Inspiring design innovation with flexible e-paper displays
03 August 2017
Glass displays are ubiquitous – but they don’t always make sense for every application and can sometimes limit product design and innovation. This is evidenced by the growth in alternatives such as flexible, glass-free electrophoretic displays (EPDs) – more commonly known as e-paper.
This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Electronic Product Design & Test; to view the digital edition, click here – and to register to receive your own printed copy, click here.
Tim Burne, CEO of Plastic Logic, explores how product designers can assess the suitability of e-paper displays for their applications.
As a display technology, e-paper is lightweight, flexible, rugged, low power and readable in absolutely any condition. These highly versatile displays are finding their way into diverse applications – from smart jewellery, watches and credit cards to digital signage, labelling and ticketing.
The business case
The rationale for an e-paper design-in is strongest when the technology will be used to address one or more of the following criteria:
E-paper is not a panacea
- Competitive advantage and product differentiation: where competitors all offer the same kind of me-too products – or approach product design and displays through the same ‘glass ceiling’ – e-paper displays offer an opportunity to disrupt the status quo and make products more enticing to customers
- Functional improvements: sometimes making an existing display more rugged, lightweight, flexible, daylight-readable or low power can solve known customer frustrations and potentially reduce product repair/replacement bills
- Better ways of doing something: the use case may not even exist yet – or currently use any kind of display technology – but you can envision the advantages of replacing traditional approaches with an alternative solution, enabled by e-paper displays
It’s easy to eulogise about the advantages, but clearly e-paper displays are not always the right solution. Recognising this upfront can avoid a great deal of wasted time, effort and money further along the design process. For example, e-paper is not as colourful and vibrant as LCD or OLED. These displays refresh faster, and are much more responsive to touch. Glass is also cheaper to produce and more readily available – so if you’re designing-in e-paper it needs to be commercially viable and selected for genuine end-user benefits.
The unique characteristics of electrophoretic technology also mean that the electronics required for e-paper displays involve different implementation methods, compared to LCD or LED displays. If you lack the requisite know-how in-house, then you are likely to need third-party support.
Many companies have already been through this assessment process. As a result, a core group of applications have come to the fore which best showcase the potential opportunities and rewards when e-paper and innovative product design come together:
From healthcare and retail to security and FinTech, the smart card has become commonplace; but rather than stop at embedding a computer chip, integrating an e-paper display offers huge potential and benefits in terms of flexibility, improved security and wallet slimming.
The design of smart card displays, which show information dynamically and in high resolution – while also withstanding known user behaviour (such as being placed in a back pocket and sat on) – are compelling in many applications, such as multi-function credit and bank cards.
Rewritable e-paper technology can also be used to create smart labels for use in a busy warehouse or logistic business, providing a quick and easy way to track merchandise, while removing the need for wasteful paper-based label printing and handling. E-paper smart tags could also be used in hospitals to store patient information, before being easily erased after the patient is discharged.
E-paper is already widely used in the wearables industry – from smart jewellery and watches to backpacks and hats. The flexibility and innovative potential offered by plastic display technology can elevate simple wearable products into ground-breaking, fashionable and aspirational ones that allow individuals to express themselves by customising them.
A good example is the Tago Arc from L!BER8: an elegant, no-charge smart bracelet featuring a flexible display that adapts to show a wide array of patterns and designs depending on the wearer’s style and mood. To an end user, the robust, low power, lightweight and daylight-readability functionality ensures that the e-paper display works for practicality and comfort.
The new level of customisation that e-paper brings to wearable technology creates massive scope to disrupt new markets and evolve simple products into exceptional ones.
In the portable device space, e-paper can be an effective counter to many of the device frustrations users have when reading and accessing information on the move – such as reading in bright sunlight, coping with battery life issues and the fragility of the screen if dropped.
E-paper has already been widely proven in the e-reader market because of its durable, lightweight and low power properties. There are also examples of e-paper being used as a secondary display on the back of a smartphone or a tablet, enabling the device manufacturer to increase the surface area for apps, screensavers and important information, such as mobile boarding cards.
Digital signage needs to be robust, legible and always on. E-paper displays tick all these boxes as a superior alternative to LED, OLED or LCD.
Unlike LCD and OLED, which are impeded by bright sunshine, e-paper is always daylight-readable. E-paper is also thinner and more lightweight per square inch, whilst remaining extremely durable, robust and shatterproof – perfect for applications where displays are exposed to wear and tear, for example in logistics and shelf-edge labelling.
The bistable nature of e-paper displays (energy is only required when updating the display, not to maintain information on the display) is a particular advantage for applications where paper is being replaced (since maintaining an always-on screen can be extremely energy-intensive). Incorporating remote update functionality within these kinds of displays also creates opportunities for application in public transport timetables for smart cities (a good example being Dresden Elektronik’s ‘deZign’ e-paper transport timetables).
Displays in unusual places
In most cases, the possibilities for e-paper displays are limited only by the imagination of the product designers considering them. To that effect, we often see e-paper displays cropping up in a wide range of unexpected and unusual places.
For example, the engineers at Land Rover BAR recently used e-paper data displays for Ben Ainslie’s latest America’s Cup boat. In this environment, e-paper displays’ daylight-readability offered a key advantage over more conventional marine LCD or LED displays, which rely on backlighting to make the display visible in bright sunlight. E-paper ticked all the boxes on the project by being more flexible, lighter, less power-hungry, much more robust and completely configurable by the team’s software engineers.
This article merely scratches the surface of what can be done with e-paper displays – the possibilities are limitless. In the face of crowded markets and tightening competition, smart designers should thoroughly consider if the technology could be integrated into their products as a source of differentiation and competitive advantage.
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