East West Instore Solutions sells electronic shelf labels to Danish retail chains. An innovation project detects a cheaper solution for shelf labels based on indoor solar cell technology. The potential for the retail trade is huge.

By Nanna Bastved

The Danish distributor, East West Instore Solutions, supplies electronic shelf labels to a variety of large retail chains, including the supermarket chain COOP.

Each shelf label contains two batteries, which need replacing at regular intervals. That may not sound so daunting, but for a retail chain like COOP, which has over 1 million electronic shelf labels, the manual maintenance becomes a costly and time-consuming affair. Therefore, East West Instore Solutions asked FORCE Technology to help find an alternative, renewable solution for the shelf labels based on energy harvesting technology.

First tests of solar powered shelf labels

In the innovation project, which is sponsored by InfinIT, FORCE Technology helped East West Instore Solutions and COOP to evaluate and demonstrate the feasibility of solar-powered shelf labels in a small store in COOP’s headquarters in Albertslund near Copenhagen.

“The advantage of electronic labels is that the pricing information is available to the customers immediately, so our stores are always ready for sales. But the batteries in the labels need replacing after 5-7 years depending on where they are placed in the store. When the label has ‘used up’ the battery, the customers can’t see the price, and the employees have to spend time replacing the batteries. Furthermore, having to replace two million batteries represents a serious disadvantage for the environment. This is why it has been such an interesting case for us to test out the possibilities of harvesting energy from the store’s indoor lighting,” explains Svend Envoldsen, Senior Innovation Specialist, COOP Danmark.

The results from the demo project have been promising. The advantage of the solar cell solution is that it can perform for longer and is far cheaper to maintain.

“The potential is really great. It really is a quite brilliant solution to the annoying problem of having to replace batteries, plus it is also good for the environment – it can become a win-win situation,” says Svend Envoldsen, who is looking forward to the day when the completed commercial solution for the new generation of electronic shelf labels is ready."

Indoor solar cell technology

Over the course of the project, FORCE Technology has supplied the very latest expertise about energy harvesting power management and helped to build a prototype with built-in solar cell technology.

Components for energy harvesting can be expensive, which is why the project has covered cost-optimisation solutions in order to compete with cheap batteries. In the future ASIC technology could be the solution for high volume customers.
“We have been very satisfied with our collaboration with FORCE Technology, who has supplied knowledge about energy harvesting technology and assisted us in the evaluation of an interesting product solution that could strengthen our market position,” says Michael Kastrupsen, who sees international sales potential in the batteryless shelf labels.

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Energy left over from the solar cells

As an added bonus the demo project has shown that there is energy left over in the shelf labels. The solar cells generate more energy than is required to display the price on the label.

“We discovered in the demo project that the energy harvesting solution produces more energy than the shelf label uses. This opens up other possibilities, for example you could use sensors to detect customer activity in front of the shelf label or monitor whether the shelf is empty or filled,” says Lead Specialist Johan Pedersen, IdemoLab at FORCE Technology.

This opens new doors for East West Instore Solutions and their Chinese manufacturer:

“Our Chinese developers have long wanted to add new features to the shelf labels, but have struggled with the challenge of using as little power as possible. Now we no longer need to be restricted by energy usage, because energy is continually being added to the shelf label,” says Michael Kastrupsen, who is pleased that the technological expertise about energy harvesting we have here in Denmark can be used by large countries such as China.

Need for a new business model applicable for energy harvesting

The prototype for the new renewable shelf label will now be fully developed and refined so that the product is ready for sale.

It is one thing, however, to develop a new type of shelf label with solar cell technology that is functional and durable. It is something else entirely to adapt the business model so that the product becomes a sales adventure for the company.

This is why Aalborg University is also part of the project, helping East West Instore Solutions to change their business model in connection with the introduction of energy harvesting and making the product ‘service free’.

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More information on batteryless and self-powered electronics

FORCE Technology works with IoT sensors and energy harvesting in many different industries and develops ASIC IP for energy harvesting. FORCE Technology runs the project 'Batteryless and self-powered electronics', which is part of a GTS performance contract with the Danish Agency for Science and Higher Education.

The activities are supervised by representatives from the Danish industry and their aim is to promote Danish companies’ exploitation of the technological and commercial potential of energy harvesting.

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