‘Smart labels’ are the latest innovation within packaging that can be utilised by manufacturers to improve traceability, product information and safety. However the diverse nature of smart labels, encompassing a wide range of technologies and applications, has led to some confusion as to what exactly a ‘smart label’ is.
The following guide explains what exactly smart labels are, the main applications and benefits of using smart labels as well as looking at the group-breaking new ways they are being used.
What are smart labels?
Smart labels (sometimes known as smart tags) is the umbrella term for labelling and coding that includes additional data and functionality to a traditional barcode, using various technologies. Popular types of smart labels include data embedded barcodes, radio frequency identification labels and quick response codes. These work alongside a wide range of innovative new applications and technology.
What do we need them for?
Manufacturers can utilise smart labels in a number of ways – being able to create a data rich source for suppliers, packagers, distributors and advertisers is invaluable in a competitive modern market, across all industries. Smart labels can demonstrate the quality/provenance of the product, improve product safety, reduce wastage and improve product traceability, creating a more efficient production line and help battle against counterfeit products.
Quick response codes, also known as QR codes – are still a relatively new type of barcode that can store huge quantities of information. Originating in the Japanese automotive industry, the 2D barcodes became popular across different industries due to their large character capacity (7,000 characters vs the traditional 20 characters) and fast readability. The surge in popularity has encouraged smartphone manufacturers to include QR code readers in new models.
What can QR codes be used for?
Consumer facing marketing – thanks to the rise in smartphones, brands can now communicate with the consumer more easily than ever. As well as being able to concisely direct consumers to competitions and promotions through barcodes, manufacturers can include additional nutritional information which can be accessed quickly and effectively, improving trust with the consumer, whilst being able to track the response.
Product tracking (including order and time tracking, inventory management across factories, process control and traceability across the distribution line) – from manufacturer to distributor, QR codes are a fast and effective way for every stakeholder to track a product as it moves through the production line. Manufacturers can use connected technology such as blockchain to update data in real-time so only a single scan is required to obtain the relevant data.
What are the best coding and labelling solutions for QR codes?
Depending on your original printing substrate, thermal transfer printing or thermal inkjet printing are the best options for QR codes, based on the clarity and precision required for each individual code.
Data Embedded Barcodes
Data embedded barcodes (DEB) feature additional functionality to simple product identification. They have the capacity to store further information such as expiry dates, batch codes and product origin. A popular example is the GS1-128 barcode, which has been developed as a global standard for exchanging product data, and has been adopted across the food industry to improve efficiency through the production line.
What can DEB be used for?
Traceability - legislation, government, and consumer demands are increasing in terms of tracing food. The GS1-128 barcode is the most efficient way of sharing this data.
Stock and waste management – suppliers and distributors are able to use the data featured on the barcodes to adapt to supply and demand, avoiding stock waste and saving money in the long run. The easy access of additional data can also be vital in any food industry recalls.
Food fraud – as with most smart label options, adding the simple track and trace features directly to each product can help avoid food fraud, as items can be traced back to their source.
What are the best coding and labelling solutions for data embedded barcodes?
Due to the speed, accuracy and precision required in order to print data embedded barcodes, thermal transfer printing is the best solution for your production line.
Radio Frequency Identification Labels
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) Labels (or RFID tags) can be attached to products and can be automatically tracked using electromagnetic fields. The RFID tags transmit data digitally, and can be read with a dedicated reader, which picks up the signals so physical scanning isn’t always necessarily required.
Used cross-industry, RFID tags allow products to be tracked through the production line. RFID tags are also used for things such as contactless payments and passports.
What can RFID labels be used for?
- Item Tracking
- Inventory Management
- Shipping and Receiving
What are the best coding and labelling solutions for RFID labels?
The composition and technology required for the RFID labels requires a specific print technology, depending on your factory requirements, different RFID printers may be required. For further information on choosing the right coding and labelling equipment for your operation, you can read our guide here.
What’s next for smart labels?
As technology evolves, and focus switches to helping reduce carbon footprints across all industries, smart labels are part of the solution. In the food industry, there are numerous, innovative examples of food producers using smart labels in a creative and novel manner including food waste prevention, and even detecting salmonella.
The medical sector is using smart labelling solutions to avoid medicine waste, ensure patient-medicine accuracy and help prevent medicine fraud, which could be life threatening.