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Smart labels respond to:

Relevance to the Future of Logistics

End-to-End Visibility

With rising consumer demand for shipment visibility, live location tracking of goods can be achieved with RFID technology embedded in labels. This capability is highly relevant to the customer experience and logistics operations. It also equips manufacturers to track products (particularly high-value goods) from production through delivery to end users. Start-ups like Wiliot enable customers, manufacturers, and logistics players to know shipment location using a low-cost smart label the size of a postage stamp. Powered by harvesting radio frequency energy, these labels capture data of their surrounding environment using Internet of Things (IoT) pixels, which then becomes available via existing Bluetooth devices. In the constant drive towards sustainable logistics, these low-cost solutions can also be reused as their battery power is generated through existing energy.

Combatting Counterfeit

In addition to location tracking, there are also applications for smart labels to address a historically common challenge in the supply chain industry: counterfeit products. Particularly in the pharmaceutical, nutraceutical, and cosmetics sectors, counterfeit products pose a severe threat to corporate reputations and consumer health. This challenge can be addressed with the use of unique RFID or QR codes to verify product authenticity. More covert features to tackle counterfeiting can be found in labels using UV ink, ink taggant, and infrared ink (particular used with pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals). These inks are only visible to or detected by more sophisticated hand-held readers. Hidden measures such as these allow manufacturers to monitor and ensure genuine goods do not fall out of the authorized supply chain. Tying each product’s unique identifier to blockchain technology also achieves a new level of security.

Perishable Goods Quality Control

For groceries and nutraceuticals, there is increasing development of labels which allow the supply chain to enhance product freshness and quality, including color-changing technology to clearly highlight item condition to businesses and consumers. Similar applications include assuring cold chain integrity and providing visibility of package tampering and damage. FreshTag labels developed by Insignia Technologies provide such solutions, with labels that change color if food experienced a temperature excursion, demonstrating that smart labels can more accurately reflect product condition than static use-by dates. A top priority for consumer health is to scale these smart labels for the quality control of perishable goods, ensuring any item shipped to a distant destination through cold chain operations still arrives in a condition that is safe for human consumption.

No Labels

With sustainability and cost reduction high on the logistics agenda, companies are opting to print digital product information directly onto packages, eliminating physical labels. This so-called ‘no labels’ approach still gives consumers the information they need to make informed decisions and enables warehouse operations to easily identify products.

Lending itself to the fight against fraud, start-up PixoAnalytics developed a unique code-generating technology using paper art. Each envelope or package is produced using paper that has a unique and natural paper structure (referred to as its ‘fingerprint’) which is used for unique identification. Similar to human fingerprints, these paper structures cannot be reproduced. Applicable to any product, and without increasing the environmental footprint of regular envelopes and packages, this technology also equips logistics providers with a tool to ensure customer parcels are not tampered with.

Challenges

As smart labels enabling data transfer, they also introduce the risk of data tampering which can be mitigated by pairing certain smart label applications with blockchain technology; this may increase the cost and complexity of implementation.
Single-use labels that are powered by batteries pose a sustainability problem; companies must consider how these devices will be disposed of in a green, safe manner.
To address security concerns, smart label development and integration with cutting-edge technology is needed and labels must be produced with robust weather- and wear resistant chemicals.

This trend should be ACTIVELY monitored, with imminent developments and applications.

Outlook

The ubiquitous use of QR codes allows information access and sharing and – with ever-increasing demand for instant information on parcel tracking, condition monitoring, and product authenticity – we here at DHL do not see developments in the Smart Labels trend slowing down. With imminent moves to eliminate the need for batteries to power certain labels, further adoption of sensor-enabled labels is very likely in the logistics industry. Impacting both suppliers and consumers, the drive to implement smart label technologies on a wider scale is accelerating development. And with sustainability at the top of corporate agendas globally, the interlink between smart labels and sustainability also acts as an undercurrent, propelling further technology development and solution scaling.

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