Electronic Ink Makes Gains in Europe

By Sean Milmo, Ink World European Editor | 09.08.05

New electronic display technologies using conductive polymers and electrically charged inks could soon have an impact on the large-format market.

New electronic display technologies using conductive polymers and electrically charged inks could soon have an impact on the European printing sector, especially the large-format market.

The latest development is the arrival of an electronic ink which has the visual quality of conventional ink on paper, underlying the potential for new electronic systems to become the next new technology after digital printing to challenge traditional printing methods.

NTera, Dublin, Ireland, has revealed that it expects to launch an electrochromic ink based on nanomaterials, which could be appearing on in-store banners and billboard-type advertising and communications in airports this year.

A number of other new electronic technologies are also currently being developed for applications where there are advantages to be gained from frequent changes in displays.

Among these are conductive polymers like organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs). They are already becoming established in small-screen electronic products like cell phones and personal data assistants (PDAs). Developers of OLED systems and their materials believe these conductive polymer technologies can be extended into areas currently dominated by traditional printing methods. That could mark the beginning of a radical change in some printing sectors, particularly in the large format segment.

Major Players

These new technologies could become a major threat to conventional printing in a relatively short time in Europe because of the large number of big players who are already becoming involved in their development, including some leading suppliers to ink producers and other printing sectors.

These companies include BASF, which produces inks, printing plates and pigments; Merck KGaA, a pigments maker as well as a big supplier of materials for liquid crystal displays; Avecia, a major producer of digital printing ink ingredients; and Bayer, a producer of chemicals for the ink segment.

Further downstream, there are global players like Philips of the Netherlands which is putting a lot of its R&D resources into the development of conductive polymers and of electronic inks for display systems.

Philips is intent on being a leading force in electronic display technologies. It is already a partner with Agilent Technologies in Lumileds Lighting, San Jose, CA, a leading manufacturer of light emitting diodes (LEDs). It has recently formed partnerships in the display area with Mitsubishi Electric of Japan and DuPont. It has also become a shareholder in E Ink Corporation, Cambridge, MA, a developer of electronic inks.

Europe also has companies at the cutting edge of conductive polymer and display technologies, including Cambridge Display Technology and Plastic Logic, both of the U.K.

Large Format Market

The arrival of higher-quality electronic display systems, especially the application of ink-type materials, comes at a time when the large-format market in Europe has been growing approximately 10 to 15 percent faster than the advertising market as a whole.

Screen printing, litho and digital printing equipment are being improved to meet a variety of requirements in the sector, in particular the ability to print on super-wide sections with widths of up to 5 meters (200 inches).

Advertisers are demanding higher quality from banner, billboard and other displays in terms of durability, lightfastness and resolution together with lower costs.

At the same time, they want a faster turnover of large-format promotions and greater effectiveness in the targeting of their messages. The growing use of digital printing in the sector has helped to cut costs, making more frequent replacement of billboards and banners with new displays more economically viable.

Electronic technologies open up the possibilities of being able to change the content of displays almost instantaneously.

“Displays can be changed throughout the day to catch particular audiences,” said Roy Davis, NTera’s chief executive. “A roadside billboard can, for example, carry one message aimed at early morning commuters and then can be altered to target mothers taking their children to school.

“With respect to costs, printing on paper will always be cheaper, but once printed the content can never be changed – hence the argument for electronic paper-quality displays,” he said. “The key is the ability to change the content and image electronically over the lifetime of the display, so one would reasonably expect the costs to be ultimately competitive, if not cheaper.”

Electronics could revolutionize large-format communications as an advertising medium. It could become more like radio and TV, with space being sold according to the position of the time slot. It could become a narrowcasting vehicle able to deliver tailor-made data for individual groups of potential customers. This would be the case especially in stores, airports, bus and railway stations and other places with continuous traffic.

The new technologies would also result in radical changes not only in the large format printing sector but also in the signage industry as well.

“They will re-engineer the whole supply chain,” said Mr. Davis. “There will be no need for use of conventional printers and their suppliers. There will no necessity either for the large numbers of people required for changing billboards and other displays, and different advertising and marketing skills will be needed.”

NTera’s electrochromic technology, called NanoChromics, is similar to that which eliminates glare in automobile mirrors and the windows of office buildings. Through the development of nano-sized chromic materials, its reflective functions can operate much faster, and considerably increase its light levels.

The displays have a structure like that of liquid crystal displays (LCDs) but they are much less complex, so they have substantially lower production costs.

“A big advantage for us is that a state-of-the-art LCD line could provide 90 percent of the manufacturing needs of NanoChromics, significantly reducing the requirement for initial capital expenditure,” Mr. Davis said. “In some cases, the time to prepare NanoChromics is lower than for LCDs, making it attractive in terms of turnaround.”

Since the displays consist of nanomaterials, they can potentially be printed through ink jets, which could cut the production costs further.

“We’ve already successfully tested their application by ink jet,” said David Corr, NTera’s technical manager. “Since the particle sizes are 5 to 20 nanometers, they are a lot smaller than those in digital printing inks.”

NTera has recently reached a production and marketing agreement with Merck of Germany, which is a leader in the global market for liquid crystal materials and has experience with nanomaterials in areas like pigments.

“With its broad experience in display technologies, (Merck) has the know-how to produce (NTera’s) nanomaterials and worldwide customer base that will appreciate them,” said Thomas Schreckenbach, Merck’s management board member responsible for chemicals.

NTera has also just entered an alliance with Densitron, a U.K.-based display manufacturer which is building a LCD plant in Shanghai, China in a joint venture with Vbest, a Taiwanese display maker. The first NTera display products could be made at the Shanghai unit in the second half of this year.

The Dublin company expects that its first commercial application could be in smart cards, followed by in-store displays and then larger-format communications in airports.

Its electronic ink can provide miniature displays on cards giving information like credit balances or medical data such as the owner’s blood group. The displays would be powered by a thin-film battery on the cards, another technology developed by NTera.

The company claims that in black-and-white applications its technology can achieve resolutions superior to many of those with conventional inks. In tests with monochrome texts, it has reached levels of 200 dpi, compared with an average of 125 dpi for newspapers.

With full color, however, NTera is having difficulties, especially with maintaining an adequate standard with blues. Despite providing the visual quality of ink on paper, it may also have to wait a while for the development of substrates which have the flexibility of paper.

“Initial shortcomings like the lack of full color will not be a burden in the marketplace,” said Mr. Corr. “The first applications, many of which will tend to be numeric, will require only high monochrome qualities.”

Makers of OLEDs and their materials are also having problems meeting acceptable standards for full-color displays. As with electronic inks, the difficulty is not so much the development among the primary colors of reds and greens but of blues.

OLED developers, especially polymer ones, are confident they can overcome these technical defects. Companies like BASF are working on the development of easy-to-process polymer materials using cost-efficient techniques like roll-to-roll processes. Organic liquid is placed between two hot rolls so that it polymerizes into a continuous sheet.

Polymer LEDs, or polyLEDs, can also be produced through ink jets. Philips has developed an ink jet printing technology for making high precision, full color polyLED displays.

At the moment, Philips is making polyLED small-panel displays with polymers supplied by companies like Bayer, Avecia and Dow Chemical. Since ink jets can deposit polymers over a broad area, Philips sees ink jet printing being suitable for what it believes will be the next generation of polyLEDS when they become suitable for large-format applications.

“Previously the only display technology was the cathode ray tube and then it was replaced by LCDs,” explained a Philips officials. “Now we have a lot of new display technologies emerging. The most successful may prove to be certain types of polyLEDs or electronic inks, but it is quite possible there may not be a clear winner.”