Leaving paper on the shelf

BASF is to join forces with Taiwanese company SiPix to develop a display technology that can be rolled up and put into the pocket.

Flexible electronic displays that can be rolled up and put into the pocket came a step closer to commercial reality this week with the news that BASF is to join forces with Taiwanese company SiPix to help get the technology ready for launch.

Electronic paper is currently the subject of fevered research and development, with Massachusetts firm E Ink, Kodak and Hewlett Packard just a few of the companies working on different versions of the technology.

But before electronic books, newspapers and magazines are introduced, applications are likely to be a little more mundane, and SiPix has its sights set on the huge market within the retail industry.

E-signs, an electronic alternative to the paper labels that supermarkets use on shelves, are therefore one of the first e-paper applications planned for market launch.

The electronic panels are called Electrophoretic Displays (EPDs) and function according to the principle of electrophoresis. A mixture of dye particles is subjected to an electrical field. The particles are separated from one another because of their different electric charges and move in the direction of a visible foreground or an invisible background. In this way each pixel on the surface of the display can appear white or coloured.

Under the agreement BASF has acquired a stake in SiPix and will develop the dyes required to produce multicoloured displays. The displays consist of an electronic display panel, an energy source and a receiver that is radio-controlled via a central computer.

The obvious advantage of the technology is that it could dispense with the need to change labels by hand. But e-signs are also said to last for up to six years, require only a small amount of energy, and unlike conventional LED displays can be read from any angle.

Markus Kropp, business manager at BASF Future Business, explained that e-signs are just the beginning, and the application represents a route into an e-paper market that he estimates will be worth around 500m Euros (£340m) within the next 10 years.

‘We see e-signs as a way of entering the promising market of e-paper applications such as electronic newspapers and magazines, e-books and smart cards,’ he said.

It seems likely that the retail industry will embrace the technology. This May SiPix announced that Swedish firm Pricer (one of the world’s leading suppliers of electronic display and information systems to the retail industry) will be its first customer for electronic paper displays. According to the company, SiPix will be shipping the technology by the end of the year.

BASF is also clearly taking the potential for advanced electronic displays seriously. Earlier this summer the company struck a similar deal with another Taiwanese company, Teco Optronics, to develop dyes for use in organic LEDs.