Paper substitute needs no power, infinitely re-usable

Currently undergoing tests, the e-ink display needs no external power and is read/write-able using standard RFID devices.
26 October 2018

The scanner’s power is enough to power the e-ink label. Source: Shutterstock

A new use of e-ink and RFID technologies is being deployed in a trial aimed at relieving the problems caused by workforce shortages in the Japanese logistics sector.

But the technology, which is due to go into commercial production in 2020 will have a massive impact on the retail sector in general.

Two companies have created an electronic ink smart label which can be updated using standard UHF RFID transmissions. The label requires no power at all for its continuous operation, instead gathering the energy it needs from the RFID interrogation process.

The E Ink Corp and Fujitsu Semiconductor are trialing the new solution in Japanese convenience stores’ logistics operations, to help manage workflows as products move through the supply chain, from warehouse to truck to ultimate destination.

Convenience stores are abundant in every Japanese city and urbanization, and traditionally change their stock very quickly based on local tastes and preferences. This means that the timely supply of new goods is a vital part of the provision of what is seen as much as a local service as it is a commercial business.

Naoki Sumita, E Ink Japan’s president stated, “This RFID tag will be a replacement of the existing paper label which will contribute to the reduction of paper usage.”

In the long run, the two companies claim, the technology will be able to be used for electronic shelf labels, e-paper badges, and ID cards, amongst other scenarios.

The paper label substitute consists of an e-ink display with a UHF RFID antenna printed on the device’s substrate. It can be read from six inches away by a standard UHF RFID reading device (which activity powers the device), and a handheld UHF read-write device can be used to change each tag’s ID number and display’s contents – also from six inches distance.

At present, the 2.9-inch prototype module comes with a 296×128 pixel display, and 8k of built-in memory – more than sufficient to store and display complex designs, such as logos, different scripts, or QR codes and barcodes.

Toppan Printing is currently producing the power-less tags for the Japanese market in the short term, and it is thought the technology will soon find a place in retail stores, manufacturing, and logistics.

The E Ink Corporation was formed in 1997 by undergraduates and staff from MIT, and it launched the world’s first e-paper technology, most commonly seen in consumer e-book readers such as the Kindle and Kobo.

In 2009 the company was sold along with the patents it held on e-ink to Prime View International, based in Taiwan, whose offerings included a range of e-paper products like labels, notes, mobile devices, and signage.

Given the rapid growth and development of logistics in this part of the world, the technology could make a significant change to how North American and European firms operate.