Supply Chain Matters has been following recent developments in the area of smart labeling, specifically a series of announcements from Norwegian based printed electronics technology provider Thin Film Electronics ASA. This technology provider’s latest announcement is the most significant to-date, with profound long-term potential benefits for certain industry supply chains. 

In an October of 2013 Supply Chain Matters posting, we called reader attention to the announcement that Thinfilm had successfully demonstrated a fully functional, stand-alone, integrated printed electronic temperature tracking Smart Sensor Label. The label was described as being built from printed and organic electronics with low power requirements with potential application to track and monitor temperature and environment for pharmaceutical products or to monitor the shelf-life and food safety of perishable products. In early April of this year, we updated readers on two other strategic partnership announcements involving Thinfilm’s smart label product development plans. One included a partnership with Temptime, for potential cold-chain tracking applications for pharmaceutical products, and another with PakSense Inc., in the development of intelligent sensing specifically designed to monitor perishable goods.

This week, yet another rather noteworthy announcement has been made, namely that Thinfilm has successfully demonstrated an integrated system product that combines printed electronics technology, real-time sensing and near-field communication (NFC) functionality. The significance of  Thinfilm NFC Enabled Smart Labelthis  announcement concerns technology that enables high‐performance transistors to support the high frequency RF circuitry required for NFC communications in Thin film’s labels with the potential to support a potentially wider range of sensing needs. A video depicting the proof-of-concept is included in the announcement on Thinfilm’s web site.

Last week, this author had the opportunity to speak with Thinfilm’s Executive Vice President and head of North America practice, Jennifer Ernst. in anticipation of this week’s announcement.  Jennifer explained that the addition of NFC opened opportunities for the sensing label to be paired with a mobile device such as a smartphone, where GPS focused or other mobile and RF related functionality can be incorporated into item-level sensing.  As an example, the receipt of a truckload shipment of perishable products can be monitored and tracked along its journey. The notion of item-level tracking from farm to fork becomes closer with such capabilities.  The fact that an infrastructure of mobile broadband and cellular networks already exists in many geographic regions, potentially removes the infrastructure cost burden that hampered previous efforts of RFID enabled item-level tracking. The smart labels will further support protocols to communicate with hand-held readers. We specifically asked the very obvious question: What about the individual cost of a label? The response we received was that Thinfilm’s goal is to target a cost that is significantly below that of current RF-based temperature monitors. Of course, the industry will have to await the real result, but we did get a sense that Thinfilm is driving toward a compelling cost-benefit proposition.

According to this latest announcement, Thinfilm anticipates delivering commercial samples of smart labels to key partners in 2015.

We continue to bring reader attention to specific smart label enabled developments because they represent, from our view, the dawning of a new era of item-level tracking, one that can harness the potential of the “Internet of Things”, namely a sensing label, with predictive analytics capabilities. Consider the possibilities that near real-time information concerning the environmental or shelf-life condition of the physical product can be integrated with supply planning, inventory management and customer fulfillment needs. Consider the possibilities in anti-counterfeiting, drug and food safety as well as avoidance of waste, spoilage and obsolescence.

This is exciting stuff. It provides evidence as to how convergence of technologies are now leading to the achievement of the goal for integrating physical and digital supply chain information and more predictive decision-making capabilities.

Bob Ferrari

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