In 2005, the word was “WEEE” (Waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment). Companies struggled to wade their way through the recycling mandate from the European Union (EU) and found themselves thankful when many of the largest countries pushed back their deadlines until 2006. This year, Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) is the big target, requiring companies to eliminate six types of contaminates from their products. The big question is will this be a WEEE redeux, with implementation extensions after the July 1 deadline?
“I would be willing the bet that there will indeed be some changes in the implementation deadline for RoHS because, quite honestly, industry is having a very difficult time meeting the letter of the law and many companies are simply falling behind,” says Geoffrey Bock, an engineer with TUV Rheinland of North America. “However, just because there is the possibility of a deadline extension doesn’t mean that companies can relax. I am telling all of our customers that they need to focus on that July 1 deadline and keep working to get their products RoHS compatible, otherwise they are taking a big risk.”
RoHS requires companies to remove lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyl (PBB), and polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) from their electronic products by July 1, 2006. If a company has not filed paperwork with the EU disclosing their compliance, their products will be locked out of the European market. Bock says while he does expect to see an extension, he’s not quite sure what form that extension will take.
“If you look at the industry now, the big challenge facing manufacturers is they are having a difficult time getting RoHS-compliant components from their suppliers. If a manufacturer cannot have the correct paperwork to document each individual component in their product, their product will not comply with the RoHS directive,” says Bock. “This is why we are seeing component manufacturers scrambling to try and convert their products over to RoHS compatibility. But the EU knows there are problems and this is why I think we’ll see some sort of change in the deadline, however I think that companies that have not taken significant steps towards meeting RoHS will still be in trouble, because I’d be willing to bet that the deadline change will be contingent upon a company showing due diligence.”
So why is RoHS compatibility so hard to achieve? Bock says the two biggest challenges are being posed by the elimination of lead and cadmium. Because non-lead solder has such different characteristics compared to lead solder, companies are having difficulty creating electronic parts with solders that can withstand extreme temperatures or vibrations. Additionally, there is a whiskering problem with some of the non-lead solders, which is causing some manufacturers to have to figure out new ways to carry out their soldering processes.
“The cadmium problem is showing up in products where it was used to increase the reliability or speed of an electronic part. Now that RoHS bans cadmium, companies are trying to figure out new alternatives,” says Bock. “This all adds up to what I think will be some reliability problems with electronic parts and components over the next couple of years.”
In some of the companies that have started to create RoHS compatible products, Bock notes a curious trend: dual assembly lines. But he says this is a temporary situation because it isn’t economically feasible to have dual production lines for the long term.
“The fiscal impact of RoHS is adding, on average, 3% to 5% to the price of a final product, and this price should drop as companies figure out new ways to create RoHS-compatible products,” says Bock. “But if a company chooses to have two lines and carry twice as much stock to have RoHS-compliant and non-RoHS-compliant products, costs will stay inflated. I already know of a few clients that are using the same part number for RoHS-compliant and non-RoHS-compliant components because they anticipate being fully RoHS compliant in the near term and don’t want to double up on their materials lists. Plus, the demand for RoHS-compliant or environmentally responsible products will only increase in the near future.”
While RoHS may or may not be fully implemented in 2006, companies that are not taking environmental initiatives like WEEE and RoHS seriously will soon find themselves out of business.
The Global Marketplace
“The fact that Europe is the second largest economy in the world, means that it has the power to change the global marketplace. It just doesn’t become economically viable for a company to create one product for Europe and another product for another market,” says Bock. “This is why we are seeing other, similar environmental legislation cropping up from China to Japan to California. Once the walls are broken down by the EU, others will follow. Pretty soon products with cadmium, lead, chromium and other contaminants will be banned in more countries than not. Recycling initiatives like WEEE will become common place in many countries as well.”
Many years from now, 2005-2006 will be seen as a watershed for the way we treat the environmental impact of the products that we buy and sell. It will mark the turning point for how governments assign environmental responsibility. Starting now, the corporations themselves will be ultimately responsible and Bock says while it may currently present a challenge, the long term effects are worth it.
“Even though Europe may be the only one seen pushing this legislation, environmental product compliance is here to stay and is catching on globally,” Bock says. “Don’t blame the EU for the legislation. The public is demanding products that are more environmentally friendly and the markets are expanding for ‘green’ products. If your company has not started to think this way and adjust its product lines accordingly, best do it now, otherwise it will soon be too late.”
TUV Rheinland of North America, Inc.