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Near-field communication labels communicate with consumers and support personalized medicine.
Near-field communication (NFC) technology can create a “smart” package with an unprecedented level of communication between consumer and product or brand. The three primary components of a smart package are an NFC tag, a smartphone equipped with NFC technology, and an application that provides access to information in the cloud or functionality such as contactless payments.
Benefits and challenges
As a radio frequency identification technology (RFID), an NFC tag can carry more data than a barcode or QR code and provide access to a virtually unlimited realm of additional information. As a result, the currently small market for NFC technology is growing rapidly with a compound annual growth rate of 37% projected between 2015 and 2020, according to a report from IDTechEx (1).
According to Raghu Das, chief executive officer at IDTechEx and co-author of the report, “NFC is of great interest to pharmaceuticals because…[it] would allow patients to engage with the product.” Authentication, tamper detection, patient and equipment safety, and educational information are major benefits, but the potential to personalize consumer/product interaction is particularly advantageous for pharmaceuticals. “Your phone will remind you when to take your pills,” predicts Das. “Instead of confusion and micro print details on labels, your phone will more clearly display or even tell you what those drugs are. Potentially, your phone could track fitness and other parameters and therefore adjust your dosage. Data could be sent to your doctor. Elderly could be more self-sufficient and perhaps be able to stay in their homes longer.”
The challenge to adopting NFC technology is that the supporting readers are Android-based. “Until Apple opens up its NFC platform to read NFC tags (as opposed to just Apple Pay payments), brands face the issue of paying for NFC tags on packaging when only a minority can read them,” says Das. In addition, not all Android-based phones can read all NFC tags, according to AndyTags, a website about NFC technology (2).
NFC-equipped labels and packaging
Several firms provide NFC-equipped labels or packaging including MPI Label Systems, NXP, Jones Packaging, Avery Dennison, and PPi Technologies. MPI, which has been producing RFID labels since the early 2000s, introduced NFC labels in 2011. Its RFID/NFC division in Alliance, OH, not far from its headquarters in Sebring, OH, can encode NFC labels to direct the user to a website or set the smartphone to perform a specific task. In addition to facilitating two-way communication with consumers, the tags allow consumers to share experiences with each other and can launch special promotions and reinforce brand values and messages (3).
“MPI is involved in numerous proprietary NFC applications in the pharmaceutical/healthcare industry,” reports Shauna Woolf, RFID general manager at MPI Label. “We work with all of the major NFC inlay suppliers: Smartrac, Identive, Avery, MiKron, etc.,” she explains. To minimize lead times, MPI maintains an inventory of common tag sizes and memory types. In addition, Woolf, says, “We can provide any face stock and adhesive combination that is needed. This is of utmost importance to make sure the label meets the application requirements.”
NXP has introduced an NFC-enabled sensor designed to be integrated into blister packs or pill bottles. It tracks when medication is removed from the package. Tapping the package with a smartphone records the data, which can be used to prompt delivery of personalized services to improve compliance and support patient, caregiver, or healthcare professional.
Jones Packaging, a converter of packaging materials and contract packaging service provider for the pharmaceutical industry, plans to launch an NFC-equipped carton for a commercial product before the end of 2016. Jones Packaging is collaborating with Thin Film Electronics ASA (Thinfilm) to integrate the latter’s OpenSense NFC labels on prescription and over-the-counter product packaging.
Already in use in the spirits and wine industries and on auto-injector pens from Ypsomed to support product tracking and patient compliance, OpenSense labels are based on printed electronics, rather than traditional chip/antenna inlays. With a tap of an NFC-enabled smartphone, the thin, flexible labels can report whether the product is factory sealed or opened, so appropriate information can be delivered in return. “The ability to recognize open and closed is a big differentiator,” says Matthew Bright, senior director, product and technical marketing at Thinfilm. “Other NFC technologies generally are not usable after the package is opened,” he explains.
Thinfilm’s “Tag Talks First” technology enables a read speed that is up to 20 times faster than conventional NFC solutions (4). This means integration of the smart label does not cause bottlenecks on converting or packaging lines. In addition, labels destined for application to aerosol cans or foil blisters may be equipped with a ferrite shield, overcoming interference problems experienced with conventional RFID tags when mounted on metallic surfaces. Bright says, “The ferrite shield lamination provides a barrier that allows RF energy to power the tag and enable it to transmit data to an inline reader or smartphone.”
Each OpenSense tag has a unique identifier that cannot be erased or modified, thus enabling tracking to the item level, product authentication, and delivery of information tailored to the consumer. The unique identifier also can support serialization. “We haven’t developed a plan to execute serialization yet, but we could capture track-and-trace data from any point where we install a reader,” says James Lee, director, technology and innovation at Jones Packaging.
More immediate benefits will come from the ability to provide personalized information about how the product will meet a consumer’s needs. “The potential to store an unlimited amount of information in the cloud overcomes space limitations on the package,” says Lee. For example, he says, tapping a smartphone on a nutraceutical label could open a window requesting input about prescribed medications and return any contraindications. Another possibility would be to provide instructions in a language other than what’s on the package/label.
“When the package is shown to be open, the program could provide smartphone alerts for expiration date or suggest reordering. The combination of unique identification, smartphone readability, and dynamic, personalized information delivery could benefit many products,” concludes Lee.