Really Smart Labels

Sept. 1, 2001
You've heard a lot about these smart labels, but here's something brand new -- e-ink.

Really Smart Labels

We’ve been hearing about “smart labels” (radio frequency identification chips laminated into thermal transfer label stock) for quite some time now, but we haven’t really seen them being widely deployed. Why? Because they’re disposable.

Um ... wait ... isn’t disposability supposed to be their real benefit?

Yes. And that’s the problem.

Sufficiently confused yet?

By integrating inexpensive radio frequency identification (RFID) chips into a self-adhesive label, smart labels offer human-readable shipping information, bar codes and RFID on one label.

And whether you want it to be or not, it has to be disposable because the printed information can’t be changed. At around 50 cents each, smart labels are still too expensive to be considered “disposable” for wide-scale implementation until a better business case can be developed.

But ... what if you could rewrite the optical data too?

This radical concept isn’t quite as far-fetched as you might think.

A company called E Ink ( has developed what it calls “electronic ink,” a thin, paper-like display with extremely low-power consumption and very high contrast.

Electronic ink is a proprietary material that is a fusion of chemistry, physics and electronics. In one form, e-ink uses millions of microcapsules, about the diameter of a human hair, suspended in a clear fluid. Microcapsules contain positively charged white particles and negatively charged black particles.

A negative charge applied to a portion of the material produces a black image; a positive charge produces a white image. The image remains readable even after the initial charge is removed.

E Ink is currently working with a variety of partners to develop flexible displays for PDAs and other devices, but the same technology could be applied to really smart labels that could, theoretically, be reused and rewritten — making the cost-per-use for returnable containers quite attractive.

According to John Thorn, director of business development for E Ink, it is technically possible to develop an interface between an RFID chip and the E Ink material. Thorn was previously Director of product management for Checkpoint Systems, a major electronic article surveillance (EAS) and RFID company — so he knows what he’s talking about.

Thorn cautions, however, that there are limitations to this somewhat futuristic scenario.

First, significant development would be required to marry the electronic ink display with the RFID chip and to resolve packaging and fabrication issues.

Second, even though the media is far more rugged than LCD displays, some of the harsher environmental conditions encountered (such as power washing) might present problems. Thorn commented, however, that “if packaged properly — and with some development around the application — the ink may be useful in certain applications.”

Third, E Ink’s current products are capable of displaying only the equivalent of one bar code symbol such as the SSCC-18. That might be adequate for some applications, but it’s far short of the ideal. For complex alphanumeric messages, an active matrix backplane would be required. While such backplanes are currently under development, Thorn cautions against overly optimistic cost projections.

For a 4x6-inch label, Thorn says, “Today, think in terms of dollars per labels — not cents. Longer term — once significant mass market volumes have been realized — we are confident our technology will offer more for less than any other display technology. However, we will never be cheaper than a printed bar code!”

As daunting as these limitations may seem, consider that some of the early-generation active RFID tags cost $50-$100 each, but were still adopted for some applications. Why? Because the cost of not adopting the technology was far greater.

Bert Moore

contributing editor

[email protected]

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