When most people think of packaging, it’s typically printed packaging with brightly colored fonts, logos and images used to sell products that comes to mind. However, like everything else today, the way we think of packaging continues to evolve. Now more than just providing visual appeal of a product, the packaging industry is beginning to look beyond design to the advancement of flexible hybrid electronics (FHE) to produce “smart packaging.” Defined as packaging that uses technology to do things that go beyond just housing a product, smart packages are embedded with technology that transforms them into digital platforms meant to create a stronger connection between consumers and brand. Without a doubt, FHE is poised to make smart packaging the next revolution in packaging production.

The Technology Behind FHE

So how does it work? The term “printed electronics” (PE) refers to the ability to print a circuit board on material and then attach any required electrical components. An important innovation in PE is the ability to print very narrow, micron-sized conductive wires that can bend and flex with the packaging on which they are placed. Because printed electronics use innovations from two distinct industries — packaging and electronics — they represent a hybrid approach, which is why next-generation printed electronics are more accurately referred to as flexible hybrid electronics or FHE.

You might think that printed electronics require cumbersome chips and power sources, making them unsuitable for printing packaging. However, this is no longer the case. Manufacturers can now produce tiny, thin chips and batteries, invisible to the naked eye, to provide the power needed for FHE. Collectively, these capabilities mean that FHE is perfect for producing smart packaging because the advanced technology in many printing presses makes it possible to print the circuit boards and electrical components on extremely thin and flexible substrates, such as clear plastic sheeting.

With a virtually infinite number of use cases for FHE, there are many markets that will benefit from printed electronics, such as defense, automotive/aeronautics, wearables and medical, industrial monitoring, consumer goods, and the development of smart packaging. Experts are putting smart packaging at the top of this list as the industry with the most promise to make this technology conventional since the applications are just so numerous.

Let’s take retail as an example. Every retailer can attest that the prevention of shoplifting is a security headache. By placing sensors in packages, or applying extremely thin circuits under product labels, the application of FHE makes it possible to detect whether packages have been opened. Going a step further, robots can be sent around a store to take readings of products on the shelves to determine whether any merchandise is missing. An added advantage to using packages produced with FHE is that consumers won’t be able to detect their presence because the conductive wires are so thin, thereby increasing security while preserving the visual appeal of the packaging.

This type of intelligent packaging could also be a boon for managing inventory, another common pain point for retailers. Using sensors installed in the packaging, retailers will be able to receive reliable, real-time data to automate stocking and inventory control. In addition to providing notification of any missing items, automated inventory control can inform ordering decisions by providing valuable data on what items are in stock and which ones are running low.

Another potential advantage of this type of smart packaging is temperature control. With self-heating and self-cooling capabilities built into packaging, retailers will be able to reduce or eliminate more expensive environmental controls like refrigeration for some temperature-sensitive products as well as be able to better manage the shelf life of products more efficiently to ensure consumer safety. For instance, labels on food packaging could be digitally programmed to change color or provide another signal to indicate when products have been exposed to temperatures or lifespan outside the recommended range.

Smart packaging holds opportunities for marketing and advertising as well. Products on the shelves could transmit reduced prices and other special deals directly to a passing shopper’s cell phone or alternate device. With smart packaging that illuminates or employs other attention-grabbing techniques, products could literally advertise themselves to nearby customers. Consumers also benefit from smart packaging with the ability to learn more about the features and benefit of the products they are considering purchasing.

FHE Sounds Great, But Can It Scale For Mass Production?

To date, most of these applications are in the conceptual stage, but technology for FHE is advancing at lightning speed, making widespread adoption a real possibility in a few years. However, smart packaging faces a few barriers to widespread adoption. The first challenge is a lack of integration between the packaging and electronics industries. While there has been little cross communication between these industries about the function of printed electronics, this is already starting to change as ambassadors from the packaging world meet with electrical engineers to forge new partnerships.

Another barrier to making smart packaging a reality is finding packaging materials that can withstand the high temperatures needed to print electronic components with conductive inks. To produce FHE, printers employ ink that consists of tiny metal particles suspended in a gelatinous substance. Once the ink is printed, the entire sheet goes into an oven to melt the metal particles, so they fuse together to ensure conductivity in a process called sintering. At such high temperatures, any paperboard used to produce smart packaging would burn during the sintering process.

Perhaps the biggest barrier to adoption is cost. Currently, the microchips used in flexible hybrid electronics cost about $1.00 per chip. Price isn’t much of a factor for a single item, but if you want to scale to mass production, the cost quickly adds up. Fortunately, industry experts forecast that prices will come down to $0.01 for a standard chip and $0.10 for a more robust chip by 2025. R&D is also developing conductive inks with lower and lower sintering temperature requirements, and industry experts are hopeful that inexpensive substrates like PET will soon be more readily available. Researchers are also experimenting with different metals to make conductive inks. Although a little silver goes a long way, it’s fairly expensive compared to other metals. Researchers are currently experimenting with copper, with trials scheduled to begin in 2023. As less expensive inks become more available, the cost of producing FHE will come down even more.

Assuming there are resolutions to issues of costs, materials and integration, there will be additional manufacturing challenges that will have to be addressed to keep up with the demand for smart packaging. Currently, it can take up to five minutes to produce a small sheet of printed electronics, not counting the sintering. That entire process will have to be faster for smart packaging to enter mass production.

Early Adopters — Who Are They And Why Does It Matter?

Cost and other considerations may put the availability of smart packaging out of reach for mass production for the time being, but there are already actual applications in various parts of the world, particularly in Taiwan. For example, one leading brand is offering a new drink with packaging that lights up on display in the store. In terms of widespread usage, more aggressive and innovative boutique package printers may well be early adopters, while it is predicted that bigger retail customers of package print providers will likely hold off because of the costs associated with stocking inventory. However, if they wait too long, laggards may find themselves at a competitive disadvantage. As early adopters differentiate their brands through leading-edge innovations, they have the potential to grab a large and eager market share.

After the cost for electronic components falls and partnerships form between the packaging and electronics industries, the adoption of smart packaging will be a question of when, not if. Serious package printers, or even commercial printers with vision, should be looking at these possibilities with great interest so they are ready to be leaders when the time is right. The exciting prospect with FHE is that the possibilities for innovation — and new revenue streams — are endless.