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Transparency and technology: the future of labelling
With increasing consumer demand for transparency and the rapid digitalisation of packaging, labelling is set to evolve at swift pace. Callum Tyndall explores the state of the sector.
Image courtesy of Tetra Pak
Labelling is ubiquitous in packaging; from cosmetics and food to pharmaceuticals and stationery, labels provide consumers with all the information they need (or at least what a manufacturer has decided they might need) about a product. Labels, beyond their regulatory requirements, serve as an effort towards transparency on the part of manufacturers, while also providing state-of-the-art additional security and logistics support as labelling technology advances. While the sector may seem staid, its vital undergirding to the packaging industry has placed it at the centre of major trends.
As the internet and social media platforms have steadily increased people’s connectivity and their ability to access and share information, it has become essential for forward-thinking manufacturers to make use of their labels to present a strong front on transparency. Moreover, technological advances have not only expanded the possibilities of labelling but, with the advent of Industry 4.0, made it a likely contender to play the key role in attaining smart packaging. While those expanded possibilities present opportunity for manufacturers, there are still plenty of complications to deal with.
Regulatory complexities and the changing consumer landscape
One of the central challenges presented to labelling is regulation. We covered last year how a regulatory loophole caused a labelling oversight at Prêt a Manger which unfortunately resulted in an allergy-related death. Operating at potentially global scale, label manufacturers and those who use them have to ensure that labels are compliant with all regional regulations while, particularly in the case of sectors such as food & drink and pharmaceuticals, maximising the protection of the consumer.
“Labelling is only getting more complex for food manufacturers to manage," says Walid Darghouth, industry solution experience director for CPG & retail, home & lifestyle industries at Dassault Systèmes. "Regulations are often different from one country to another, and each region must verify packaging compliance with local laws. This complexity presents challenges that can dramatically slow down global product launches.”
With the growth of ecommerce, product information accuracy is becoming more and more important
Furthermore, with consumers’ access to information increasing and the ever-growing prominence of e-commerce, it is ever more important that companies can present a full and accurate account of their products. Industry is rapidly shifting to keep up with changing consumer behaviour and, as a frontline technology, it is essential that labelling not be left behind by either technological advancements or consumer expectations.
“With the emergence of mobile technology, the way people interact and get information has shifted again," Darghouth says. "Whereas marketing would lead people to search a product through Google, or search at Amazon.com, consumers now see a product through social media, click on the image, video, link or content and go to the website of the company.
"With the growth of ecommerce, product information accuracy is becoming more and more important, and the label should reflect what is used in the physical product. To help them better handle their omnichannel strategy, brand owners are looking to centralised content management.”
Smart labelling solutions push towards internet of everything
As with almost every area of industry, new technological solutions are proving transformative to labelling. With the approach of Industry 4.0 technologies and the move towards incorporation of blockchain on a wider basis, the transition to smart packaging is likely to accelerate in the near future. With the crucial role it can play in protecting against counterfeiting and enhancing the efficiency of the supply chain, labelling could serve as the lynchpin in that transition.
Dr Richard Price, CTO at PragmatIC, said of the sector’s advances: “Technology is a wide subject, even when we are limiting the discussion to labels. First there is the continued increase in digital printing: as the resolution, range of inks/effects and speed of the printers has increased, more brands are experimenting with shorter run lengths and more variation of SKUs.
"The other area where technology is having a big impact is in radio-frequency identification and near-field communication (NFC). These are being adopted by a growing number of retailers firstly for stock control and replenishment, with adopters claiming increases in sales of up to 5.5%, stock accuracy up to 99%, reduced shrinkage etc.
“Early adopters are now rolling out worldwide programmes and more brands are kicking off large scale pilots. The growing use of NFC in smartphones for payments is also stimulating applications that use the same technology for customer engagement, like Malibu’s connected bottles, or for anti-tamper notification in a number of alcoholic beverage brands. We, and many industry analysts, expect these smart labelling and packaging applications to explode over the next few years, leading to the internet of everything.”
Developing next-gen production lines with AI and machine learning
The future of labelling is not limited to the further incorporation of connective technologies. Achieving such lofty goals as the ‘internet of everything’ will require creating more broadly ‘smart’ systems and developing ground-up next-generation production lines. Artificial intelligence is likely to play a key role here, allowing manufacturers to create a more systematically automated and predictive production line.
In creating these unified smart systems, in which labels may serve foundational identification elements, companies in the sector will be able to develop a more holistic view of their entire production process and supply chain. Doing so may also allow them to circumvent some of the regulatory challenges currently faced as machine systems bear the brunt of monitoring in a manner that emphasises efficiency.
AI and machine learning are poised to change the nature of product development, including labelling
“The future will be enhanced with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning," says Darghouth. "AI and machine learning are poised to change the nature of product development, including labelling.
"Since these technologies are more accessible than ever before, companies today have the opportunity to think about how they can be applied to improve their product development. For example, AI can be applied to visual sensor data to sift through data sets and learn to identify the cues for abnormal content/labels in order to eliminate errors before they occur.
“The amazing thing is that AI can factor in variations and perhaps keep a line running where the current (non-AI) visual monitoring system would have stopped the line immediately. As an example, it could still identify the numbers in a date code even if it was printed slightly tilted. AI and machine learning will continue to provide more precise inspection of the labelling they handle.”