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Combining E-paper and NFC RFID Technologies to Enhance Medical Asset Management and Tracking

The need for specialized scanners with wireless tag technology has resulted in far slower market uptake than was originally envisaged; there is a great deal of scope for e-paper to help make up the shortfall.
By Scott Soong
Feb 12, 2017

Despite the many merits that radio frequency identification (RFID) and Near Field Communication (NFC) technologies offer to modern logistics, there are numerous scenarios in which wireless tags have so far been unable to fully replace paper-based labels and bar codes. The main reason for this is that a paper label can have both a scannable bar code and information that is readable by individuals without the need for additional, specialized equipment.

To some extent, the fact that such NFC RFID tags are not instantly readable (or amendable) by people has held back their proliferation. However, adding an updatable display to the tag has traditionally proved impractical, because it would be too power-hungry. There will, nevertheless, be increasing demand for exactly this form of dual functionality in the future.

Vaccine Data at-a-Glance
Here is an example that illustrates this point. In the United States, changes to the directives relating to how vaccines are stored are set to have major implications. In many cases, a regularly updated visual indicator, detailing the temperature at which the vaccine containers have been kept throughout the previous 24-hour period, will be required. This will help to safeguard against damage to the vaccines that could be caused by interruptions in their refrigerator's operation. Real-time monitoring systems of this kind will need a display on each vaccine container, but if the power consumed by the display is too high, such arrangements will not be feasible.

It is becoming ever more apparent that finding a way to merge the instant human-readability of a display with the updatability and internet connectivity of a wireless tag would be highly advantageous. This would enable operatives to view the status of a particular item at a glance, while also allowing them to transfer data to and from it via NFC RFID. To achieve this, however, requires that product designers completely re-evaluate their strategy when it comes to specifying displays.

Why TFT LCDs Are So Power-Hungry
There are two characteristics endemic to thin-film-transistor liquid-crystal displays (TFT LCDs) that mean even the most advanced versions still have sizeable power-consumption figures. First, they require a backlight to make the display's contents visible. Second, these displays must constantly be refreshed (normally 50 or 60 times every second), which is another ongoing drain on power. The impact of these factors on the overall power budget make such optoelectronic components wholly unsuitable for applications for which there are limited battery reserves that must last for a long time.

Introducing E-paper Displays
Through the emergence of e-paper displays (EPDs), a more power-efficient and convenient alternative is now seeing commercial uptake. Widespread proliferation seems destined to follow. EPDs have the major operational advantage over TFTs of not requiring a backlight. Furthermore, they do not need to be constantly refreshed—power is only needed to update the contents of the display. The rest of the time, an EPD continues to render the same information without any refreshes.

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