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Getting ahead of 'green' regulations

Posted: 01 Jan 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:green engineering regulations? ahead of environment initiatives? Reach WEEE regulations? electronics industry with green engineering? environment-focused regulations for electronics?

Environment-focused initiatives!such as the Energy-using products directive (EuP), Registration, evaluation and authorization of chemicals (Reach), and other regulations coming mainly from Europe!make it clear that the electronics industry is by no means viewed as "green" yet.

Indeed, numerous environmental veins remain for the industry to mine (and compete on) to improve the environmental friendliness and performance of products. This exercise will neither be easy nor inexpensive. Nonetheless, if it's done right, we might find ourselves achieving what Natural Logic CEO Gil Friend calls "regulatory insulation," which is getting far ahead of regulators that we obviate the need for regulations.

Consider this: The electronics industry defines, designs and builds products based on several factors. They include our knowledge of technical attributes such as the mechanical, electrical, thermal and functional (manufacturability, quality and reliability) properties of the chemicals and systems used to manufacture our products.

We have reached the point where actual knowledge of the substances used in production has been rendered mostly irrelevant or self-evident. What we have generally ignored, however, are the environmental attributes of those substances and production methods. Now, that ignorance has come home to roost.

So how can the industry look at this as an opportunity? We compete on these attributes, but a whole new set of factors has emerged at the environmental level. The environmental attributes of products and parts that are targeted by End-of-life vehicle, RoHS, Waste from electric and electronic equipment (WEEE), Reach and energy-based initiatives like EuP generally fall into three major buckets: material type and amount; energy use during the product life cycle, primarily in the manufacturing and usage phases; and waste minimization throughout the product life cycle.

  • Material type and amount assessments!They consider how much material is used and of what type. The type assessment examines environmental attributes like toxicity and ecotoxicity, which can be broken out into at least a dozen properties that can then be compared for optimal environmental impact.

  • Energy use!In the broadest sense, it considers the energy used in manufacturing products from raw material extraction to refinement, manufacturing and transport to its final destination. EuP-related research shows that this can be as much as 25 percent of the total energy used by products like TVs or computers throughout their entire life cycle, offset by what is recovered during incineration.

    Recycled material has a lower energy value than the equivalent virgin material, since some level of refinement (and transport) is the only common energy use scenario.

  • Waste minimization!This is addressed by WEEE, but it has to be considered in product development and manufacturing, and by industry standards bodies. The typical consumer can't upgrade a notebook computer (aside from the battery and maybe the DRAM) that I'm using to type this. But imagine if customers could order a modular CPU, disk drive or screen upgrade for a notebook and install it themselves. Imagine if we could shrink the 19-inch rack-mount form factor, and eliminate wasted space and materials in the data center.

As companies and as an industry, we must grapple with such issues. In a few cases, we can work closely with other industries to share the costs and expertise of integrating these new attributes successfully into our processes.

- Michael Kirschner
President, Design Chain Associates LLC

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