Smart packaging, definition and applications

The IoT (Internet of Things) is revolutionising the production and distribution of products, paving the way for an increasingly connected future - packaging industry included - with global sales estimated at $2.5 billion by 2025.

When an advanced degree of technology is applied to packaging, it is commonly referred to as 'smart packaging'. This term refers to those packaging systems comprising advanced functions and services that go beyond the mere purpose of containing products. These are real technological solutions, which make packaging more active (or enhanced) and able to communicated with the environment to be more efficient for producers and consumers.

The concept of smart packaging is derived from the broader concept of 'functional packaging', which is dealt with at European level in Regulation EC 450/2009. This type of solution is categorised into three different macro-categories:

  1. Active packaging: equipped with technological materials that interact with the product and intervene directly on factors such as light, oxygen and moisture, for the benefit of product quality and shelf life.
  2. Intelligent packaging: able to communicate thanks to indicators and sensors placed inside or outside the packaging to provide information and details on the state of the product.
  3. Connected packaging: integrates technologies such as QR codes or RFID tags, which enable interaction with the product, greatly enhancing the consumer experience.

Smart packaging for the pharmaceutical industry, a brief classification

Pharmaceutical packaging - both primary and secondary - is also set to become an increasingly smart element, capable of collecting information about the product it contains, the user who uses it and the interactions that develop between the two.
Compared to the categories of generic packaging, pharmaceutical packaging can be divided into the following categories:

  • Active pharmaceutical packaging: solutions designed to preserve the stability of the drug, protecting it from alterations caused by external agents, such as moisture, oxygen and sunlight. One example are the devices for reconstitution medicines equipped with active systems to eliminate moisture and extend their shelf life.
  • Traceable pharmaceutical packaging: this includes technologies to identify and track packages during their entire life cycle.
  • Connected pharmaceutical packaging: smart systems that, when connected to devices such as smartphones or PCs, can provide in-depth information to patients and help improve adherence to treatment.
  • Responsible pharmaceuticalpackaging: solutions designed to ensure that packages are accessible even to the most fragile patients. This category includes solutions with facilitated openings and simplified delivery methods.

Focus: smart anti-counterfeiting pharmaceutical packaging

New smart technologies designed to prevent the phenomenon of counterfeit medicines deserve a closer look. This issue is a public health hazard and pharmaceutical packaging can play a crucial role in its prevention. Innovative tracking systems can in fact help in preventing attempts to counterfeit medicines by allowing product authenticity to be verified and recognised even when it has been tampered with.

The most popular solutions for tracking pharmaceutical packaging are:

  • Holograms: holographic marks printed directly together with the product to allow for different levels of control to prevent counterfeiting of medicines.
  • NFC: digital tags that encapsulate a range of information relating to the product itself as well as to certifications and tracking and that can be read by devices, including smartphones.
  • RFID: is a radio-frequency identification technology that, like NFC tags, provides a unique identity for the drug, conveying different types of information about the drug and its tracking.
  • QR Code (Quick Response Code): anti-counterfeiting codes that can be scanned by various systems, including smartphones, and provide direct access to product information, reassuring consumers about integrity and provenance.

Focus: connected pharmaceutical packaging

If any object can become connected and communicative in a now fully digital ecosystem, pharmaceutical packaging is no different. This is the case with some smart pillboxes and smart ophthalmic nebulisers that when connected to digital devices, such as smartphones, can offer advanced functions useful for:

  • Monitoring shelf-life: i.e. to control and communicate environmental parameters that could vary along the chain and thus significantly influence the shelf-life, and therefore the efficacy of the drug.
  • Simplifying administration: these solutions, through very intuitive notification and alarm systems, support the patient in planning and dosing the therapy correctly.
  • Processing information: data on user behaviour, used to design further value-added services, can be collected and processed. Not only that, information can be shared directly with the GP, creating a direct link with the patient.

This new smart dimension of healthcare affects all players involved in the value chain, from patients, doctors and healthcare professionals to pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and technology manufacturers. Approaching the Internet of Things in the pharmaceutical sector is not just a matter of technological advancement, however, but presupposes an open innovation model, with business models designed to bring the novelties of the digital world to practical fruition quickly and effectively.