The nineteenth century saw ubiquitous black and white printing. The twentieth century was one of color printing. However, we are now in the century of printed electronics taking over from that. Nowhere will the impact be more obvious than packaging because the new electronics transforms much more than the human interface. It leverages the usefulness of the product itself and performs other functions such as tracking, tracing and reduction of theft and counterfeiting.
The show so far
Electronics is already used in packaging from winking rum and talking pizza boxes to aerosols that emit electrically charged insecticide that chases the bug. We even have medication that records how much is taken and when and prompts the user. Reprogrammable mobile phone decoration has arrived. But that is just a warm up. The key enabling technology - printed electronics - is about to reduce costs of electronics suitable for packaging by 99%. Consequently, many leading brand owners have recently put multidisciplinary teams onto the adoption of the new paper-thin electronics on their high volume packaging. It will provide a host of consumer benefits and make competition look very tired indeed. This is mainly about modern merchandising - progressing way beyond static print - and dramatically better consumer propositions.
Electronic packaging, "e-packaging" addresses the need for brands to reconnect with the customer or face oblivion from copying. That even applies to retailer own brands.
E- packaging addresses the ageing population which is creating a demand for very low cost self diagnosis and treatment using disposable packages. Russia and Italy will have about 60% dependent elderly by 2050 for example. There will be insufficient physicians, nurses and carers to provide care the old way. That calls for disposable medical testers and drug delivery devices. Electronic packaging addresses the fact that one third of us have difficulty reading ever smaller instructions. It can appeal to many human senses so fit people are captivated and the dyslexic, illiterate and those shaking from a disease can cope. For example, it can electrically change texture or vibrate to signal something using the sense of touch. The package can talk - using your sense of hearing and scrolling large text is a much better use of the sense of sight than ever smaller fonts when static print is used to cram in ever more information on products and packaging.
Premium pricing will arise from greatly enhanced products, thanks to packaging that leverages the function of the product and is reusable as an electronic product itself. Valuable electronic tearoffs as rewards will become viable as will packaging that interacts with mobile phones and computers. Startling technical advances will be brought to bear such as invisible electronics, edible electronics and stretchable electronics.
Flexible, low cost, transparent electronic components being prepared for market
Transparent electronics - a new packaging paradigm
Imagine a pill with edible electronics that talks to the disoriented elderly telling them when it is taken and confirming that it is indeed their medication. Perhaps that would make them more disoriented! All these things must be trialled and some will prove a godsend. That follows in the tradition of the billions of Duracell batteries that have been sold with battery testers in the primary packaging for convenience of use. Also in that tradition would be a pack of rice or a pot noodle with a timer in the packaging that you touch to get a beep and a flash when cooking is complete. Brand enhancement indeed.
Energy harvesting electronics, including printed photovoltaics (solar cells), will need no battery or only a fleck of battery yet is affordable on mass produced disposable products. Printed plastic photovoltaics use one thousandth of the material of today's silicon solar cells. It is safely chewable by children and it has no glass to cut you. Indeed, it can be translucent and attractive on packaging and it can be recycled with regular trash.
New report with forecasts
Now there is a report on all this, with latest forecasts. IDTechEx has published Brand Enhancement by Electronics in Packaging 2010-2020. This report concerns the market for electronic smart packaging devices, increasingly known as "e-packaging". Global demand for these devices will grow rapidly from a mere $0.09 billion in 2010 to $7.7 billion in 2020. Most of this will involve consumer packaged goods (CPG) and particularly their brand enhancement. Separate figures are given for use of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) on packaging and Electronic Article Surveillance (EAS) on packaging but the main emphasis is brand enhancement rather than brand protection or logistical control.
The rapid growth of brand enhancement by electronics in packaging will be driven by trials now being carried out by leading CPG companies and the rapid technical developments emanating for over 2250 organisations advancing printed and potentially printed flexible electronics and electrics. Half of these are academic. There will also be growth from existing applications such as winking logos on multipacks of biscuits. However, the projected adoption, large as it may seem, only represents a few percent of CPG packages and healthcare packages being fitted with these devices in 2020. At that time, only around 1% of the global expenditure on packaging will involve e-packaging devices but growth in applications and usage will rocket thereafter and, in the meantime, the prospect of a multibillion market in only a few years is quite enough to attract considerable investment by putative suppliers.
CPG applications will continue to lead the way. The distribution of applications forecasted by IDTechEx for 2015 is given below.
Electronic packaging by number in billions by sector in 2015
Source: IDTechEx report "Brand Enhancement by Electronics in Packaging 2010-2020"
The Other category includes industrial, military etc. These sectors need instructions and warranty records etc presented in scrolling text and/or audio on packaging sometimes with a life of twenty years when primary packaging is involved. So far, most e-packaging for brand enhancement has taken the form of primary packaging that makes the product more useful and attractive in the eyes of the consumer.
So what is this new printed electronics technology? Well, it is fiendishly difficult in all aspects so special interest groups are wrong to argue that it all ends up as plastic electronics, every layer printed being organic in nature. Wish that it were that simple? The truth is that organic, inorganic and composite chemicals are employed, often in just one type of printed component such as a certain type of printed display.
Special printing machines
Many types of printing technology are needed so even one printed component may have its different layers deposited by different types of printing machines. Screen printing and ink jet printing are currently most popular but extensive modification to a printing machine is usually required if it is to perform its electronic task well enough. Even the paper or more often plastic film used as substrate usually needs to be unusually pure, smooth and mechanically optimised. For example, polyester film is popular but rarely packaging grade. Some processes call for high temperature annealing and stainless steel foil, polyimide or polyethylene naphthalate film may be necessary. Nonetheless, simpler, lower cost, more environmental options are gradually proving possible and a huge new industry is in the making. There are some unfortunate aspects however. The silicon chip revolution started with transistors because they are needed on nearly everything electronic but we are still waiting for viable printed transistors sold in volume in appropriate circuits. We have many types of printed display, resistor, capacitor, sensor and so on but we usually have to incorporate a silicon chip to make something saleable and this has rather defeated the whole objective of very low price.
However, all these problems are being overcome and the next few years will see an avalanche of announcements of new products and capabilities. This will be assisted by creative design rather than the "improve something that already exists" approach of so many engineering led packaging projects in the past. Hopefully those many brand managers, brand facing media suppliers, packaging professionals that are persisting with the toolkit of the last century such as changing color and shape and adding a few mechanical gismos will also get up to speed on e-packaging and its printed electronics. They will certainly look very silly when competing brands modernise in this way.
The price of the new features
When useful electronics is fitted to packaging, it typically justifies 0.01 to 0.03% of product cost as with 12 billion anti-theft tags currently fitted to products every year at 3-5 cents each. IDTechEx figures in 2020 are consistent with this rule of thumb. We see the really large volumes being met with winking, scroll turning text, speech, preset timers, status monitoring, electronic rewards and so on being met only when they are fitted for a few cents.
Nostalgic of a bygone age
Most packaging is remarkably nostalgic of a bygone age. Mankind got to the moon over forty years ago but we cannot see how much is left in an aerosol can. Yet it only takes one brand to modernise and the others must come running. Little wonder that branded products are losing market share to easily produced copies and the packaging industry is suffering from wafer thin margins as it lets itself be commoditised.
Taking a lead
In contrast, this year, Kenneth McGuire of Procter & Gamble, the largest consumer packaged goods company in the world, gave a fascinating talk on the general needs they have from printed electronics. He described P&G's famous "two moments of truth" - one when a consumer is in the store and decides whether or not to choose their product and the other when the consumer uses the product. P&G is interested in using printed electronics to enhance products at those moments. He highlighted that printed electronics does not necessarily have to be cheap - value is more important. For example, he cited how P&G launched teeth whitening Crest strips, which are sold for about $50. This was in comparison to spending $350 and an hour at the dentist or purchasing uncomfortable gum trays from stores. P&G deals in high volume product throughput so scalability is crucial for them to consider projects, as is safety, affecting, for example, the materials that can be used. He would like to see more printed electronics providers offering final products rather than just components.
For more on printed electronics attend Printed Electronics Asia 2009 or Printed Electronics USA 2009.
Source top image: MIT