PRINTING, AS a craft and industry, is remarkable for the fundamental changes it has absorbed, particularly in the last 100 years or so. As a consequence, printers have become more segmented by process—sheetfed and web offset, gravure, flexo, etc.—as well as application—general commercial, labels, packaging, plastics and more.
Digital technology is creating further segmentation while also increasing the potential for confusion. It’s become necessary to talk of print-for-pay versus personal and workgroup printing, along with in-plants and CRDs. Added to this are new designations such as industrial printing, transpromo and even direct marketing firm.
Such diversity in the process and industry matters when it comes to assessing the potential impact of electronic paper and new “printing” technologies. This includes the opportunities in e-paper/flexible displays, printable electronics/circuitry and RFID (radio frequency identification), most of which have the potential to involve printing with conductive inks.
Know the Usage
In analyzing the market potential of e-paper it’s also important to distinguish between two usages of the term—end product versus production process.
Included in the former is any device, regardless of how it is manufactured, that “replaces” paper by virtue of being a portable (thin and lightweight), affordable and possibly flexible, display. Such products offer the added benefit of supporting re-imaging, if not live motion.
Similarly, RFID tags already are being produced by means other than printing.
Printed electronics of all types are forecast to represent a $300 billion worldwide market by 2025, according to global research firm IDTechEx, which has U.S. offices in Ann Arbor, MI. Much of what gets printed, though, will just be a component of a larger manufacturing process, such as displays for cell phones, PDAs and possibly TVs.
Even if testing leads to mass production via a process akin to conventional printing, press manufacturers may be the only segment of today’s industry to benefit. Differences in the processes and materials employed could minimize the value of traditional graphic arts printing expertise, and it’s questionable whether a typical pressroom will meet the requirements for environmental controls.
Also, it’s far from clear which printing process will prove the most effective for this application. Ink-jet based manufacturing has dominated the early e-paper development programs, but screen and gravure are gaining prominence in pilot tests. Offset lithography (as well as flexo-graphy) is seen as having potential for high-volume production, but tends to be referenced as an area of possible future development, with one notable exception.
How the market will shape up is still speculation at this point because even the pioneers don’t have many of the answers yet, and they are keeping what is known under wraps. Scaling up from a pilot project to commercial production tends to be fraught with surprises.
Quantum Paper, in Bloomfield Hills, MI, is the one company to have gone public with plans to roll out a technology that “marries conventional, paper-based (offset) printing with electronics.” It reports being able to produce electronic paper using standard litho printing on top of a base applied in a screen printing process or entirely via flexo printing with specialized equipment. In either case, multiple layers of conductive ink are printed onto paper (or other substrates).
Depending on the degree of printing, pieces can be illuminated in their entirety or selectively and support full-color static or dynamic displays. The company envisions its process being used to produce signage and POP displays, as well as add an interactive component to traditional printed pieces such as brochures and magazines.
After popping up with a big flurry of self-promotion, the company again went quiet, which adds to a sense that this all sounds a bit too good to hold true. Giving the effort credibility, though, is the involvement of Dr. William J. Ray as the principal inventor and Quantum’s chief technology officer. Ray is an industry veteran with a track record of innovations.
Quantum reports having output production quantities of electronic paper at its facility. The company’s stated plan is to license its technology to a range of companies, including high-quality conventional printers, for volume production.
Most of the players and analysts involved in this arena don’t have roots in the conventional printing industry. Included are the likes of Samsung and IBM, along with startups such as E-Ink, Plastic Logic and PolyIC. This also makes it more challenging to gauge the implications for printers.
Drawing on their graphic arts industry expertise, researchers Dr. Joe Webb and Vince Naselli of Strategies for Management, in Harrisville, RI, have published a report on this developing market sector. “E-Paper Technology and Opportunities in Publishing, Communications and the Graphic Arts” examines the potential of e-paper applications, from cell phone and PDA displays, packaging and sign-age to replacements for printed media such as books and catalogs.
According to the researchers, “Some forms of e-paper may be manufactured using lithographic or other presses. While the printing of electronics is not something every printer can do, or will be able to do, this should be closely monitored by the industry. We do not expect this to be an extensive industry opportunity, but one that can be significant to a small group of savvy operations.”
Even if printers don’t produce the e-paper, many of the conventionally printed pieces they do produce can be enhanced by the addition of an electronic component, they add. The other part of the equation is creation and repurposing of content that is optimized for use with the display devices enabled by e-paper.
Several factors are combining to increase consumption of digital communications, the researchers observe. Wireless connectivity is expected to continue on a fast track as network coverage expands and speeds increase. Sales of PDAs, laptops and cell phone hybrids are already set to grow, but their adoption and usage should get a big boost from the advantages of e-paper displays.
Developments on the technology side will provide “users a seamless and unfettered way to be connected anytime, anywhere,” the researchers contend. “Anything that provides information seekers content whenever and wherever they want it is a threat to and opportunity for the printing industry. E-paper will accelerate (print) replacement where it has already begun, such as digital publications and books.”
The books sector is a key one to watch, they say, with the release of the Sony e-Book Reader giving an early read on the market for e-paper. “But it’s important to realize that there will be many types of e-paper materials for many different applications. If Sony’s product flops in the marketplace, e-paper is already in so many forms and products in the test stage that even a high-profile disappointment will not deter it in other applications,” the researchers contend.
See the accompanying sidebar (page 32) for some examples of this technology in the real world.
As applications come to market, printers who have skills in the management and manipulation of content may find opportunities in aiding their clients in publishing to new formats, they continue. “Now is a good time to learn about e-paper. There are many products in field tests; others will hit the marketplace this year.”
More information on the report is available at www.sfminc.com/SFME-PaperProject.html.
RFID technology is a little farther along the adoption curve, following an introduction that had much the same feel as the early days of the dotcom bubble. It was crowned the “next big thing” before most people really understood the details of the technology and what was involved in implementing it.
RFID requires application of a tag (re: chip) and antenna, with (active) or without (passive) a self-contained power supply—potentially a printable battery. First-generation implementations use more traditionally produced tags (silicone based). An external reader is required to capture the signal from an RFID tag, and provide the energy for transmission in the case of a passive tag.
Expected applications range from tagging of animals (pets and livestock), cars and armaments to pallets, cases and individual item packaging or labels. Some of the theoretical potential of RFID technology butts up against privacy concerns. This includes applications such as embedding tags in magazines for readership studies or into catalogs to facilitate ordering.
To the extent production of RFID tags, antennae and batteries evolves as e-paper on a smaller scale, there’s potential for the printing industry to benefit further.
ABI Research, of New York City, offered an assessment of this development in a study released earlier this year, titled “Printed Electronics in the RFID Tag Industry.” In summarizing its findings, the research firm noted that, “Printed electronics have the potential to transform the RFID industry…but their impact will not be significant for some years to come.”
Still, printed antennae, transistors and batteries could eventually change the dynamics of the RFID industry, says industry analyst Sara Shah. “They would allow manufacturers and distributors to create their own ‘smart packaging’ and bypass the whole, long RFID tag production chain.”
According to the study, printed antennae that operate in either the high or ultra-high frequency bands are available now, and a large proportion of UHF RFID antennae could be produced this way. The outlook is less bullish for printed transistors.
“When printed transistors arrive in 2008, they won’t be able to compete with silicone transistors,” says Shah. “With their low frequency operation and incompatibility with existing readers, they will not be suitable for open loop supply chains until standards emerge for item-level LF (low frequency) tagging.”
Change almost always takes longer than people expect. What may be most important to take away is that the uncertainty is in when, not if, printable electronics/e-paper will have an impact. zz
E-paper Set to Be Read All Over
Newspapers are at the forefront of e-paper product trials. Since these readers are expected to sell for a relatively low cost and electronic editions eliminate printing costs, publishers reportedly are exploring giving devices away with an annual subscription.
Earlier this year, a Belgian financial newspaper, De Tijd, distributed hundreds of e-paper readers (pictured) produced by iRex Technologies to subscribers, free of charge, in a test of the medium. It is considering making electronic versions of the newspaper available to all readers, depending on feedback from the test program.
In the United States, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Houston Chronicle are among the papers believed to be planning similar tests.
E-books are once again being talked about as on the verge of rapid growth, partly due to e-paper making readers more desirable, but also owing to trends in the use of PDAs and cell phones with larger displays.
Early indications of the impact e-paper may have on this sector will come from Sony Electronics. It announced an agreement with Borders to make the Sony Reader available through about 200 Borders stores nationwide, along with its own Sony Style stores. The device is built around an electronic paper display produced using E-Ink technology.
Compared to books, interest in digital editions of printed magazines doesn’t seem to be as tied to the availability of special reader devices that mimic the printed format. Publishers have embraced the format chiefly for cost savings, but readers apparently like the user experience.
Texterity Inc., a provider of digital magazine solutions, released the results of a BPA-certified survey it completed of readership habits and demographic data for digital magazine readers. Feedback was received from some 7,000 respondents, including readers of consumer and business-to-business publications.
The survey found that more than 85 percent of respondents are “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with the digital editions they receive. Perhaps more significant, 91 percent reported taking action as a result of reading an ad.