DHL Survey Reveals the Future of Packaging

By Edson Perin

The logistics company's study cites smart packaging, based on the Internet of Packaging concept, as one of the three current priorities of businesses.

A recent study published by DHL, a German company in the international logistics and express courier sector, discusses the future of packaging to meet the new demands of companies, consumers and the environment. According to the study, 90 percent of businesses consider it necessary—and a significant portion are already acting on this—to rethink packaging in order to adapt packages to the new needs and innovations of their specific industries, and to take into account logistics operations.

The study addresses such topics as packaging optimization, automation, materials sustainability, reuse and reverse logistics, and the Internet of Packaging (IoP) for smart packaging. "The growing use of technologies in logistics applications leads to an obvious question," the study notes: "When will each package be connected or be smart?" In the survey with DHL's customers, the implementation of smart packaging solutions was one of the three main priorities of interviewees.

These days, the most advanced tags—such as those that detect position, temperature, shock and humidity—are still being used only for high-value shipments. But the cost of this technology is falling rapidly. The average price of a sensor has decreased by more than two-thirds since 2004. In the coming years, cheaper hardware, improvements in battery life and more efficient communication features will extend the range of economically viable applications to include a wider range of shipment types.

The price of IoP technologies will need to drop significantly further, according to the study, before they will approach universal application levels, but the most advanced technologies offer a glimpse of future possibilities. Smart labels, such as Faubel's electronic paper display, are already a viable alternative to paper-based labels for the reusable crates and containers used in pharmaceutical supply chains. Smart tags are more than a labor-saving device for senders, the study explains, because they can be configured to be dynamically updated during logistics processes, to display the next destination in the supply chain, for example, and to record events detected by sensors, such as physical shocks and temperature variations.

DHL Trend Research, which created the study, reports that Finnish company Logmore produces a data logger on packaging with an integrated electronic ink display. The display generates a QR code from a dot matrix that changes at regular intervals as the sensor records new information. This can be verified by users with a smartphone so they can quickly access a report regarding the conditions of a package in transit.

Smart tags are also moving into the consumer space. German company Inuru, for example, produces self-illuminating labels that use organic light-emitting diode (OLED) technology. The tags light up or are animated when activated by touch, movement or proximity sensors. Most parts of the system, including the screen and battery, are manufactured using an inkjet printing process.

Advances in wireless communication technologies allow smart tags to communicate from virtually any point throughout an order's journey. Low-power wide-area network (LPWAN) technologies can send and receive data over distances of 10 kilometers or more. They are also designed to operate in environments that present difficulties for other radio systems, such as indoor and underground locations.

Tags like those made by Odyn are designed to take advantage of existing public Wi-Fi hotspots, the study indicates. These technologies provide a low-cost mechanism for tags to communicate relevant events in real time. If a package is dropped, damaged or tampered with, for instance, a tag may transmit a warning, allowing the item to be checked or replaced in the supply chain before an end customer is disturbed.

To further reduce the cost of smart packaging systems, work is currently under way to eliminate an expensive component: the battery. Removing a battery from a label allows it to be reduced and extends its life, which is useful for returnable packaging applications. Battery-free Bluetooth chips from vendors like Wiliot are designed to collect energy from electromagnetic radiation in the environment. Other systems generate energy from the movement of the packaging in transit or from user actions, such as opening a specially designed seal.

DHL researchers Matthias Heutger, the company's senior VP of commercial innovation, and Markus Kueckelhaus, its VP of innovation and trend research, conclude in the study that the increased speed, scale and complexity of modern technologies and logistical processes—especially those driven by the growth of e-commerce and omnichannel retailing—are opening up new opportunities for increasingly smart and active packaging.