Emerging Technologies – Physical/Digital Solutions

The ability to link a physical object such as a stamp, label, or direct mark into the digital space, through mobile devices such as a smartphone, is an area of great current interest. This was well illustrated in the presentations at the Tax Stamp & Traceability Forum™ (TSTF), in May 2022.

A key question to consider is how this physical/digital link may change so we can ensure our technologies keep pace with these changes.

The aim of this article is to identify those areas in the tax stamp and traceability businesses where opportunities may be found and where the difficulties may lie. As TSTF 2022 provided a great opportunity to review the current status, we should begin there.

The evidence from TSTF 2022

TSTF 2022 showcased a number of presentations that illustrated the widespread offerings that already exist in this space. The forum was also a great indication of the many market drivers that are pulling the field of traceability towards a data-centric future.

As an example, the smartphone solution in Liberia, as mentioned by Madras Security Printers, was covered in the Emerging Technologies article in TSTN September 2022.

A presentation from U-NICA noted that ‘with smartphones, digital solutions are a welcome addition to printed tax stamps’, and a good example of a technology already providing this physical/digital bridge on tax stamps is the QR code. U-NICA presented a QR code with three layers: public, secure and advanced secure.

Another example came from SICPA who presented a solution featuring a QR code on packaging for smartphone interaction leading to a blockchain implementation.

A further applicable technology presented at TSTF 2022 was the visible digital seal (VDS).

A presentation from Securikett discussed the use of a distributed ledger (blockchain) system, and in association with Advanced Track & Trace, they have prepared a demonstration of a smartphone app accessing a VDS.

LEONHARD KURZ, too, noted the utility of a VDS verified by a smartphone, with the particular attribute that this technology is now underpinned by international standards.

One final technology featured was the physical unclonable function (PUF).

The presentation from U-NICA discussed generating a PUF from the random surface structure of a paper surface, for example within the area defined by the serial number. Many elements of a printed label can contain suitable randomness – an application of this, implemented by the Delhi Department of Excise was described in TSTN’s sister publication Authentication News® in January 2021.

The evidence from TSTF 2022 illustrates a number of key points.

First, that solutions already exist for this physical/digital link, but second, that these are predominantly optical solutions, making the link to the printed item through the camera of the mobile (smartphone) device. There are still emerging optical solutions for physical/digital linkage, notably through optical features such as holograms, but we also need to consider another route, specifically through electronic connection.

Examining features electronically

With emerging technologies in mind, we should now also consider electronic solutions where the physical/digital connection is made through a radio frequency technology. Unfortunately, traceability needs may not be driving this, but we do need to remain appraised of developments in this area. In the ongoing Electronic Age, the physical/digital link will become more than just ‘something you can point a smartphone camera at’.

This transition looks likely to be driven from outside of the traceability space by companies whose predominant interest is in the acquisition of data, and from this can be discerned two main market trends.

The first of these is the introduction of electronics in packaging, for reasons from recycling to warehouse efficiency. The second is the onrush of Internet of Things (IoT) technologies. These two trends may also be interlinked which, again, may have implications for our market sector.

The implications of recycling for our industry were previously covered in TSTN October 2021 but some of these are worth revisiting here.

Adding a chip to facilitate plastics recycling, such as envisaged by the PragmatIC SORT-IT project has other potential benefits for product supply chain security. There could be some interesting options here based on multifactor authentication: something I have (the electronic chip) and something I am (the product).

The oncoming wave of IoT technology has the potential to make a major change to the tax stamp market. If items are given an electronic tag to validate them and their place in the supply chain the argument could be made that the stamp as a discrete item is redundant. The question then to be asked is are we ready to argue this challenge.

There are already some significant players moving into this space.

The Avery Dennison Corporation, a large provider of radio frequency and digital identity solutions recently announced a strategic partnership with Wiliot, an IoT pioneer which is dedicated to scaling up IoT solutions. The stated aim is to eliminate waste and provide unparalleled transparency and consumer connection through next generation product level tags for the world’s largest retail, food and beverage, and pharmaceutical brands.

In summary

Smartphones currently provide a link between a physical object (such as a stamp) and the digital domain, and we should continue to investigate this ‘phygital’ link. The predominant link is currently optical, pointing a smartphone camera at a printed feature. However, in the coming Electronic Age this looks set to change with the connectivity done electronically through IoT technology.

As an industry, we need to have strategies in place to deal with this, at company and maybe at association level. We should also be considering this as simply an early implementation of mobile validation as electronic connection opens up a number of other possibilities that do not rely on a camera.

Again, this is an area worthy of further investigation and is the province of the Optical & Digital Document Security™ conference, now set for April 2023 in Prague, Czech Republic.