Getting ahead of "green" regulations - Embedded.com

Getting ahead of “green” regulations

Environment-focused initiatives—such as the Energy-using productsdirective (EuP), Registration, evaluation and authorization ofchemicals (Reach), and other regulations coming mainly from Europe—makeit 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 andperformance of products. This exercise will neither be easy norinexpensive. Nonetheless, if it's done right, we might find ourselvesachieving what Natural Logic CEO Gil Friend calls “regulatoryinsulation,” which is getting far ahead of regulators that we obviatethe need for regulations.

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

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

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

  • Material type and amount assessments—They consider how muchmaterial is used and of what type. The type assessment examinesenvironmental attributes like toxicity and ecotoxicity, which can bebroken out into at least a dozen properties that can then be comparedfor optimal environmental impact.
  • Energy use—In the broadest sense, it considers the energy used inmanufacturing products from raw material extraction to refinement,manufacturing and transport to its final destination. EuP-relatedresearch shows that this can be as much as 25 percent of the totalenergy used by products like TVs or computers throughout their entirelife cycle, offset by what is recovered during incineration.

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

  • Waste minimization—This is addressed by WEEE, but it has to beconsidered in product development and manufacturing, and by industrystandards bodies. The typical consumer can't upgrade a notebookcomputer (aside from the battery and maybe the DRAM) that I'm using totype this. But imagine if customers could order a modular CPU, diskdrive or screen upgrade for a notebook and install it themselves.Imagine if we could shrink the 19-inch rack-mount form factor, andeliminate 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 thecosts and expertise of integrating these new attributes successfullyinto our processes.

Michael Kirschner is president of Design Chain AssociatesLLC.

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