Japanese Retailers Trial UHF E-ink Paper Label

The new RFID-enabled label with e-ink paper, developed by E Ink Corp. and Fujitsu Semiconductor, is intended to boost logistics efficiency in Japan's convenience store market.
Published: October 23, 2018

Aiming at improving logistical efficiency and accuracy, while reducing paper use for Japanese convenience retailers, two technology companies have created an electronic ink smart label that displays data which can be updated via UHF RFID transmission. The tags require no battery, instead using energy culled during RFID interrogation to capture, store and display e-ink data. E Ink Corp. and Fujitsu Semiconductor together announced their newest solution this month for boosting convenience store logistics. In the long run, they claim, the solution can be used not only for logistics tags, but also for e-paper badges, ID cards and electronic shelf labels.

The technology, which will be offered for solution providers in the form of a reference design board, is being trialed in a prototype version by several Japanese retailers. Toppan Printing is creating the tags using Fujitsu Semiconductor’s UHF FRAM RFID LSI inlay.

E Ink Japan’s Naoki Sumita

E Ink spun off from MIT Media Lab in 1997 with the first e-paper technology. The company makes display products globally for brands and manufacturers. In 2009, the firm was acquired by Taiwan’s Prime View International, whose products include e-readers, electronic shelf labels, e-notes, e-paper mobile devices and digital signage.

Convenience stores are ubiquitous throughout Japan, offering everything from beauty and health aids to snacks. Averaging about 100 square meters (1,076 square feet) in size, these neighborhood stores are nimble enough to change their inventory to meet the shifting demands of local consumers within a matter of days. Therefore, inventory moves at a fast pace from distribution centers to these small store fronts.

As convenience stores become ever more popular, there is also a shortage of labor to manage logistics. “Due to a lack of manpower, the industry is under pressure to optimize their overall logistics operation,” says Naoki Sumita, E Ink Japan’s president. By making it possible to update tag information as a product moves through the supply chain, he explains, warehouse and other logistics employees will spend less time checking inventory, scanning bar codes or manually entering information. Additionally, the goal is to reduce paper waste. “This RFID tag will be a replacement of the existing paper label,” he states, “which will contribute to the reduction of paper usage.”

The reference design board consists of an e-paper display and a UHF RFID inlay with an antenna printed on the substrate. Users can interrogate or transmit content to the tag with a standard UHF RFID reader from a distance up to 20 centimeters (7.9 inches).

In a typical use case for logistics, Sumita says, labels are attached to the containers in which products are packed to fulfill convenience store orders. An operator then uses a handheld UHF reader-writer to read each tag’s unique ID number, and to write delivery route instruction data from a distance of 15 to 20 centimeters (5.9 to 7.9 inches). They could also write information about the contents, or a bar code. That data is then displayed on the tag’s e-paper surface so that workers can view the information as the containers are loaded and unloaded from vans, thereby making the process faster and less prone to errors.

The tags can be reused with future shipments, Sumita says, and each tag ID is simply read, with new data associated to that ID and displayed on the e-paper surface. Since the tag is reusable, he notes, it “alleviates the environmental burden of consuming and disposing of conventional paper labels.” The labels offer the benefit of requiring no electricity to maintain displays, he adds.

The prototype uses a 2.9-inch module with a 296- by 128-dot display, and the RFID tag leverages Fujitsu’s UHF chip with 8 kilobytes of memory built in. Users can customize display size and resolution by changing the display data.

Trials are currently under way, with mass production expected to be available to the public in 2020. “This tag is still in the developing stage,” Sumita says, “and the prototype is targeted for summer 2019.” The reference design board is known as product number MB97R8110. Toppan Printing is developing and will produce the battery-less tags initially for Japanese convenience store chains, and then for the general logistics and manufacturing sectors.