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A Blog Series of Technology-enabling Reusable Transportation Packaging

This blog series covers the application and use of enabling technologies that allow companies to gain valuable insights into reusable assets’ location, condition, and availability as they move through the supply chain from manufacturer to consumer.

The first of this series will share a brief introduction to Product Marking and Identification Technologies.

Product Marking & Identification Technologies

Many internal and external drivers dictate which marking and/or identification technology should be used on a reusable asset. For example, does the asset require branding, safety/warning information, track & and traceability, anti-counterfeiting / anti-theft, or other information?

When discussing identification, industry sector standards or common practice will drive a primary consumer products manufacturer/supplier to a GS1-centric solution using Universal Product Code (UPC) barcodes for the items delivered.

Identification Method:

A variety of product identification technologies can be applied to a reusable asset during manufacturing. This list is not exhaustive but includes the most common identification technologies applied during the manufacturing or use of reusable assets.

  • Label-based 1D bar codes and 2D symbology, both permanent and temporary
  • Heat stamp / Hot stamping
  • Polymer Fusion
  • Laser Engraving / Marking
  • Label-based Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)
  • M2M/IoT Sensor technologies

A detailed explanation of each of these technologies can be found in the A Smarter Technology-Driven Supply Chain with Reusable Packaging Systems white paper, linked at the end of this article

Critical Factors to Choose the Optimal Marking and/or Identification Method

  • Identifying the Use Case:

It is essential to thoroughly comprehend the intended use case of the reusable asset (e.g., the distribution of food, equipment, automotive parts, medical waste, pharmaceutical transport, retail, or another application.)

Considerations for selecting marking and/or identification methods for reusable packaging involve assessing the substrate’s surface energy level, and durability needs (temporary vs. long-term use) including exposure to environmental conditions (e.g., indoor/outdoor use, chemical exposures, sanitation cycles).

As an example of a permanent use case, often reusable plastic pallets, and other reusable assets need a permanent marking on the product to show ownership or handling statements over the lifetime of the reusable asset.  This can be up to ten years and needs to be permanent, not fall off or be removed by third parties.

However, in the case of reusable plastic containers (RPCs, or Intermediate Bulk Containers) for perishable foods, for example, labels must survive exposure to coolers and the rigors of supply chain handling yet be released and removed cleanly with no adhesive residue when they go through an automated wash line. A common challenge that occurs is the ease of removing labels after use. Companies that provide pooling services for reusable assets often struggle to remove the label from reusable assets after use by a customer. This increases costs for the pooling services company and, ultimately, the companies that use that service offering. Selecting a temporary and removable label solution that will not leave paper or adhesive residue on the reusable asset is important.

Understanding the use case is crucial to determine the most suitable identification solution.

  • Defining Temporary vs. Permanent

Understanding the differentiation between temporary and permanent labeling is a pivotal consideration for businesses, aiding them in selecting the most appropriate label type for their specific application. The National Association of Graphic and Product Identification Manufacturers (GPI) defines pressure-sensitive adhesives in terms of permanence levels. In broad terms, an adhesive exhibiting a peel strength of two pounds or more on ‘stainless steel’ is classified as permanent, while an adhesive with a peel strength of less than two pounds is considered removable.

However, applying these same pressure-sensitive adhesive labels to low surface energy polyolefin thermoplastics, which are commonly used in reusable transportation assets,  yields markedly different results. While the substrate choice may be of lesser consequence when selecting temporary labels, given their limited temporal and functional scope, this distinction assumes paramount importance when choosing permanent labeling solutions intended to endure throughout the entire lifespan of a reusable asset.

From the perspective of the reusable packaging business case, it becomes imperative to align labeling practices with a thorough understanding of the targeted use case and evaluation across diverse substrates.  This ensures that the key information they convey remains legible and intact throughout a product’s lifecycle, simultaneously safeguarding operational efficiency and compliance adherence.

A more in-depth reference guide and case study examples for Technology-enabling Reusable Transportation Packaging, “A Smarter Technology-Driven Supply Chain with Reusable Packaging Systems,” is available on the RPA website.

This brief article and the white paper are a cumulation of the Reusable Packaging Association’s (RPA) Technology Working Group (TWG) members and invited industry experts. The committee’s objective is to raise awareness of asset management and develop standards for common processes promoting the efficient movement, handling, visibility, and return of reusable packaging products.

Technology-enabled reusable solutions, including identification and tracking solutions, can be found at the Reusables Marketplace, where both sustainable packaging and reusable packaging products and services from RPA member companies can be found.

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