A colleague recently asked me if I thought that the continued emergence of e-paper would mean the demise of traditional printing, particularly offset. “No way!” I responded. And that answer stands, although on reflection it is not really that simple.
Although e-paper uses the terminology “paper” and “electronic ink,” it is not really a printing process, so the terms can be misleading. Rather it is a display technology, with a front plane that provides information and a backplane for the electronics.
The actual e-paper is based on IP/technology developed by a handful of technology developers. Many of the devices on the market today use E Ink’s electrophoretic technology, or its Vizplex imaging film. (Vizplex is a microencapsulated electronic ink coated onto an ITO-coated plastic substrate in a roll-to-roll process. The resulting ink film is combined with a thin adhesive and a plastic release sheet to form sheets of Vizplex imaging film, which are incorporated into the display by the thin film transistor (TFT) display manufacturer.)
Polymer Vision and Plastic Logic are the names that come to mind most in terms of backplane manufacture. Then consumer product firms, such as Sony market and distribute the product into the industry where the display fits. So it is the display market that we should examine, when we talk about e-paper as a competitive technology.
Print Wins for Packaging
Quite obviously, e-paper will not replace traditional printing for packaging. Protecting and distributing product will continue to use flexo and offset, and to a smaller extent gravure. If anything, the technology to watch in this sector is inkjet because it is a digital technology, with no upfront plate/sleeve charges or make-ready costs. Moreover, it offers the ability to customize each and every product, a continuing trend in all printing these days. While inkjet production speeds cannot compete with traditional printing for long runs, they are improving and there is a concomitant trend towards shorter runs in all areas of printing. Those two market drivers will make inkjet the technology of choice for many printing applications for the future. Having said that, there is a significant opportunity for e-paper technology to complement printed packaging with small displays on the package, which might contain recipes, additional product information or even advertising. However, this would be a new market, not a replacement one.
In the retail space, Point of Purchase (POP) displays are becoming more prevalent. Retailers are striving to enhance the shopping experience for customers through various means. Displays have been traditionally printed via flexography because of the unevenness of the corrugated board; inkjet is penetrating this area also. However, POP displays is an area where e-paper could begin to play a major role. It offers changing images, color (albeit not full-color for the present) and low power consumption. An electronic display is much more attractive than a plain ole POP printed sign. E ink’s Ink in Motion technology is an excellent example of this.
In another area, e-paper is designed to simulate the look and feel of paper, thus targeting several traditional printing markets such as books and newspapers. Here the technology is extremely well-suited to the application. It is thin and flexible, simulating the look and feel of paper; it offers low power consumption; it is easily readable in daylight; and finally color is not a requirement (although it will be for mass adoption). So it is not surprising that e-readers are available in numerous models. However, it is still questionable whether or not this product area will capture consumer’s spending after it has gotten its attention. In certain areas such as textbooks or reference books, the concept makes sense. However, for pleasure reading, it is still unproven. In the newspaper area, it is a different story. Here, the ability to update information carries more weight and several newspaper subscriber services for e-readers have achieved considerable success, especially in Asian and European markets.
One environmental consideration is that an e-paper display eliminates paper, so it saves trees. According to the Newspaper Association of America, in 2006 the US consumed approximately 9.6 million tons of newsprint, which is nearly 25 percent of all newsprint produced globally. Given the magnitude of the newspaper industry, its impacts are significant: 2006 demand for newsprint in the US consumed 95 million trees, generated 126 billion gallons of waste water, and emitted 73 billion pounds of greenhouse gases.
Moreover, e-paper is considered to be a more environmentally friendly technology. According to a 2007 report from The Centre for Sustainable Communications at Royal Institute of Technology, KTH Stockholm , “e-paper based publishing and distribution was far more environmental friendly than ink on paper, and also much better than web-based reading.” In this era where companies are actively pursuing green technologies, such a consideration carries significant weight.
So for the near future, e-paper will not replace traditional printing, although it may complement it in some areas and take market share in others. As the technology improves and people demand more portability and instant access for information, some of that may change.
By Linda M. Casatelli
e-ink, e-newspaper, e-reader, pop, printing