Smart Printables: What the future of smart labels means for logistics
Everywhere you look, things are getting smarter. From phones to fridges, smart devices are all around us. They are even wrapped around our wrists (you just looked at your smartwatch or fitness tracker, didn’t you?).
We are seeing the same thing happen in the bustling, behind-the-scenes world of logistics. The Internet of Things (IoT) is transforming supply chain management – enabling new capabilities (like warehouse robots!) that seemed like science fiction only a few years ago. The evolution from barcodes to smart labels is one example.
What exactly is a smart label, you ask? It is a good question – one that the industry has not been able to answer. Instead, the term has become a buzzword for any label with a sensor of some sort. But beware: Many of these labels are far from smart and do not always live up to their promises.
That is why at DHL, we have coined the term “Smart Printables”. The next generation of smart labels will be both smart and printable (at low cost!), allowing us to do things we could not before – on a global scale. These innovative technologies are slowly turning paper-thin, printed labels into sophisticated smart devices, but the real revolution has not started yet. Read on to learn more.
The evolution of the smart label
Before we sort out the difference between a smart label and a Smart Printable, let’s look at how we got here. It is all part of the evolution of IoT in logistics and supply chain visibility.
From barcodes to beacons
Pick up any product at the store, and you will find the familiar barcode – that series of lines and spaces of varying thicknesses scanned at check out. Since the 1970s, barcodes have provided a standardized method for encoding information, such as product serial numbers, which machines could scan. This automation significantly reduced manual data entry errors, improved inventory accuracy, and sped up the checkout process, revolutionizing retail and supply chain management and leading to their widespread adoption across various industries.
At DHL, we have used barcodes on shipping labels for decades to gain visibility and insights across the supply chain. We use them to identify and track shipments, locations, milestones, and more. Although they have served us well, there are many drawbacks. For example, you have to scan each barcode individually, so processing thousands of packages can become time-consuming and labor-intensive.
Quick Response (QR) codes entered the scene in the mid-1990s, gaining widespread use in the early 2000s due to their ability to store more information than traditional barcodes, including text, URLs, and other data. QR codes became popular because people could scan them using their smartphones and tablets, allowing quick access to information or websites without needing specialized scanners. This versatility and convenience – along with the rapid rise in smartphone users worldwide – led to the broad adoption of QR codes for various applications, such as advertising, marketing, ticketing, product tracking, and contactless payments.
At DHL, we use QR codes to enhance efficiency and provide quick access to shipment information. For example, when our Express customers pre-pay for postage using our app, they receive a QR code rather than a label to print out. The QR code is scanned when they drop off the package, and the pre-addressed label is printed automatically. Even cooler: we are using next-gen QR data loggers – sensors that monitor and record changes in conditions like temperature and shock. These devices display digital QR codes that update as conditions change and can be easily scanned with a smartphone.
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology was developed in the mid-20th century; however, it did not gain significant traction until the 1990s and early 2000s with advancements in microelectronics. Many retail stores began attaching RFID tags to merchandise and installing readers (security gates) to manage inventory or to prevent theft at exits. Unlike barcodes, RFID tags can be read further away without a direct line of sight to the reader, allowing for automated and more efficient inventory management and tracking.
We have tested and deployed RFID technology at DHL for years, but the benefits come at a relatively high cost. The infrastructure needed is complex and challenging to scale, with special readers and routers built on proprietary systems. And RFID only works in a controlled environment with dedicated infrastructure, meaning that once a tag leaves that environment, it can no longer be detected. We call this a “closed-loop system”. However, recent innovations are making RFID cheaper, and some supply chain managers are taking a new look at the technology (more on that later).
Bluetooth technology was initially developed in the mid-1990s as a wireless communication standard for short-range data exchange between devices. It has facilitated the implementation of beacon solutions in supply chain management by enabling seamless and energy-efficient communication between devices. Beacons are small devices strategically placed in various locations within the supply chain infrastructure. They transmit signals that can be picked up by handhelds, smartphones, or other Bluetooth-enabled gateways, allowing for accurate tracking, monitoring, and data exchange. By integrating Bluetooth-enabled sensors or tags into packages, pallets, or containers, we can collect and monitor real-time information about location, temperature, humidity, and other conditions in a central system. The technology has helped enhance transparency, reduce inefficiencies, and allow for proactive decision-making, ultimately improving the overall efficiency and responsiveness of supply chain operations. The introduction of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) is helping to extend the battery life of even smaller devices, which is paving the way for smart labels.
At DHL, we are excited about the latest advances in beacon solutions – above all, the ever-decreasing size and energy needs of microprocessors and the ability to print paper-thin batteries to power those tiny devices. We are following the trend closely and testing the latest technology as it becomes available.
What makes a smart label smart?
As mentioned above, the term smart label has become a catch-all for labels with sensors. We have been following the smart label trend closely. But are all sensors smart?
Take passive RFID, for example. It is a simple technology – you could even call it stupid. It consists of a basic tag, essentially a piece of metal with an antenna that responds with a radio signal when activated by an external energy source (usually an RFID reader or scanner). The tag uses the energy from the reader’s radio signal for temporary power to transmit its stored information back to the reader. The tag cannot run on its own and has no computing power.
We consider a device smart when it operates independently and has computing power. It needs to be an active rather than a passive participant in the system and send more than a simple signal.
Active vs. passive
OK, now let’s define active and passive. Passive is the situation described above. An ordinary RFID tag cannot send information on its own. It is dependent on the energy received externally. Active describes a powered device that operates independently, continuously sending signals or data. Your Bluetooth headphones are a perfect example. They constantly send out a signal every millisecond, which is picked up by your phone or laptop (known as a “gateway” in geek speak). The most common example of an active system is cellular technology, which enabled wireless internet and ushered in the first major wave of digital solutions in logistics. Next-generation wireless will expand supply chain visibility and further optimize logistics operations.
Powerful and printable
Now we are getting to the really smart part – and the label part. The functionality is not new. We already use Bluetooth or cellular connectivity in small plastic devices to track shipments and monitor conditions. What makes Smart Printables special is their size and shape, enabled by new technologies: printable batteries and ever-smaller microchips that can be powered by those printed batteries because they require so little energy.
Printed battery technology involves creating batteries using specialized printing techniques. Layers of battery components, such as electrodes, are deposited onto a substrate in a precise pattern. The resulting printed battery can be thin, flexible, and customized in size and shape for various applications, such as labels. No more AA batteries in plastic boxes inside shipments! You can now slap a flat, battery-powered device on the outside of a package.
Also, developers are still ironing out problems with printed batteries. They dry out and die too fast, so they must be housed in a thin plastic case to keep them moist and extend their life.
Powerful and printable make a label smart
When will “Smart Printables” be available?
The honest answer is that no one knows. Despite all the hype, it is not yet economically viable to put today’s smart labels on the millions of packages, pallets, and containers we ship every day.
Do not get us wrong. The latest labels are really cool. Recent innovations are fascinating – and early adopters in the logistics industry are already benefiting from improved efficiency and new possibilities. We are exploring many new business cases and having lots of fun working with partners to test and further develop the technology. It is an exciting time! And real change is right around the corner. In five years or so we just might be celebrating the advent of a truly smart label that is both powerful and printable at scale.
The “Smart Printable” and what it means for logistics
Powerful and printable is the revolutionary piece of the puzzle, and why we like the term “Smart Printable” to talk about the next generation of smart labels currently in development. Smart Printables will do things we could not do before on a global scale because we will be able to print them like ordinary barcode labels and stick them on anything.
In the early stages of Smartlabels development, Bayer Crop Science Division approached AT&T and Sony with a vision to create a pioneering solution for tracking their agricultural seed products within distribution channels. This collaboration led to the creation of one of the first label product prototypes.
Here is what this is going to mean for logistics and supply chain management:
Proof of delivery and opening
One of the most valuable use cases is proof of delivery. We actually do not need smart labels for ordinary track-and-trace tasks (we can do that with today’s standard tracking devices). But Smart Printables will allow us to detect when a package is opened and verify proof of delivery. We will have more visibility and see things in real-time, with the ability to check whether it was authorized. Take that a step further, and we can envision Smart Printables on prescription pill containers to track and monitor location and use – an innovation that could greatly improve patient care and outcomes.
Some smart labels on the market today can detect an opening event, but there are two drawbacks. First, the labels are still costly and only economical for high-value shipments. Second, the labels can only detect an opening event on one side of the package. Smart label developers must invent solutions that recognize an opening event on all sides of the packaging.
Supply chain visibility and efficiency
Smart Printables will greatly enhance our end-to-end supply chain visibility and make operations faster and more efficient. We will be able to scale their use quickly and easily because we can print and put them on any shipment at a low cost. And we will not need to install complex and costly scanning infrastructure throughout the supply chain to read them. Instead, we can utilize existing gateway technology with direct web connectivity. No dedicated gateways, closed networks, or Wi-Fi zones are required.
These next-generation smart labels, backed by Bluetooth or cellular technology, will use less energy and have a higher read range. That means our supply chain managers can cover entire distribution centers and warehouses with just a few hotspot devices. And our drivers can scan their whole vehicle at once and with a single handheld. Plus, they will not only know if a package is on their truck, but they will also know precisely where it is in their truck. Smart Printables will also increase the speed and throughput in distribution centers and accelerate order picking in fulfillment centers. What is more, we will be able to integrate GPS technology into cellular-based smart printables so we can get real-time location of single packages.
It is all in the print: key takeaways on smart labels
The smart label headlines are turning heads, but industry media and many market reports are mixing technologies. For example, they lump RFID labels with more sophisticated solutions, confusing customers and potential end users. We have written this article to set the record straight. Here are some key points to take with you:
1. Smart labels are coming, but they are not yet mature
People are talking up smart labels, but the reality is that the technology is not yet mature enough, nor are any of today’s solutions globally scalable. We need to see improvements in printed battery technology (more reliable battery life) and lower unit printing prices before we can deploy smart labels by the millions. Furthermore, the sensor technology needs to cover all sides of the box for maximum security, and more airlines need to allow smart labels on their planes for widespread use in air freight. Today’s smart labels are only economical for niche use cases like high-value shipments.
2. Do not overlook RFID, but do not call it smart
RFID technology was highly touted when it first arrived, but the costs have kept it from deeply penetrating the logistics industry. Recent developments are making it cheaper, and we are witnessing a modest but notable revival as more and more use cases are uncovered. If you are a warehouse or supply chain manager, you should probably take another look. But it is important to note that the solutions only work in closed-loop networks. In other words: you need the proper infrastructure.
3. Explore semi-active solutions
BLE is making it possible to combine the strengths of passive and active devices at a more reasonable price. Designed to consume much less power, BLE is ideal for the energy-efficient wireless communication needed for tiny smart sensors and other IoT devices. Semi-active devices have a built-in battery but can go to sleep when not in use, further reducing energy consumption. And anyone can read them with a smartphone in their pocket.
4. No one size fits all
Despite what some manufacturers say, there is no one-size-fits-all, jack-of-all-trades smart label. It does not exist. What is more, not every label is truly smart, and building smart features into economical, paper-thin stickers is proving difficult. So, ignore the buzzwords and think about your needs before starting the search for solutions.
Going beyond the buzzword
The evolution from barcodes to beacons is fascinating – and the invention of the smart label is incredible. But what really excites us is the next generation of smart labels. “Smart Printables” mean low energy consumption, light infrastructure, and seemingly limitless possibilities.
That is why we have gone beyond the buzzword and coined a term to use when talking to manufacturers and testing the latest solutions. Modern supply chains use lots of sensor technology, of course, but solutions that are both smart and printable are not yet available. We know what logistics and supply chain managers need. When “Smart Printables” are ready, we will be ready to put them into action.
This story was first published on DHL Delivered and was republished with permission.
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