Creating one of the UK's fastest growing companies

Exeter research into LCD displays has helped drive growth. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Unique retail signage and shelf-edge labelling technology is being used by retailers all over the world after being developed from collaborative research between Exeter academics and researchers at the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA).

The work led to the first DERA spin out company, ZBD Displays Ltd (now renamed Displaydata), which has gone on to establish a significant share of what could become a multi-billion-pound global market in electronic labelling for retailers.

Researchers at DERA created the Zenithal Bistable Device (ZBD), a new type of low-power liquid crystal display (LCD) that generates an image that remains on the display even when the power is switched off, meaning it operates at a fraction of the cost of traditional LCD displays and is more environmentally friendly.

Liquid Crystal Displays (LCDs) are a multi-billion-pound a year industry and understanding the physics behind the operation of the liquid crystals within the devices is essential for the development of the next generation of devices.

The ZBD enables retailers to make massive efficiency savings by avoiding waste and lost sales as well as fully using their active pricing systems and providing a fully integrated system.

Supermarkets use it for displaying pricing and product information instead of printed labels. It can be updated instantly so is applicable to anything that has a display and is battery powered, such as an Mp3 player or tablet. The technology enables organisation to update hundreds of e-paper displays from a central source ensuring pricing and other information is accurate and consistent while saving on consumables and the time and effort required replacing paper labels.

Physics

ZBD’s research and development and engineering teams include former postgraduates from Exeter’s department of Physics and Astronomy who acquired their expertise under the supervision of Professors Roy Sambles and Bill Barnes.

Since 1986 research from the Physics and Astronomy Department has investigated new optical techniques to characterise the alignment of properties of a range of liquid crystals. In 1990 the group constructed a mini-interferometer for the fabrication of gratings and devised a way to optically characterise liquid crystal cells containing such gratings. This work eventually led to the filing of a number of patents by DERA on aligning liquid crystals with gratings, one of which was the ZBD.

ZBD’s Founder and Director of technology said: “On so many levels from specific knowledge of grating alignment of liquid crystals, to general liquid crystal fabrication techniques, access to theoretical modelling, to learning how to solve problems as a team; I’ve benefitted from my time at Exeter and DERA and ZBD have benefited from my training.”

ZBD is now the world’s leading provider of fully graphic e-paper display systems for retailers and employs almost 60 people and has offices in the United States, France, Germany and Hong Kong. In 2012, ZBD reached the top spot in the Deloitte Technology Fast 50, a ranking of the 50 fastest-growing technology companies in the UK. They also ranked fifth in the Sunday Times’ Tech Track 100 league table and won an Innovation Award from the Institute of Physics for its unique e-paper display technology. ZBD’s Chief Technical Officer, Cliff Jones, said that the award was: “Testament to ZBD’s focus on applying new physics to our unique bistable e-paper technology.”

Success

The company continues to develop novel displays based upon liquid crystal grating structures and maintains a world-leading expertise in liquid crystal alignment that derives directly from its roots in the Exeter group.

The impact of Exeter’s research training can be traced through ZBD’s success and the benefits experienced by its customers. Coop Denmark, a Danish retail giant with revenues of $9.2billion, has introduced ZBD’s electronic shelf labelling to more than 100 of its stores because it: “Can use it to make our operations more efficient, launch promotions more effectively and differentiate our stores from our competitors.”

UK baby specialist Kiddicare has committed to using the labelling in 10 new superstores, Norwegian discount retail chain Bunnpris is using ZBD’s technology in its 200 stores, as are Italian supermarket giant SISA, T-Mobile Austria, Estonia’s leading telecoms provider EMT, US electronics retailer Vann’s and Dutch electrical retailer Plasmadiscounter.