E-Paper: Exploring The Possibilities For A Paperless World


At the start of UK summer holiday season this year, British Airways revealed it would be tearing up paper luggage tags and replacing them with tags based on e-ink technology – a type of electronic paper that you would more commonly associate with an e-book. Initially beginning with a three-month trial by BA staff, the smart tags could be offered to passengers as early as next year.

The tags are designed to be reused each time a passenger flies with BA, with updates being made to flight information using a simple app via the passenger’s phone. As the IATA predicts that 3.3 billion of us will be travelling via the air in 2014, this reduction in paper consumption and the potential for a speedier check-in, may well expedite this new initiative.

Until recently these types of displays could only have been made using glass, meaning you’d be lucky if your display lasted more than a flight or two! Now, new flexible plastic technology allows the whole display and tag to be just as rugged as your luggage. As these new luggage tags take off, more industries will look at incorporating flexible displays using e-paper into smart labelling for logistics, production processes and consumer products.

Here are just a few of the applications that e-paper could transform in the next few years:

Digital Signage

E-paper backed by robust plastic displays could pave the way for rugged digital signs that don’t constantly consume power, yet can still be real-time updatable. Signs such as bus timetables, road signs, tourist information maps, or even airport arrival and departure boards could be updated remotely with live information, such as when the next bus is due to arrive, expected weather conditions, or traffic information.

The power consumption is so low that these systems can easily be solar powered, meaning reduced installation costs and a much wider range of applicable sites. Even the most remote rural bus stops could have their timetables or bus information remotely updated whenever required. Plus, with a click of a button, signs could be displayed in a different language. For tourists visiting a country where they don’t speak the local language, this could be extremely useful.

Shelf-Edge Labels

In the UK, we’ve already seen supermarket giant Tesco trial epaper price labels in some of its stores. With up to 10 million price labels changed every week, the ability to update prices remotely could be a huge time-saver for these types of retailers.

Aside from prices there are, of course, more innovative uses for this sort of technology. Last year clothing retailer C&A introduced ‘Facebook clothes hangers’ into some of its stores in Brazil. The hangers display the number of ‘likes’ each garment has received on the social networking site via an embedded display.

Wearable Technology

There has been a lot of hype about wearables this year, with major consumer electronics brands filing patents for designs and unveiling concepts for head-mounted displays and smartwatch products. While there seems to be an appetite for these types of devices, current offerings for the smartwatch for example, are typically designed to be complementary to smartphones – rather than a standalone device, due to the limited display size.

If smartwatches are to truly compete with smartphones they must be able to display the same amount of information that integrates seamlessly into the device. With a flexible, electronic paper display, a smart watch could wrap the screen around the wearer’s wrist, providing plenty of display space.

Smart Cards

Another every-day item that epaper is expected to revolutionise is the humble ID card. In the next few years, smart cards could be embedded with displays that can be updated wirelessly. Imagine how useful it would be if your travel card could display how much credit you had remaining or if you could update the address on your driver’s license remotely each time you move house.

This technology could also find a home in hospitals. Patients could be given smart ID cards when they are admitted into care, with details on what medication they are taking and when their next dose is due, for instance.

Car Number Plates

It might sound like an odd thing to replace with a plastic display, but car number plates could be made smart with embedded displays able to display if a driver’s road tax or insurance has expired, if a car has been stolen or even to show a photo of the driver who is registered to drive the car. Already, this idea is being considered by officials in South Carolina, so it could hit the roads sooner than you might think.

Of course, there are many, many more potential applications for plastic displays and e-paper, ranging from rugged computing devices to flexible mobile phones and secondary screens for tablet PCs. With the e-paper displays market estimated to surpass $8.5 billion by 2022 according to IDTechEx, these early applications are just the beginning.

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Paul Cain

Paul Cain is Head of Business Planning at Plastic Logic. Paul has over a decade of experience in the flexible display and plastic electronics industry, in technical, customer-facing and strategic management roles. He has a deep technical and industry knowledge of flexible display technologies and companies, and has invented over 20 patented processes and architectures that enable the manufacture of flexible displays. Paul has a PhD in Physics from the University of Cambridge, and an MBA from London Business School.