Canadian company introduces "intelligent packaging" to global market for pharmaceuticals and over-the-counter medications

- London, Ontario

With IRAP’s support, Jones Packaging of London, Ontario is introducing “intelligent packaging” to the global pharmaceutical and over-the-counter medication market. Consumers will be able to tap their phone on interactive “smart labels” to launch a digital conversation with the manufacturer and learn how a product might suit their needs.

Have you ever wished for a way to know more about how a medication might suit your personal circumstances – without having to line up to speak with the pharmacist? Jones Packaging, of London, Ontario, is about to make this quicker and easier for you with one tap of your smart phone.

Established more than 130 years ago, the family-run company with 330 employees is set to transform how we purchase pharmaceuticals and over-the-counter medication through the introduction of interactive "smart labels" and "intelligent packaging" — thanks to a highly successful research and development (R&D) collaboration with Thin Film Electronics ASA ("Thinfilm") of Norway and Sweden, made possible by support from the National Research Council's Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP), Sweden's national innovation agency, Vinnova, and EUREKA (administered in Canada by NRC). EUREKA is an intergovernmental network based in Europe, of which Canada is an associate member, which promotes and supports market-oriented global R&D and innovation, and facilitates access to financing for participants.

"Today's consumer wants to have a conversation with a brand," said Chris Jones Harris, Principal, Corporate Development at Jones. "With our new intelligent packaging, they can interact digitally with the manufacturer to get the information they want. For manufacturers, the technology opens a myriad of new opportunities to understand consumer needs, offer coupons and interest shoppers in related products." Built-in sensors and tracking devices will also allow consumers, health care workers and manufacturers to know whether a package has been tampered with in transit. This is especially useful for high-value pharmaceuticals or luxury goods such as cosmetics, perfumes or alcohol where counterfeit products can pose a risk to the consumer.

IRAP and EUREKA: building an international advantage

In 2012, Jones Packaging joined NRC's Printable Electronics Consortium, a public and private research effort aimed at positioning Canadian industry as early adopters of emerging printable electronics technologies. These kinds of technologies enable the lower-cost digital fabrication of electronic devices on pliable surfaces such as paper and plastics.

Strip of NFC tags

Spotting the opportunity to become a leader in intelligent packaging, Jones turned to NRC-IRAP and EUREKA (administered in Canada by NRC) to collaborate with Thin Film Electronics ASA of Norway and Sweden. Through EUREKA, Jones and Thinfilm are collaborating on the R&D needed to apply Thinfilm’s OpenSense™ near field communication (NFC) wireless technology to a variety of Jones Packaging products. Thinfilm used EUREKA to access support for the research partnership from Vinnova, Sweden’s innovation agency.

With consumer trends shifting to minimal packaging, Jones saw the opportunity to use the experience to become a leader in intelligent packaging. In 2015, Jones turned to IRAP for help in using the EUREKA program to collaborate with Thinfilm to apply the company’s OpenSenseTM near field communication (NFC) wireless technology to packaging on Jones' automated high-speed production lines in London, Ontario.

"With IRAP and Vinnova on board through EUREKA, we were able to help the companies navigate the complexities of putting together an international R&D project," said Andrew Bauder, an Industrial Technology Advisor (ITA) with IRAP International.

"Time was of the essence if Jones was to gain a competitive technical advantage," said Charlie Johnston, the lead ITA for Jones. "We had to move swiftly to get the paperwork for the funding done and the expertise in place. The project was ready to roll out in January 2016."

Many pharmaceuticals are sold in metallic packaging, so a portion of the project focused on how to integrate ferrite shielding to protect the NFC tags’ radio signals from interference in a way that could be produced at high speed on the Jones production lines. Each partner took on a different challenge, with Thinfilm using the Vinnova support to integrate the ferrite shielding without interfering with the NFC signal, while Jones modified their production lines to reliably apply the NFC tags to their products without damage from electrostatic discharge.

"The insight and expertise of the ITAs we accessed were invaluable," explained James Lee, Director of Technology and Innovation at Jones. "With their experience in electrical engineering, they understood the potential challenges and helped guide us to success. The financial resources enabled us to dedicate engineering time that otherwise would have had to be focused on immediate client needs."

The future is here now for Jones and their customers

Assembly Line

Jones Packaging and Thin Film Electronics ASA are collaborating to enable Jones to apply Thinfilm’s OpenSense™ NFC tags at high speeds to Jones’ automated assembly lines while protecting the tags’ radio signals from interference from the packaging. Jones facilities can now produce 15,000 cartons with OpenSense tags each hour.

"We are very happy with the outcomes – the project was completed successfully and five months ahead of schedule," said Lee. Jones' facilities can now produce 15,000 pharmaceutical cartons with OpenSense tags each hour. This is a vast jump forward over their competitors: previously NFC tags had to be applied by hand at the rate of 100 per hour without inline validation.

"We are ready to commercialize our intelligent packaging in Canada and abroad," added Jones Harris. "Our customers are already showing a keen interest as they look to ensure their brands are positioned for the future. With predictions that intelligent packaging will reach double-digit growth by 2020, we see this as a strong avenue of growth for Jones."

"IRAP support was critical to the success of the project," emphasized Lee. "They gave us the confidence and the resources to seize the future with intelligent packaging for the global marketplace."

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