Thin Film Electronics, a company that makes wafer-thin printed circuits that can be built into packaging materials, and Bemis, a manufacturer of both consumer products and wholesale packaging, have signed an agreement that will add circuits to your cereal box. Or maybe sensors to your salad bags. Or digital intelligence to disposable diapers.
Bemis makes packaging for those products (and more) and by 2014 it hopes to use thin-film, printed electronics to add a few bits of memory and little intelligence to its packaging. This way, manufacturers can track items and consumers can see how fresh their produce or meat might be. The partnership is a big move for Thinfilm, which has been pioneering technology to embed chips into more and more objects.
The Oslo-based Thinfilm has been in business since the mid-90s. It has been manufacturing thin-film memory chips that provide about 20 bits of storage, which were used in toys and games. But it has been adding more memory and has a partnership with Xerox PARC that added transistors to its circuit, thereby giving its chips enough intelligence to track inventory or send environmental data from a sensor back to the network.
As I wrote back in October, the idea of smarter circuits that are still cheap enough to be used in packaging are integral to creating an internet of things.
Having a cheap way to store and process small amounts of data at the very edge of the network is an essential item in creating the Internet of things. The cheaper these chips are, the more places one can put them. It won’t replace RFID or even more complex sensors, but it adds another tool in the arsenal for tracking the physical world in the digital one.
This partnership means that at least one packaging company, albeit a smaller one at $5.3 billion in sales in 2011, believes that consumer products companies want to spend a few more cents to add intelligence and traceability to the items we buy at grocery stores. Davor Sutija, the CEO of Thinfilm, envisions that the Bemis deal is a first step in packaging that will have both freshness indicators but also sensor platforms that can share data on where an item has been and what the environment was in those locations.