Electronic screens on paper point to the future of packaging

Successful packaging provides valuable space for brands to communicate with the consumer and to convey product information. Researchers from the University of Sheffield partnered with experts from the design and technology company Novalia to develop electronic screens for paper-based packaging that could change the way brands attract and interact with customers.

The packaging industry is worth billions of dollars and constantly on the lookout for innovations. Successful packaging provides valuable space for brands to communicate with the consumer and to convey product information. Researchers from the University of Sheffield partnered with experts from the design and technology company Novalia to develop electronic screens for paper-based packaging that could change the way brands attract and interact with customers.

Novalia, a company based in Cambridge, UK, has spent several years to develop a patented process to print and assemble interactive paper-based products like sound posters and album covers. To make paper behave more like a touch-screen, graphics are printed on one side of a sheet of paper or cardboard and conductive ink is printed on the other side to create touch sensors. Novalia typically uses standard print processes such as offset lithography, screen printing, flexography or digital inkjet printing. The engineers and designers have also written software for the control modules that are connected to the print products.

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For the interactive packaging, Novalia’s designers and engineers partnered with researchers from the University of Sheffield. In a paper published in the IEEE Journal of Display Technology, the team explained how a screen can be fixed onto packaging to display information. The process involves printing electronic tracks onto paper and then fixing low-cost electronics and a polymer LED display to the paper using an adhesive that conducts electricity.

The research has been funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and testing so far has taken place on paper but the process could potentially be printed on other surfaces.

While electronic labels are a novelty in and of themselves, the engineers and designers envision further applications. The technology could be used in greetings cards or products where a customer could receive a simple message. More complex developments could include a countdown timer on the side of a packet to indicate when a timed product is ready – such as hair dye, pregnancy tests or home baking using a traffic light system. The functionality of labels could thus be greatly expanded.

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“The most valuable application however we believe would be in products in which the value of the product is ultimately linked with to design and sophistication of the packaging. Examples of this include packaging for perfume, cosmetics and consumer-fashion”, the researchers write in their paper in the IEEE Journal of Display Technology.

The team is now working on fully flexible organic displays on a plastic substrate that they can fix onto the electronic tracks. The LED devices need to be low-cost and flexible enough to be used on all packaging.

Professor David Lidzey from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Physics and Astronomy commented: “Labels on packaging could become much more innovative, and allow customers to interact with and explore new products. The use of displays or light emitting panels on packaging will also allow companies to communicate brand awareness in a more sophisticated manner.”