RFID-Enabling the World’s Packaging Infrastructure

By Mark Roberti

A visit to PackExpo shows that we still have a long way to go before RFID will be embedded in product packaging.


I was invited to speak at PackExpo last week. The giant exhibit of packaging equipment filled Chicago’s McCormick Place. What struck me as I walked through the cavernous exhibit halls was that almost all the products on display would one day have a radio frequency identification transponder, interrogator, encoder or applicator in it. But judging by attendance in the RFID track, only a small percentage of folks in the packaging industry understand this.

The exhibit hall featured a wide array of machines for making corrugate, plastic containers and specialty packaging, as well as many machines for moving packaging and other materials and reusable transport containers and various types of packages. It’s clear, as I said in my presentation at the event, that end users want to move toward embedding RFID transponders in cartons for shipping cases, rather than applying labels. Some of the large packaging companies, such as Smurfit Stone, Georgia Pacific and Weyerhauser, have begun to research how to embed RFID tags in corrugate (see TI, Smurfit-Stone Demo RFID-Enabled Cases). However, the vast majority of the industry is behind.

There was a large number of companies displaying equipment for bottling and labeling pharmaceutical drugs. Not one of these machines had an integrated means of either reading an RFID transponder embedded in a plastic bottle or applying an RFID label to the bottle. So if you are a pharmaceutical company eager to use RFID to prevent the counterfeiting of your product, you have to figure out how to do that yourself, as Purdue Pharma did. (Subscribers can read the case study we did on this in November 2004: Purdue Pharma Gets Down to the Item.)

As I walked around the exhibit hall, I came across a robot created by ABB, the Swiss automation company. It had six flexible arms that moved a head with two suction cups down to pick up packages of candy positioned randomly on a conveyor belt. The robot could see roughly where the items where, adjust and then quickly and efficiently pick up two packages and place them perfectly on a second conveyor. It was impressive to see how the machine could react quickly and pick up the packages without ever missing one.

Here’s the thing, though—the robot worked because it was picking up every item. What if the robot had to pick up some items and not others? That would be hard to do—unless you put an RFID transponder on the items and a reader in the robot’s head. Then it could pick up the right items every time. And that, of course, is where we will be in a few years.

Not everyone agrees with this. Some think RFID will be too expensive, or just unnecessary. Certainly, as I looked at the massive number of products companies buy to bottle and package their goods, it seemed an awesome task to RFID-enable each of those machines. Then I thought about how awesome it seemed just 10 years ago to make the Internet ubiquitous. Few envisioned that the technology and infrastructure needed to connect virtually all businesses, most homes, and many machines and cell phones to the Internet could be developed, built and deployed so quickly. But it happened.

I look forward to visiting PackExpo in 10 years, because I think many of the machines on display will be RFID-enabled.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below.