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New electronic labels squeal to spare you from food poisoning

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Packaging giant Bemis and Norway's ThinFilm will print sticky labels capable of monitoring and remembering the conditions in which their attached goods have been stored.

The labels will be developed from ThinFilm's printed memory and PARC's printed transistors (which are licensed exclusively to ThinFilm). Bemis will fund the development to create an "intelligent packaging platform" powered from a printed battery and capable of sensing and recording environmental experiences.

The first products will probably sense and record temperature, though the idea is to create a platform to which other sensors can be attached. Recorded data will be read by radio, perhaps using the RFID or NFC communication standards but that hasn't been decided. The labels will be powered as one has to have sufficient juice to record historical data.

This is just the kind of thing the printed electronics business has been harping on about for years, but has proved surprisingly elusive. Even the publicly traded ThinFilm splurged more than $100m in the 1990s, as part of Optocom, to build clean rooms and testing equipment and accumulate patents. These days it's 20 people in Sweden still beating the drum for printed components.

The endorsement of Bemis, both strategic and financial, is significant. Bemis is a technical leader in packing, and ranked 457 in this year's Fortune 500 with a turnover of more than $5bn. The development deal sees Bemis paying ThinFilm for two years of technical development in exchange for best commercial terms (but not exclusivity) on the final product.

ThinFilm reckons its intelligent packaging will start appearing on foods in 2014, adorning the most temperature-sensitive goods first - which will ideally prevent punters from suffering any ill effects of duff storage conditions.

The tech will then rapidly spread to other products as the labels get cheaper and confidence rises, the Norwegians added.

The significance of this deal goes well beyond ThinFilm and Bemis as once one can demonstrate that smart labelling works, and can be done economically, then it opens the floodgates to a host of applications just as the printed electronics people have been saying it would. ®

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