For roughly 30 years, the idea of smart packaging has been around. Smart packaging describes a vision of packaging that incorporates visual effects like video effects for beauty and safety like digitals warnings that protects from spoiled goods or increases medical adherence.
In the past 30 years packaging solutions developed by various companies, have fallen short in achieving large market adaptation. Aside from costs, these solutions have looked bulky and generally not desirable from an aesthetic point of view. Aside from a few night-life applications (keeping in mind you can’t see the bulky aesthetics in the dark) and NFC solutions (which serve a different purpose), smart packaging using light or displays has remained nothing more than a gimmick.
The latest launch of Inuru’s luminous labels by Champagne Company CATTIER marks a milestone in smart packaging and labels. Cattier uses Inuru’s latest generation of labels, which unites all desirable characteristics, exceeding expectations. The product itself and the technology behind is the outcome of a decade of work with the world most valuable brands in FMCG, printing houses, label manufacturers.
In the article below I will summarize the basic requirements for smart packaging to stand a chance to talk about large market adaptation and how we have met this adaptation through focus on technology. We will discuss which technology-design-decision he have been taking a how they have influenced the outcome yet to come.
In the world of packaging being smart is not enough. Because packaging serves many purposes. One of them is, that it needs to sell. To make this happen it needs to be visually appealing. Smart packaging must do the same. It must be indistinguishable in terms of quality from any other packaging. Before light or any additional functionality can be added, there needs to be a container, a label, a box with similar appearance as current solutions.
On top of that is needs to be as convenient to use as any other packaging. This level of convenience applies to customers, brands, converters, and recyclers. All of them demand additional functionality, but none is willing to step back from their current level from convenience. Any drawback from convenience renders the product undesirable to one or all of the above-mentioned group. Especially when the cost-benefit ratio is not met.
So packaging needs to survive all the typical stress of the supply chain , while still looking good. A sort of superhero. How to create a super hero. This is not an easy task. Most electronic or light-up label solutions today look bad and bulky. The reason why they look bad and bulky will be elaborated in the tech section below. Moreover, we will examine how Inuru’s focus on OLED’s has solved this issue. But one thing after another.
A bulky product also requires additional product set-ups at the converter, which increases the overall costs. On top of that, the surface of these products, looks like an additional attachment instead of a unified whole. Things look somehow out of place.
Modern smart packaging solutions basically look like Frankenstein’s. Focussed on delivering a functionality (to come alive) - at any cost.
Before light or functionality is placed on packaging and we can start a discussion on whether light makes any sense, there is a marketing director that examines the product. In most use-cases, the light effect appears typically after the product itself is seen. So, before the light, there is the print.
Today, smart packaging solutions are either printed in poor quality or when printed in high quality are realized with cut-outs or holes where electronics are poking through. This does not look appealing, but rather reminds us of our middle school art class lessons.
Inuru has focused on delivering any surface finishes the marketer desires. The surface can contain gold particles, soft touch, or 3D finish. For Inuru, there are no compromises to printing quality, compared to other state of the art printing solutions.
To get there he have been experimenting with a vast amount of materials that create our label, ensuring they can provide the quality our customers are used to. No compromises.
In todays smart packaging solutions the light effects are either inhomogeneous or accompanied with bulky electronics. Inuru solves both these inconsistencies with our elf approach.
Our light sources are paper-thin. Being produced by printing, our light can illuminate any shape in a paper-thin form. Our technology is the next generation of lighting and display; powered by a ultra-efficient efficient battery. This creates paper-thin label solutions. As a result we can offer paper-thin embeddable light films (elf's).
These labels are paper-thin and can be applied automatically without any additional costs. We call this technology Elf’s. Elf’s help brands make better products. This tech not only allows us to create great label solutions that light up, but allows us to create labels that look and feel like ordinary labels. These elf’s are universally applicable to various structures, like packaging etc.
To get there, we took a long development path, which demand perfection in every aspect of the delivery. In the following secition, we will discuss in detail how we got there.
When we started in 2012, we had a vision to replace paper with a display. This display would be self-powered, and replace magazines and paper or surfaces on packaging. Content would be tied to chips in our wrists or phones. People could just leave such a foil on a table or store and access their content digitally from the cloud. On packaging content could be streamed - not printed. No cutting down of trees anymore.
It did not take long before we heard that this vision was completely impossible. Today, I am happy to admit, that we ignored those voices and the complexity that this vison had in store for us. What we basically tried to do, was to take a 2012 TV and press it into a thin piece of paper.
A TV consists of a display with multiple light units which illuminates the screen; micro-processors, driving these pixels at high speed. Additionally, it contains energy management systems that ensure the system has enough power, and a lot of wires that connect them to the power cord. And on top of thatwWe wanted to make the system completely self-powered.
So, our vision not only included creating a display that is paper-thin, but also so efficient that it can be powered by a battery of ambient energy harvesting. Including a computer that can drive this displays. To get to this vision, we knew we needed MVPs that could make this step achievable. One of these MVPs was the luminous label, for marketing applications, that we are discussing today.
After taking a look at current electronics manufacturing processes, we realized that there was only one approach to achieve the above-mentioned steps and achieve a price point that will meet the market expectation. We needed to get away from complex silicon-based manufacturing methods, and go back to novel production methods: printed electronics.
At the core of all smart packaging solutions is printed electronics. Printed electronics are electronical parts made using a printer. Electronics made by printing, and just like other things made by printers, they are paper-thin and (if you think about magazines) are easily reproducible and low cost.
As we started working on our vision to replace single-use surfaces with displays, we dug into the then failing market of printed and organic electronics at the brink of 2014. Despite making huge promises, the market was shattered. Thus, it was a good time to inquire, as companies had started to become publicly accessible, allowing us to profit from using the existing solutions they had kept secret when the market was hot.
We found multiple component manufacturers and packaging producers that offered parts to our desired solutions, but never the full system. Most of the solutions, like printing simple electronic connections, where not really economically feasible, and not delivering a flexible and cost-effective solution that meet the fast-paced requirements of an up-and-coming market.
Additionally, the parts that were available where generally incompatible with themselves. Just because you managed to print wires on a material, did not mean that you were also able to print colors on the same material. It required the use of multilayered product structures, which made the process more and more complex. So increasing cost and reducing recyclability.
So, the dream of printing electronics in just one step - like color from your office printer - moved further away. This was also the case for most electronic components, which could maybe be made by printing or maybe be made flexible, but require encapsulation and, thus, had to be handled as separate components. Batteries are a example for some of these components. Others where simply not available, such as printed microprocessors, energy efficient light, or display solutions.
Hybrid electronics describe a mix of printed wires and electrical components. In simpler terms, you basically print conductive traces which replace wires and place SMD parts on top of that. Since SMD microelectronics can be very small, this was not a big problem. (In fact with that, there can another problem).
Having already mastered the printing process of wires on multiple substrates, we were positive we could find all the required components that were needed. At that time, we were aware that printed and flexible battery systems existed, and being able to understand the material compositions, we were sure that these product parts were viable to meet the desired price-point, while still offering scalability for mass adaption.
Since our first product needed to be something that lights up, to increase visibility and create that science function appeal, the first thing we looked into was display technology. We discovered that current lighting solutions were just not up to snuff. While comparing lighting technologies, EL was easily producible with printing; but it had major drawbacks, such as low brightness and high voltage requirements of 120V in AC. To have this lighting source powered by a battery, you needed a DC to AC converter, which was typically thick; and if you remember what they teach you about batteries in school, you know that taking a 1.5V battery and increasing its voltage to 120V will decrease its capacity. So, not only do you have a bulky converter but also bulky batteries. This you need to hide.
This solution is used in many of today’s bottle solutions, supplied for night club applications. These only work because the battery can be disguised underneath the bottle. Similar solutions were used by the famous Bombay Sapphire Packaging, created by Karl Knauer in 2012. However, having separate bulky electronics is simply not scalable, not mentioning the fact that the 120V can be potentially shocking and thus dangerous to users.
This power requirement issue could be solved by LEDs. LEDs are ultra-efficient light sources, but these solutions had multiple drawbacks as well which take us back to the the beginning of the story. Packaging has to be beautiful. And LED have a hard time with that. Since an LED is a spot, the illumination of surfaces and shapes is not an easy task.
Let’s take a logo for instance. To illuminate a logo, you would either have to use a lot of LEDs, placing them next to each other to assemble the shape. This would draw the cost up. If you want to meet the price-point, you can add a scattering screen. However, the farer away you move the scattering screen from the LEDs (for better the effect), the thicker and bulkier your product gets.
If you reduce the distance between the screen and the LEDs you will also see light spots and the logo will look less homogeneous. So, you need add additional LEDs which, again, increase your cost. A cost-wise solution is simply thick. You can also find this solution in some labels for night clubs, where the 10-20mm thickness does not seem to be much of a hassle or problem. Additionally, you can find this solution in some illuminated greeting cards and packaging. The latter remain nothing but gimmicks and remain far away from the smart future we were envisioning.
Aside from that, LEDs use GaN, rare earths, which is simply not sustainable. If we think about a future where electronics help us through packaging, we need to make sure that they are re-useable, recyclable, and that their material mining is not impacting the world. These properties can be found in a technology called OLEDs.
OLEDs are like LEDs but made from organic materials; organic materials that can be made completely without rare-earth materials. Additionally, OLEDs are not spots but surfaces; surfaces made of thin molecule layers that are 1000x thinner than human hair and can be paced onto foils. The results are stunning. You can create any shape of light and even make displays as thin as paper. The only drawback is that the production processes for OLEDs are made with vacuum processes that require investments of hundreds of millions of euros, and result in super expensive devices.
Having realized that OLED unites all the necessary visual and energetic requirements to create an paper-thin product, that can be used by consumers, brands, converters and recyclers alike with the same amount of care as any other packaging we were sure, that this is the technology we needed to focus on. The turnkey to smart packaging.
The biggest issues of OLED technology were its complicated productions process, which resulted in high setup time and costs, which again influenced units costs and limited design. At Inuru we have been focussed to figure out a low cost approach, by skipping the complex evaporation steps and produce OLEDs with standard printing equipment instead. This resulted in the end in our free form OLED.
Free form OLED describes a novel OLED technology, that can be manufactured in small production lots with digital additive printing technology, while delivering similar parameters as state of the art technology at a better price-point and superior design freedom. We have proven this technology to work in 2022 and are now on the way to scaling it.
So at the core of our label technology lies our OLED-tech. It enables the use of paper-thin and safe batteries. It grants the flexibility and bendability, which makes integration so easy and the overall product so safe to use. And to reach cost which are realistic for today market applications.
All of this technology you can find inside our extremely thin labels that look and feel like normal labels. With CATTIER we have released GEN1 of our product to the market. It is in our opinion the first market ready smart packaging solution with visual effects.
These labels can be applied automatically or manually on bottles as any other labels. This is a complete novelty since in the past there was a complicated two step process, prone to mistakes. We have eliminated this completely.
In the future we will expand the functionality of the light, adding more complex animations, up to video. This will happen after he finish the build of our Dragon Production Line.