The greening of electronics: Celestica's CTO says global environmental initiatives are laying the groundwork for a massive shift in industry thinking.
Until recently, the industry was sharply focused on producing the latest and greatest products--meeting consumer demand for the newest models of cellphones, PDAs, DVD players and a host of other electronics products. In this business, getting to market with a cutting-edge technology is not just good for business; it is necessary for survival.
As a consumer, a technology executive and a home-electronics enthusiast, I have seen my share of "here today, gone tomorrow" technologies. Until recently, however, neither consumers like myself nor the makers of electronics products were acutely conscious of the environmental impact that electronic devices can have when they reach end-of-life and are sent to landfills. Times are changing--along with our collective attitudes toward environmental responsibility.
The European Union's RoHS and WEEE directives are a clear indication of this shift in awareness. Like any significant industry change, however, these laws, along with other global initiatives, will take some time to gain traction.
RoHS, which bans six toxic substances from electronics equipment shipped into the EU after July 1, 2006, has received a great deal of industry attention. This is primarily because of the complex technical challenges driven by the removal of Pb. To overcome these obstacles and mitigate business risk, most electronics companies have spent that past few years preparing their organizations for this transition. And while most are anxious to return to "business as usual" mode after the deadline for compliance, in reality, the impact of this legislation and rapid emergence of other environmental directives means that the industry's migration toward a green future will require a more long-term commitment.
Looking ahead, key areas of industry focus after the July 1 deadline will include:
* Technical and sourcing challenges.
* The revoking of exemptions for high-reliability exempt products.
* Legal challenges and regulation enforcement.
* Compliance with existing and emerging legislation in several geographies.
* Evolving attitudes toward product lifecycle.
The industry has relied on lead in solder for half a century. An abundant supply of field data is available, as are a variety of models by which to derive acceleration factors and extrapolate test results to service conditions. With Pb-free solder, however, we have only five years of experience and limited field reliability data. There is no proven life prediction model in the public domain and we cannot reliably extrapolate current test cycle-to-fail data.
Although consortia, educational institutions and individual companies have taken great strides to prepare the industry for RoHS, it would be unrealistic to expect an immediate and seamless transition to life without lead. In fact, the first real wave of technical issues will likely arise after the July deadline. These challenges will be more prevalent for companies that:
* Transitioned to RoHS hastily.
* Did not engage in proper due diligence for new supplies and processes.
* Did not prepare for RoHS at all.
The latter group will be hardest hit as they attempt costly and time-consuming "band-aid" fixes under a very compressed schedule.
Exempt Today, Not Tomorrow
Companies that manufacture high-reliability products such as network infrastructure and high-end computing equipment are able to leverage an exemption from the Pb in solder. It is important to note, however, that the EU plans to revisit the exemption at a minimum of every four years. When these exemptions are deemed no longer necessary, the EU will set a target date for compliance and the next flurry of industry activity will surround the transition of more mission-critical, complex product sets.
Said companies will need to quickly overcome assembly challenges, carefully manage the phase-in and phase-out of inventory, and ensure that they are able to source an adequate supply of Pb-free parts. To ensure a successful future transition, these organizations should start planning now.
In the meantime, companies planning to leverage the exemption for lead in solder, or whose products fall outside of the scope of RoHS (such as defense and medical electronics), may find it increasingly difficult to procure leaded and other noncompliant components. The resulting challenges will be threefold:
* Parts constraints and potential obsolescence.
* Price premiums for noncompliant components.
* In cases where a leaded part is unavailable, a mixed-metal manufacturing environment may arise--with compliant and noncompliant parts (requiring different processing temperatures) on the same board.
Studies have indicated that the latter scenario may actually pose more reliability issues than dealing head-on with RoHS compliance.
Technical and sourcing challenges may inadvertently act as a catalyst for exempt and out-of-scope companies, driving them to move their compliance schedules forward or reconsider transitioning to compliance. Fortunately, organizations that reconsider their approach will have a greater pool of reliability and field data to leverage. They may also reap the benefits of being first in their peer group to introduce a compliant product.
After RoHS has been enacted, EU member states will begin to enforce the law. They will no doubt make examples of the first companies to be caught with banned substances in their products. This may result in negative press coverage and even damage to brand image. Such actions may drive the potential to drive instances of competitive analysis, where companies analyze competitors' products to determine if they are fully adhering to the regulations. This is already occuring with WEEE legislation. According to a recent report from the U.S. Commercial Services, a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce, Germany's National WEEE Registrar has been inundated with reports from companies "blowing the whistle on competitors" that have not registered. This type of behavior is expected not only with WEEE but also with RoHS. Indeed, in some instances, environmental groups may be positioning themselves to become unofficial watchdogs.
European companies in the high-reliability space that have opted for full compliance instead of exemption may also add some fuel to the fire. Having spent the resources necessary to make the full transition, they will not look kindly upon noncompliant product being shipped into the EU and may lobby the government to move exemption deadlines forward, or restrict the flow of products into their region.
Dan Shea is chief technology officer at Celestica (celestica.com).