How Thinfilm will tell you the story behind that glass of Johnnie Walker

Printed electronics specialist Thinfilm's tracking technology lets consumers know where their individual bottles were manufactured and if they were stored improperly. But why would manufacturers want to give consumers this kind of detail? Actually, there are some good reasons.

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Custom USB (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

Last month, printed electronics specialist Thinfilm and beverage conglomerate Diageo wowed the crowd at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona with the debut of a "smart" prototype of Diageo's Johnnie Walker Blue Label whisky bottle. The bottle was equipped with a printed near field communication (NFC) sensor tag supported by Thinfilm's new OpenSense technology. All the consumer has to do is tap his or her smartphone to the tag, which is encoded at the manufacturing site, and it can tell him or her if the bottle has been opened or not and where it originated in Diageo's supply chain. For the whisky connoisseur -- or techno geek for that matter -- it is a dream come true.

It is not a bad deal for Diageo either, which, besides having greater insight into its distribution and retail operations, also gets the opportunity to further engage with its customers. The tag is configured so when the consumer taps it with his smartphone it also serves up promotional offers or cocktail recipes and paring suggestions.

But this is just the start, Thinfilm CEO Davor Sutija tells me. The printed integrated circuit -- the backbone of Thinfilm's OpenSense product -- has the potential to remake the food monitoring and safety industry by offering closer tracking of products at the individual level. It could speed up adoption of the Internet of Things by being a cheap source of sensors. Finally, it could relegate traditional radio-frequency identification (RFID) and QR-code based solutions to the dustbin of tech history by providing a less cumbersome method of tracking.

It's quite a big claim so let's start at the beginning.

Headquartered in Oslo, Norway, Thinfilm focuses solely on printed electronics. It launched in the mid 1990s as a subsidiary of Opticom to develop all-plastic memory devices. By 2012, though, its mission had evolved and gained international acclaim with a printed integrated system that combined memory, sensing, logic and display. Today, its competitive niche is developing very low-cost electronic components, such as tags and sensors, via a high-volume, roll-to-roll printing process.

"We are a tech company that is pioneering the use of printing to create integrated circuits -- that is, the hardware elements in commonly-used electronic devices," Sutija says. Invisible and largely considered commoditized, integrated circuits in fact can make up a significant value of a product.

The electronics in cars, for instance, are 23% of the automobile's total value, Sutija says.

The problem is the industry can only manufacture so many microprocessors in a year -- 20 billion or so, he continues. For IoT to take off, that number needs to be in the trillions. And that is where printing comes in.

It is also how IoT will scale up to target consumer products on an individual level, like the Johnnie Walker bottles. Imagine having such sensors attached to any product about which the consumer would like to know more, such as, say, that expensive "wild caught" salmon, which may or may not be, in fact Atlantic farmed, or the vitamins that may or may not be stuffed with filler ingredients.

This desire for information about a particular product -- where it's been, where it was made, who made it and with what ingredients -- is a huge untapped need, Sutija says.

A study conducted in September 2014 by Strategy Analytics' for the NFC Forum supports that view. The study, summarized on the Active & Intelligent Packing Industry Association website, found that U.S. consumers have a strong interest in using NFC technology for a variety of applications other than its "tap and pay" abilities.

The survey asked 1,038 participants about their interest in using NFC in six different retail scenarios including accessing information about merchandise and store inventory; 64% reported having some level of interest.

The survey also backs another contention of Thinfilm, namely that existing solutions such as RFID and QR are not equipped to handle this kind of scenario, at least on a wide scale. The Strategy Analytics survey found that in five of the use cases, more than twice as many consumers preferred NFC to alternatives, such as QR.

Granted some, perhaps many, manufacturers and retailers may not want to open the kimono to its customer base. For now they can continue with the status quo but both laws and consumer demand is heading inexorably in the direction of complete supply chain transparency.

Consider the conflict minerals requirement that was part of the Dodd-Frank legislation, and that was recently put into place by the Securities and Exchange Commission. It requires companies that use minerals determined by the Secretary of State to be financing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or an adjoining country to be disclosed to consumers. Granted, its fate is still unclear as the industry continues to push back with legal challenges, but many companies went on to meet the requirement anyway last year.

Not that Thinfilm or anything similar could help in this scenario -- somehow I don’t see militant groups helpfully attaching sensors to mark their presence on what is seemingly a benign shipment of minerals. But as demand picks up for more transparency, such renegade global players will be among the few that don't take steps to shed light on their products' origins and supply chain journey. And surely the rest of the world's manufacturers will not want to be seen as keeping the same company.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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