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Printed Electronics in Supermarkets

April 2009
Last week, Dr Peter Harrop of IDTechEx gave a video interview and animations, concerning the future use of printed electronics in supermarkets. It was carried out by Eyewitness News in Los Angeles at their request.
IDTechEx sees a huge potential in this area, from printed RFID reducing stockouts and permitting 100% product recalls and printed electronics giving us electronically programmable posters that have a cost of ownership less than paper. Remotely reprogrammable printed price labels on merchandise will make even minor price adjustment cost effective, including incentives for customers to take the nearest-to-expired food first thus saving them - and the store - money and being more environmental. Then there are valuable electronic gifts with products becoming cost effective for the first time, logos that wink and talk when you approach and a cornucopia of merchandising opportunities that will make the old brands not adopting such technology look very tired indeed.
Retailers, brand owners and consumers share a similar set of priorities. All of them wish to see:

• greater availability of products
• better management of costs and prices
• increased product safety
• enhanced product security
• better shopping experiences

As printed RFID makes it affordable for mass use, it can provide all of this and other forms of printed electronics will be complementary in serving these ends.

Food safety
Intelligent interactions by RFID will have a significant impact on food safety. For example one type of RFID tag for food is a label containing a chip and a sensor which records the time-temperature history of the product in transit and in storage. These Time Temperature Indicators (TTI) indicate if and when a product has been exposed to damaging environmental conditions. Some packaging even has a label with an electronic display that says "expired". In time, we will have self-adjusting labels where use-by or sell-by dates change as the product experiences different temperatures.
Furthermore, RFID warns if products, such as ready meals, have been inadequately cooked. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has demonstrated a microwave that can read RFID-tagged food and set itself to the correct power level and cooking time, ensuring food is properly cooked.
These "intelligent interactions" also extend to fridges and freezers. Electrolux in Germany has demonstrated appliances for restaurants that monitor tagged, packaged stock. They enable the operation of a Nearest Expiry First Out (NEFO) system, rather than the more risky traditional First in First out (FIFO) process. This RFID-enabled NEFO system protects the consumer more effectively.

Automated alerts
RFID can also automate consumer error prevention. For example, audible or visible alerts can warn when food or medicine is past its use-by date. Some RFID tags use additional electronics so that they can even speak, flash or reveal a written warning. The RFID labels can replace both the printed use-by date and bar code with a more accurate, clear and reliable alternative. MIT advises that RFID can also be used in this way to alert patients, in the home, if contra-indicated medicines are stored together, provided each medicine carries an RFID label.

Developing an online relationship
New rewards or free gifts for consumers could be delivered online. For example, you might be able to download a computer game when you hold your food package up to a sensor on your home computer or you could download the latest best seller when you do the same with your cosmetic package. This is borne out in Japan where RFID-tagged items allow the consumer to access related information and download software via their home PC.
Article by Dr Peter Harrop
Dr Peter Harrop is the Founder and Chairman of IDTechEx (


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