My customer asked me

My customer asked me: “Can I print using electronic ink like the Esquire cover?”

The first time I saw E-Ink in action was on Oct. 1 at Ryerson University’s Press Inauguration at the School of Graphic Communications Management. As Chair, Abhay Sharma, held the October issue of Esquire magazine up high above his head. I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. “Could it be? Is‚Ķis the cover moving?”

To be honest, it took me a second to really understand. In perfect harmony with the rest of the group, “oohs” and “ahs” filled the room. With a reaction as superb as this, it’s no wonder publishers are interested in duplicating the response.

For those who haven’t seen this cover, Esquire has leaped forward into the future and incorporated the first-ever mass-produced electronic ink print product and digital display on the cover of a magazine. It consists of a rectangular display panel on the upper front cover that flashes the catch phrase “The 21st Century Begins Now,” as well as an inside cover panel sporting the new 2009 Ford Flex. The front panel flashes this phrase and other symbols, while the inside display creates the illusion of movement both by flashing in on and off states. Check out Esquire’s website (http://www.esquire.com/video/) for a neat video of the magazine on store shelves.

This leads us to this month’s customer question. “Can I print using electronic ink like Esquire?” The short answer: yes; the longer answer: not yet. Let me explain.

Electronic ink, or E-Ink, is just as it sounds; it is ink that can hold a charge, allowing the image to be refreshed. It is manufactured into an electrophorectic display, or EPD, which is the technology featured in Esquire. E-Ink is also the name of the company that is at the forefront of electronic paper displays and was the first to do so, beginning back in 1997.

The company states that E-Ink consists of millions of “microcapsules” existing in a clear fluid and can either hold a positive charge (white particles) and a negative charge (black particles). Applying a negative charge permits the white particles to rise to the surface where they become visible. Oppositely, applying a positive charge permits the black particles to rise to the surface where they become visible, and therefore, the screen darkens. One observer describes this process as “resembling precise Etch-A-Sketch creations.” This ink is screen printed onto a flexible substrate, aligned to the EPD panel and laminated to a layer of circuitry that provides the source of power. Some of its advantages are the very low power consumption of the EPD, high contrast images, high brightness levels, multiple viewing angles and the thin nature of the product (it’s only 3.6mm thick, including the power source). The panel then lights up the pre-programmed image or text, and voila! E-Ink comes to life.

But, there are a few issues right now that make this whole process difficult. So like I said before, the short answer is yes; this technology can be adopted, however it is not yet efficient enough to make it practical for many publishing mediums. There are four main problems to be dealt with, which include E-Ink’s limited practical application in the publishing industry, economical feasibility for short run projects, logistical issues and sustainability concerns.


E-Ink’s publishing limitations

Although the EPD panel is eye-catching on the cover of Esquire, this technology is not yet suited for other publishing mediums. As it stands, newspaper printing is not a practical application of E-Ink due to the thinner stock used, the frequency of production and its price or perceived value.

Newspapers provide up-to-the minute news that is generally read once and thrown away. Producers of E-Ink displays create them in hopes that they will be kept, at least while they are still a novelty. On the flip side, book printing is also not a practical application of E-Ink due to a book’s lifespan, which is presumably much longer than a newspaper or magazine. Current E-Ink technologies have a battery that lasts roughly 90 days, which means that it would just make it onto the shelves of an Indigo store near you and, oh shoot, it’s dead. When the battery life lasts longer, E-Ink solutions in the book printing world can become a viable option. Resolution and detailed designs are also issues for the publishing industry that must be addressed. E-Ink has more practical applications (the company has identified over 700) in signage and displays, cell phone screens, time-keeping devices, buildings and much more.


E-Ink for short-run projects

The second concern deals with the economic feasibility of manufacturing an E-Ink panel for a small project. It has been estimated that the E-Ink displays cost Esquire an extra $5.00 for the EPD panels and batteries. Some speculations are even higher at $8.00 – $10.00 per copy for 100,000 copies. It is hard to justify this cost when a magazine usually only sells for $3.99. Even when a paperback book sells for $19.99, that book probably only costs between $1.00 and $3.00 each to print 100,000 copies (depending on the paper used, trim size, page extent, etc.) so this is an enormous cost to add. Short run projects are also not feasible because of the time, labour and specialized knowledge it takes to manufacture an E-Ink panel. It took nine months to manufacture, assemble, bind and distribute the product. Who has nine extra months to add into their tight production timelines and pay for the costs associated with this?! I think its safe to say that small E-Ink projects are going to be difficult with the options currently available.


E-Ink’s logistics & sustainability concerns

I will address the final two concerns together because they are interrelated. The logistics of the Esquire E-Ink printing process were very complicated, and as I mentioned before, took nine months to complete. RR Donnelley, who prints Esquire, contracted the global logistics of this operation to Structural Graphics in Essex, Connecticut. CEO, Michael Maguire, and his team managed the operation which begun in Asia for creation of the E-Ink panels. Simultaneously, the covers were printed and die cut in the United States. Both the panels and covers were then shipped to Mexico where they were hand assembled. Lastly, the covers were shipped back to RR Donnelly’s facility in Kentucky to be bound to the text. Got all that? Good!

As you can imagine, this is a huge undertaking and a bit of a logistical nightmare. What’s more, and where it becomes really interesting, is in the transportation. Within North America, all of the E-Ink displays had to be shipped in refrigerated trucks in order to preserve the battery life. All of this additional manufacturing, 7,000 miles of transportation and cold storage can leave a heavy carbon footprint. Sustainability and environmentally friendly practices are becoming more and more paramount in today’s business community and society as a whole, especially as consumers are becoming more aware of environmental issues. The encouraging news though, is that the cover is recyclable–just rip off the e-ink panels first and dispose of them like you would any other battery.

On another note, I’m excited to say that it’s not for lack of quality that this technology won’t work. I was exploring people’s reaction to the October Esquire cover on YouTube, when I came across one reader who tried everything in his power to test the quality of his e-ink display. This included folding it in half, cutting it with a knife, lighting it on fire, dousing it in water, drilling holes in it (this is when it started to get messy–but wait‚Ķit came back to life!) and finally destroying it in the microwave. I am happy to conclude that the E-Ink panel is more or less indestructible, although the battery is much more fragile. Likewise, the cover went through seven bindery tests to ensure that it would survive the journey into consumer hands.

So, after hearing the nuances of today’s E-ink technology, it is unlikely that you will want to provide this option to your customers in the very near future–at least not without first thinking about your marketing strategy, production workflow and whether this technology adds value to your overall business. This is not a small decision. But, Srirvam Peruvemba, E-Ink’s VP of Marketing, said it best when explaining that Esquire’s traditional and futuristic cover is “building a bridge between today’s paper and tomorrow’s.”

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Diana Varma is an Instructor at the School of Graphic Communications Management at Ryerson University and the Owner of ON-SITE First Aid & CPR Training Group, a health & safety company that provides training to the Graphic Arts Industry.