Supply Chain Matters continues with our market education series, in particular, citing next generation technology involving smart item-level labeling technology that can open the door to further integration of physical and digital information needs.  Evolving next-generation labeling utilizes printed electronics and near-field communications (NFC-enabled) smart labels to track products and their various states.

Today, Xerox announced the availability of two printed electronic labels that can collect and store information about either the authenticity or condition of products flowing across the supply chain. From our lens, the availability of such advanced labeling technology will foster new, more affordable dimensions of item level tracking, security and authenticity specifically related to products. This author would add that this is the dawning of the application of item-level technology that industry supply chain teams have versioned for quite some time.

Xerox Printed Memory is label that is printed on a thin, flexible substrate (see photo) upon which 36 bits of data can be added, stored, or re-written to non-volatile memory. Xerox product teams describe this product as a low cost method for adding intelligence to objects.    The label can be manufactured with tamper-evident adhesives and available in a number of physical formats.  Data affixed to the label can be pre or post Xerox Printed Memory labelprogrammed, depending on business process or product need.

The label licenses printed labeling technology developed by Thin Film Electronics ASA, which Supply Chain Matters has previously brought to the attention of readers in various other application areas. Thin Film and Xerox have been collaborating on joint product research for the past few years, and we were alerted earlier this year of a pending product release.

We had the opportunity to speak with Xerox product management and learned that initial application of this labeling technology can apply to needs to authenticate refill of products such as dispensing machines with consumable products. Think of air or water filters, pharmaceutical products or ink jet print cartridges. A further and most interesting application area is product authentication where label based memory can store product identification or distribution codes while supporting needs for controlling product authentication, tracking and monitoring across the entire physical supply chain. The label is thus utilized to verify if the product is genuine and can track handling during distribution.

The Xerox label passes through a two-part verification, one being the reading of physical memory on the label, and one being a hand-held or smartphone based reading device utilized to authenticate the product.

Consider for a moment prior commentaries where sophisticated counterfeiters were able to accurately replicate product labels and distribute counterfeit goods.

Xerox Printed Memory with Cryptographic Security adds a unique, encrypted code developed by the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). Essentially a manufacturer can pre-print a QR type item level identification that conforms to GS1 standard serialization or product tracking standards at time of printing along with encrypted metadata with a unique cryptographic “seed” value that is authenticated by designated authorized parties with the proprietary algorithm. An inspector with a secure smartphone reader can capture the encrypted authentication code, along with the QR code, compares the two values and generate a further proprietary authentication code. The reader can optionally add additional time/location or intended destination information that can be fed to a track and trace application.

The attractive part of Xerox’s approach is that verification by reader or smartphone device can be accomplished both online of offline. In the case of offline, the authentication occurs and later can be uploaded when connected to the Internet. Another added feature is that new codes can be re-written to the memory label as the product transcends the value-chain.

Xerox is initially targeting this smart labeling technology for brand protection, anti-counterfeiting or tax or duty stamp conformance needs. Products could include expensive pharmaceuticals, liquor, tobacco or high fashion branded products. A potential use can be the use of rewriteable data within each label to identify if the product is authorized, a shipping tax has been paid, or whether the product passed through an authorized supply chain node.

Previous advanced item tracking technology utilizing RFID enabled technologies proved expensive to implement on a wide scale basis. Xerox believes that its new smart labeling technology can provide high security as well more attractive cost affordability.

Xerox plans to produce these new labels in volume at its Webster New York facility.

As noted in our prior market education commentaries, this is the dawning of a new era for item-level tracking. It is one that will harness the potential of the Internet of Things as well as the abilities to bring together the physical and digital aspects of supply chain information integration applied to important product and business challenges and opportunities.

Bob Ferrari