Ideas to Implementation: PARC Earns Our Editor's Retail Choice Award™ for Innovation in Smart Packaging Technology
11.9.17 Innovative Technologies

Ideas to Implementation: PARC Earns Our Editor’s Retail Choice Award™ for Innovation in Smart Packaging Technology

By: Michael Senecal

The Crunch: One of the best-known names in tech research and development, PARC got its start in 1970 as a research division within office printing giant Xerox. Now the company partners with businesses and government agencies to bring innovations to market. A prime example is its work in the burgeoning smart packaging industry, which combines flexible printed electronics, sensors, and software to boost supply-chain efficiencies for brands and add consumer value. Experts see smart packaging as a huge growth industry and a potentially revolutionary influence on future consumer engagement with brands, and PARC has been integral to its progress. For its development of these applications, PARC earns our Editor’s Choice Award™ for Innovation in Smart Packaging Technology.

In the 1960s, Xerox introduced a series of photocopiers that transformed it from a struggling business into a billion-dollar corporation in just eight years. In making photocopying practical, the company revolutionized the way information in offices was created, exchanged, and manipulated.

To continue the revolution, Xerox created the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center — Xerox PARC — in 1970, tasking it with developing a vision for how computers fit into the “office of the future.” By 1973 PARC had established a paradigm for personal computing still recognizable to users today: Ethernet for local-area networking, laser technology for printing, and, in the Xerox Alto, a desktop computer with a mouse and a graphical user interface (GUI).

Xerox continued to operate PARC successfully as a research and innovation hub, and PARC amassed a generation’s worth of intellectual capital that came to be seen as relevant to many industries. As the 2000s dawned, Xerox saw an advantage in refocusing PARC as a for-profit partner to businesses and government agencies looking to leverage novel technology integrations. In 2002 PARC became an independent subsidiary of Xerox.

Photo of PARC offices sign

Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) was founded by Xerox in 1970 and created the first computer graphical user interface.

Mike Kuniavsky has spent the past six years of his career working at PARC. He’s a user experience designer and researcher with more than 20 years of experience designing technology-related products, business processes, and services. He works on the diverse and flexible PARC Innovation Services team with expertise in human insights, computer vision, material science, and other areas.

“Our current lab is a direct extension of the PARC of the 1970s but with a more practical, market-centered approach,” Mike said. “The so-called internet of things also had a chunk of its origins at PARC, and I do a lot of work in that area,  printed electronics, which of course is the foundation of today’s smart packaging industry.”

Getting a smart packaging solution up and running for a business is obviously a multidisciplinary process. PARC does its part to ensure that the technical solutions it develops actually translate into the intended end-user experience. Because PARC houses the expertise necessary to build a smart packaging solution from the ground up, it has earned our Editor’s Choice Award™ for Innovation in Smart Packaging Technology.

From Invention to Innovation: The PARC Value Proposition

Understanding the distinction between invention and innovation is key to understanding how PARC works. Inventions are about creating something new, whereas innovations combine inventions with practicality and business viability. Inventing things isn’t easy, but there’s a kind of purposeful serendipity in innovation.

Photo of PARC's Mike Kuniavsky

Mike Kuniavsky, a designer and researcher at PARC, talked to us about smart packaging technology.

“That’s what our Innovation Services group does,” Mike said. “We connect the dots between products and experiences and create coherent ways for technology to interact with a company or brand. We talk to people and figure out how they do what we’re addressing, and then we have some processes we go through to determine what’s going to work and what’s not.”

Brands come to work with PARC via several different avenues. Some companies seek out PARC’s expertise with a specific technology they need access to. Others need a more hands-on approach.

“We’re the consulting arm of PARC,” Mike said. “A lot of companies we work with are looking for a competitive edge. We work with them to try to identify how our technologies can help them meet their objectives and then start co-development projects with them.”

For example, PARC worked with a cosmetics company that wanted to help customers choose skin-care products. The resulting product combined the phone’s camera, which collects images, with AI software for analyzing skin based on a customer’s selfie images.

“You just take a selfie every day, and the software can recommend certain products,” Mike said. “We trained the system using tens of thousands of selfies. And a million people use that product now.”

Reinventing Packaging as a Tool for Brand Engagement

Smart packaging solutions are the result of a similar combination of skill sets. In the area of printed electronics, for example, PARC operates a basic research program for developing sensors and another for scaling the technology.

“For the US Department of Energy, we’ve developed a new kind of peelable sticker to locate and quantify methane leaks,” Mike said. “We’re not only developing the sensor, but we’re also developing a way to manufacture it, and we’re developing the AI to make sense of the data that comes from it.”

Smart packaging applies the same ideas. With the right PARC consultation, the ability to print electronics on everyday surfaces can mean not only a reinvention of electronics manufacturing but also a reimagination of the purpose of packaging.

“Think of a standard shipping label,” Mike said. “But this label isn’t just a piece of paper with ink printed on it. It’s actually a sandwich made up of layers of printed electronics. And now that label can do a lot of different things.”

For example, it can log the temperature of the product that’s attached to it. If a perishable product gets too hot for too long on its journey through the supply chain, employees — and customers — will know.

With integrated AI technology, a sensor can determine how much apple juice is in the container in the fridge, and it can also predict when that container will be empty, and even automate the reordering process.

“And these can be as simple as stickers that you can attach to an existing package,” Mike said. “The sticker makes the package smart.” And in the creative hands of the PARC Innovation Services group, smart packages can mean all sorts of things for brands.

Leveraging Expertise in Multiple Disciplines to Generate Unique Solutions for Businesses

While the PARC of the 1970s invented the graphical user interface, a groundbreaking technology that we still use, today’s PARC is more innovation-focused and is leveraging intellectual capital accumulated over the years to build affordable solutions that can scale.

“When you can reduce the cost of a solution by 10 times, or a hundred times, that really changes the way you can use it,” Mike said. “With smart packaging, it changes everything. Say you’re shipping something, and there’s a delay, and it turns out that the product will perish if it gets shipped to its original destination.”

Photos of PARC printed technologies

PARC is innovating ways to bring down the cost of printed technologies so they can be implemented on a large scale.

Companies could have the ability to automatically divert those products to another destination, where they will still be good upon arrival. PARC is working to get that technology to a price point where that becomes practical on a massive scale.

The implications for industries like food delivery alone are massive, but every industry can find an application for the technology. For the promise of continued growth in supply-chain efficiencies and brand engagement opportunities that smart packaging offers, PARC earns our Editor’s Choice Award™ for Innovation in Packaging Technology.