Although the penetration of smart packaging in the pharma industry is currently very low, there is a buzz of activity in this field, with several companies working on a range of new radio frequency identification (RFID) and other "smart" packaging technologies.
Current players include Information Mediary (IMC), Meadwestvaco, Cypak, En-vision America, MedivoxRx, Supplyscape, Zars, SmartSensor Telemed, Lifeline Technology and CliniSense.
Although the prohibitive cost associated with this type of packaging technology is currently blocking its mass commercialisation, it has been proving highly successful in the clinical trials market, helping drug companies collect reliable data in clinical trials by helping ensure patients are taking their medication at the time and frequency recommended, to avoid non-compliance issues that could skew the clinical trial results.
Such products include IMC's eCAP RFID technology, developed so that researchers could track medication usage during clinical trials without active patient input, by using an RFID "smart tag" embedded into a standard medication bottle cap, which records the time at which the bottle is opened by the patient to remove their prescribed dose, thus logging the patient's medication use.
IMC have also developed Med-ic ECM (Electronic Compliance Monitoring) packaging - a disposable, low-cost intelligent pharmaceutical packaging (IPP) monitor for blister packaged medication, which uses a sensor grid technology and a proprietary process of printed conductive inks to record each time a pill or capsule is expelled from the package.
However, research firm NanoMarkets believes that smart packaging in the pharma segment may actually turn out to be considerably larger than predicted if low-cost compliance packaging can be developed for use outside of drug trials.
The growing population of middle aged to elderly people is a huge demand side incentive to developing this kind of packaging, in addition to improvements in supply chain quality, security and efficiency and brand-protection.
NanoMarkets says the arrival of a broad range of printable electronics technologies are now making affordable smarter packaging possible.
"Only printing can deliver sophisticated electronic capabilities to packaging at a price that makes next generation economically viable," the company stated.
RFID, scaled down organic light-emitting diodes (OLED) displays, sensors, thin film batteries and photovoltaics are among the printable technologies that will be used in packaging to make pharma products healthier, more secure, longer lasting and easier to use, the company forecasts.
However, critical to this success will be printable electronics making good on its promise to deliver an RFID tag in the one-cent range. Significant improvements in the ability of printing machines to create RFIDs in high volume and print them on a wide variety of substrates will be key to achieving the price target.
In the past, the evolution of smart packaging has been hampered by the lack of small low-cost power sources. NanoMarkets claims that help is coming from three sources: piezoelectric materials, organic photovoltaics and thin film batteries. As these technologies mature and fall in price, the power will be there to drive lights, sensors, displays and active RFIDs in the latest generation of smart packaging technology.
NanoMarkets believes that in the future, smart materials will also have an important impact on smart packaging technology.
Thermochromic inks will be used to show when an optimal or dangerous temperature has been reached. Shape memory alloys will control the opening and closing of packages depending on environmental conditions.
Piezoelectric materials will provide power for lighting and audio features on packaging, and smart adhesives can be used in conjunction with smart labels to ensure freshness through colour changes.
Smarter packaging could also mean fewer fakes, the report stated.
Product authentication issues and supply chain security are major concerns in today's pharma industry, where drug counterfeiting is causing major headaches.
The business of selling fake drugs is burgeoning across the globe and is estimated to grow 13 per cent a year to reach $75bn in 2010, compared to just 7.5 per cent estimated annual growth for global pharmaceutical commerce, according to market research analysts Gartner and Frost & Sullivan.
The US government has already issued guidelines for the use of electronic pedigree systems for the pharmaceutical supply chains. These systems may use RFIDs or bar codes that record the details of every transfer by wholesalers and re-packagers, until the final sale or use of the drug.
"We believe that the concern for brand protection is likely to drive large pharmaceutical companies towards smart packaging security systems in less than three years," said NanoMarkets.
"For brand manufacturers, smart packaging also opens the prospect of making a brand identity through the use of high-tech features. In all these ways, demand for smart packaging can be seen as coming not only from the end-user segment but also from retailers, brand-manufacturers and government agencies," said the firm.
Cost will certainly be the greatest challenge to achieving widespread industry acceptance of smart packaging, and technology suppliers and all in the value chain will have to work hard to keep costs low and increase retail and consumer awareness of the benefits.