Four ways the pharmaceutical industry benefits from intelligent packaging

As the director of technology and innovation with Jones Packaging, James Lee has seen firsthand the benefits technology can bring to a seemingly unrelated industry – in his case, pharmaceutical packaging.

During the majority of his 25 years in the industry, Lee’s areas of expertise have involved paperboard, plastic, and ink, not electronic engineering or design.

James Lee
Jones Packaging’s director of technology and innovation, James Lee

“If you were to ask me several years ago what the difference was between capacitance (the ability of a body to store an electrical charge) and resistance (which, in electrical terms, refers to a conductor’s ability to run an electric current)… it wouldn’t have really mattered and wasn’t something we really knew,” he says.

Yet while Lee admits that intelligent packaging, which uses printable electronics to augment the plastic bags, polystyrene containers, and cardboard boxes that our steak and aspirin are delivered in, is a different beast, it ultimately serves the same five key purposes that traditional packaging does:

  • Physical protection, for the product within;
  • Barrier protection to maintain the product’s environment – for example, the air-tight plastic bags used to keep breakfast cereal crispy;
  • Information – especially important in the pharmaceutical industry, which may need to provide everything from a list of medicinal ingredients to other drugs that consumers should not ingest at the same time;
  • Containment, which Lee illustrates using a six-pack of beer – without the cardboard case, carrying six bottles at once could easily prove cumbersome;
  • Marketing – decorating a package in a way that inspires someone to actually purchase it.

During this year’s Printable, Flexible, Wearable Electronics Symposium – CPES2016 – Lee will be giving a presentation on how the pharmaceutical industry has utilized intelligent packaging to augment these five components.

He shared a few methods with, referencing food packaging as well along the way.

Time-temperature indicators

Especially important in an industry where many injectable drugs cannot be removed from a refrigerated environment for more than 10 minutes, Lee says, Jones has used intelligent packaging technology to create labels that keep steady track of a product’s temperature during the shipping process, providing valuable information that doctors or pharmacists can use to decide whether the drugs are safe to use or not.

NFC tags

There is a trend in the pharmaceutical industry, Lee says, of certain drugs such as antihistamine nasal spray Flonase being converted from a prescription drug into an over-the-counter medication.

“Flonase is a very effective product, and it’s great when used for relief,” he says. “But it was considered a prescription drug just two years ago… and these types of drugs require the patient to receive a lot more information so that they know they’re using the drug safely.”

Many such drugs, of course, already come with leaflets that nobody reads, Lee says with a laugh, making NFC tags one potential solution. Users can scan the tag with a mobile device, which then launches a 90-second video with a pharmacist or doctor explaining how to use the product safely.

“We’ve actually conducted a few different focus groups and consumer interviews… and many people said, ‘if I could watch a YouTube video, and it can disseminate what I need to know in under 90 seconds, that’s great! Because I’m not going to read that leaflet,'” Lee says with a laugh. “And having people actually admit to that… was an interesting lesson for us.”

Track and trace

By combining an NFC tag with a box serial number, the pharmaceutical industry can track the whereabouts of its merchandise, perhaps monitoring where it can be sent or where it’s going, potentially streamlining the distribution or recall process, Lee says.

Chemical sensors

“The reality is that expiration dates don’t really mean anything,” Lee says. “They simply mean the manufacturer has done their testing to find the ‘risk point’ where they really have to worry and backtracked that date by a week or so… So there is science behind it, but it’s not hard and fast.”

Though it’s more applicable to the food packaging industry, where misunderstood expiration dates contribute significantly to food waste, Lee says that intelligent packaging can solve this problem in the form of chemical sensors or biosensors, which can be used to detect chemicals or bacteria released by a product when it’s no longer safe to use.

“When you go to your fridge and look at the expiration date on your milk, do you just throw it out, no matter what? Or do you kind of sniff it and see if it’s safe to drink?” Lee says. “If that milk never left the two-to-four degrees celsius window, chances are it can probably last a week or two longer than the expiration date.”

CPES2016 will be held on April 19 and 20 at the Oakville, Ontario campus of Sheridan College. is a media sponsor of the event.

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Eric Emin Wood
Eric Emin Wood
Former editor of turned consultant with public relations firm Porter Novelli. When not writing for the tech industry enjoys photography, movies, travelling, the Oxford comma, and will talk your ear off about animation if you give him an opening.

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