Inspiring product innovation with flexible plastic EPDs

13th October 2017
Lanna Cooper

Display technology has become an integral part of our daily lives, with consumers spending a considerable amount of time engaging with a screen of some sort both in a professional and personal capacity. Whether that is a mobile phone, laptop or tablet, the average person engages with a screen for more than 400 minutes a day, which equates to nearly 40% of our awake hours.

By Tim Burne, CEO, Plastic Logic

Traditionally, glass is seen as the default option for product displays because it is so cheap to produce and readily available. But increasingly, electronics engineers and product design teams are realising the limitations of glass and the shackles it puts on product innovation, especially in light of new technologies such as the Internet of Things, wearable devices and augmented reality.

With these emerging trends has come a demand for new form factor displays that can curve, bend and flex for use in wide range of products, and in ways that glass often can’t. And, for these preferences flexible glass-free EPDs (also known as e-paper) provide a particularly attractive offering for companies looking to gain a competitive edge.

EPDs: Where it all began
EPDs have been in development since the 1970s but they have experienced a rather unstable past with many companies attempting but failing to integrate the technology into their products. However, fifteen years on, the initial lack of understanding around the technology has dissipated and so too have the perceptions of e-paper as a gimmick. This is evidenced by Allied Market Research, which has predicted that the global e-paper display market size will grow to $4.2b in 2022 (from $490m in 2015), growing at a CAGR of 37.5% from 2016-2022.

Today, EPDs are considered a proven technology with genuine use cases and customers have a clearer understanding of form factors. It is also supported with proper industrialised manufacturing processes, which bring with it economies of scale and optimisation, further reducing the cost of the technology.

The business case for flexible plastic e-paper 
While glass is a cheaper alternative, flexible plastic e-paper offers wide-ranging benefits, making them a very compelling option for product development. They have the strongest business case and likelihood of success when used to address one or more of the following criteria:

  • Competitive advantage andproduct differentiation: Where competitors all offer the same kind of me-too products or approach product design and displays through the same glass ceiling, plastic EPDs offer an opportunity to make products more enticing to customers and disrupt the status quo
  • Functional improvements: Sometimes making an existing display more rugged, lightweight, flexible, daylight-readable or low power can solve well-known customer frustrations and potentially reduce the product repair/replacement bill
  • 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 atech-enabled solution supported by e-paper displays

The possibilities are endless
Terminals, devices, gadgets of all shapes and sizes are adopting plastic e-paper screens in their droves but the hottest applications can be grouped into the following categories:

E-paper is already widely used in the wearables industry - from smart jewellery and watches to backpacks and hats.The flexibility and innovation potential offered by plastic display technology can elevate simple wearable products into ground-breaking, fashionable ones that allow individuals to customise and express their personality.

A great example is the Tago Arc from L!BER8, an elegant no-charge smart bracelet featuring a flexible display that adapts to 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 plastic e-paper brings to wearable technology creates massive scope to disrupt new markets and evolve simple products into exceptional ones.

From healthcare and retail to security and FinTech, the smart card has become an essential part of our day-to-day life. But, rather than just stopping at embedding a computer chip, integrating a plastic e-paper display can offer huge benefits to businesses in terms of flexibility, improved security and wallet slimming.

Designing a smart card display will not only enable information to be shown dynamically and in high resolution but can also withstand known user behaviour like being put in a back pocket and sat on. This is compelling for several applications such as multi-function credit and bank cards and is continuing to gain traction across many industries including Financial Services.  

The companies operating in this market are looking at super-thin e-paper displays which are the size of a credit card or smaller. This allows the same card to be used for multiple providers e.g. MasterCard, Visa, Amex etc., so that the cardholder doesn’t have to carry around multiple cards. This offers a great user experience without compromise as it’s essentially replicating what is currently on the traditional chip and pin bank card, but in a more convenient way.

To put this into context, the Fuze Card from BrilliantTS is a revolutionarily multi-card technology that consolidates an entire wallet into one single card. It can store information of up to thirty cards at a time, whether that’s credit cards, debit cards, membership cards or even gift cards, and allows users to toggle between them using the lightweight and durable plastic e-paper displays.

In the portable device space e-paper can be an effective counter to many of the frustrations users have with their devices when reading and accessing information on the move - such as reading in bright sunlight, coping with low battery through prolonged use and the fragility of the screen if dropped.

Flexible plastic e-paper has 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 double the surface area for apps, screensavers and important information, such as mobile boarding cards.

Digital signage
Commonly used for wayfinding, retail signage and indoor and outdoor advertising, digital signage requires certain characteristics to ensure optimal functionality. When looking at outdoor signage in particular, some of these include being robust, easily legible in different weather conditions as well as consuming minimal power. Despite glass being a common choice for digital signage due to its low price point, glass displays are susceptible to damage in poor weather conditions, third-party damage and vandalism.

As such, it’s perhaps no surprise that plastic displays are becoming an increasingly fitting alternative. The bi-stable nature of e-paper displays, (i.e., energy is only required when updating the display, but 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 with public transport timetables for smart cities.

Dresden Elektronik’s ‘deZign’ e-paper transport timetables are a good example this as well as TFL’s trial of the displays on four of its London bus stops. 

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. As such, we often see e-paper displays cropping up in a wide range of unexpected and unusual places and this is only going to increase over coming years.

For example, the engineers at Land Rover BAR recently saw the potential to use plastic e-paper when working on data displays for Ben Ainslie’s latest America’s Cup boat. They needed a display with daylight readability for the sub-tropical conditions that the R1 faced. Flexible glass-free e-paper displays proved to be the perfect fit for the aerodynamic surfaces of the forward beam.

EPDs: The be all and end all?
It’s no exaggeration to say that EPDs are permeating an increasing number of industries, much faster than ever before, particularly as new use cases for the technology are being discovered daily. But, it is important to remember that they are by no means the right material for every application. Businesses should take the time to do thorough research and due diligence to properly assess the technology’s suitability for its requirement.

Having said that, for many applications and use cases these displays have a very powerful business case that can enable companies to explore exciting new opportunities for market growth, differentiation and competitive advantage.

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