America—intelligent packaging replaces smart

Picture of John Denslinger
John Denslinger is a former executive VP Murata, president SyChip Wireless, and president/CEO ECIA, the industry’s trade association. His career spans 40 years in electronics

Starting with cardboard boxes, John Denslinger walks readers through the history of packaging innovations concluding with intelligent packaging bristling with electronics.


It wasn’t long ago goods shipped in simple cardboard boxes with little more than a sender’s name and destination address. As years passed, package design and materials steadily improved, affording better product protection, brand graphics and lower overall costs. As e-commerce exploded, consumers began to expect more. They wanted the ability to track and verify home deliveries. Companies also sought more: eliminating routing delays, lost shipments and returns due to packaging failures. Both needs were reasonable but real-time information was absent. Smart packaging was born.


Smart packaging is nothing more than adding functionality to a package. One of the earliest applications was RFID. This technology pioneered low-cost asset management and tracking. Companies gained remote visibility for the first time while amassing tremendous amounts of data. Consumers gained convenience and better delivery information. The addition of QR codes and NFC tags mapped product lifecycles and provided security and authenticity. In general, smart packaging delivered enormous benefits to companies and consumers alike.


For those investing in smart packaging technology, the current market for electronic hardware is $0.6B according to IDTechEx. By 2033, that amount will grow to $2.6B primarily electronic labels and UHF RFID components. Both figures exclude infrastructure, software and services. It’s a sizeable growth opportunity.


As with any technological success, consumers and companies wanted more. Not satisfied with gains in product quality, shelf life, asset tracking, product loss and real-time data collection attention turned to safety, security and theft deterrence across a broader range of commodities and markets. Then add lengthy Covid isolation and self-health worries and everything changed. In the post Covid era, consumers now demand greater protection particularly in healthcare, pharmaceuticals, personal care, ready-to-eat meals, food and beverage deliveries.


Until this point, smart technology focused on packaging surfaces and internal packaging conditions. Missing was any knowledge or record of the environment as the packaged product travelled through the supply chain. The need for a smarter smart package was obvious. The age of intelligent packaging begins.


The market opportunity for intelligent packaging is significant because its technology integration goes much further than smart functionality. Intelligent packaging employs indicators, sensors, and wireless communications tracking, analyzing and reporting not only a product’s condition but also the ambient environment.


Imagine packaging designed with bio, gas, chemical and odor-sensitive sensors. Imagine that combined with freshness, time, temperature, relative humidity, pressure, pH and light exposure indicators. Imagine RFID tags that can monitor and transmit all this seamlessly. No imagination is required, that capability is available today. Consumers are the beneficiaries of knowledge. Knowledge that their package is safe, secure and delivered under appropriate ambient conditions.


And there are new intelligent applications on the horizon. Sustainability, for example, is a good bet to be next. Capturing a package’s carbon neutral evidence for ESG reporting will be a significant need in the near-term.