smart Labels?
A basic guide to responsive label technologies
May 24, 2004
A smart label is a flat responsive device that is usually electronic. Most electronic devices are becoming flat because it is easier to lower their cost and fit them in awkward places such as packaging but we are not defining smart labels as generally as this. Smart labels are typically no more than 0.3 millimeters thick. We include smart tickets and laminates in the definition but not smart cards even if they work at a distance. These are a separate, but closely-related subject. Smart labels are becoming enormously important both socially and in terms of business potential. They can, for example, save lives and create billion dollar businesses.
Today, there are four primary types of smart label:
Electronic Article Surveillance (EAS)
Primarily, these are used for theft detection in shops and libraries. These tags do not contain data. Demand is growing a few percent yearly with about six billion tags sold each year and over one million readers in use. It is a maturing market with two companies controlling at least 80 per cent of the market. They offer three incompatible systems causing manufacturers fitting the tags at source to, expensively, stock up to three variants of each product. This impedes market growth and it is very difficult for new entrants to sell better products in volume. An increasing majority of EAS tags are fitted at source - mainly in packaging so the thief does not know they are there. The price of EAS tags is usually 5 cents or so but recently, some versions from China and Israel have been sold for only one cent. We doubt if these made profits.
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)
The benefits of electronic and electric smart packaging are extremely widespread and becoming more so. They include saving lives, preventing sickness and crime, entertaining, refreshing brands and reducing costs for all in the supply and usage chain from parts suppliers, product manufacturers, retailers and repair services to consumers and recyclers. Such smart packaging is of immense interest across most of society from Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) to pharmaceuticals, postal services, the military and archiving including libraries.
Smart labels for brand enhancement
In this context, brand enhancement is the adding of useful or attractive features to a product or its packaging via a label or insert, an example being disposable battery testers.
Smart labels for diagnostics
Diagnostics is the use of labels on products or packages to detect such events as dangerous overheating in transit or storage, completion of cooking, shock, tilt, vibration, completion of sterilisation. Today, this is usually achieved by non-electronic inks and laminates. The functions are broadening very rapidly. For example, some laboratory versions can detect specific bacteria and viruses. The very small percentage of diagnostic smart labels that are electronic is increasing because electronic versions can signal what is happening in real-time and most can store a digital record. However, price at 15 cents to $2 is a problem. Non-electronic versions only cost a few cents.
Increasingly, one label performs two or more of the above four categories of smart function. Examples are:
- EAS + RFID
- RFID + Sensing
Double digit growth of sales of brand enhancement and diagnostic types of smart label will be driven by new technology for lower-cost, disposable electronic labels and the pressure for more information and safety with pharmaceuticals, food and drink. Other factors include the drive to add amusing and valued features to toys and Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) by creating intelligent surfaces on the product and in the packaging. Relevant new technologies include polymer film electronics, microsensors, microbatteries and ultra-small microchips.
For more information read "The Smart Label Revolution" www.idtechex.com