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As of July 1, a new set of environmental regulations will come into effect in Europe designed to divert electronics equipment from landfill sites and restrict the use of seven particular hazardous substances, including cadmium, mercury and lead—which has served as the base for lead solder for years.While the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive is only applicable in the European Union, it is having a global impact on component supplies, product life cycles, and even costs across the broadcast and production industries. This applies to almost everything from cameras to monitors, from computers to storage arrays, from Sony CineAlta to Apple iPod—all of the gear that has relied on lead solder.RoHS focuses on the subcomponents of the electronics industry, limiting the percentage of lead in every so called “homogenous material,” which means that every little subcomponent on a green wafer board has to be broken down to its essential “indivisible” components, and there can be no more than 0.1 percent of lead in any of them.“It’s a very granular approach to the problem,” said Roger Crumpton, CEO of the International Association of Broadcast Equipment Manufacturers (IABM).“What it effectively means is that most products have to be redesigned and manufactured with compliant components,” he explained. “And people make products for a global market. Other than some small, specialist local suppliers, the majors will all make one product, and it’ll be a compliant one.”Unfortunately, it’s not just a matter of swapping one subcomponent for another. In fact, for manufacturers in this sector it has become a major headache. There are reports that component suppliers haven’t produced compliant products quickly enough, or the low volume on professional gear doesn’t justify creating a compliant version at all.“So, some manufacturers have had to make products obsolete that might not otherwise be obsolete, because they can’t manufacture them in a compliant form,” said Crumpton.“For example, if you go to a copper-silver alloy for soldering, the temperature goes up by 20 degrees and then the board warps and separates, because it was never designed to be soldered at those temperatures,” he explained. “So it’s adding a huge amount of expense… You’ve got to go through your bill of materials for every product you manufacture—you’ve got to evaluate the content of noncompliant materials; you’ve got to identify components, replace them, phase that into manufacturing, document it, test it, ship it, and so on. It has had a huge financial impact on the industry.”He stressed that these problems can be solved with a variety of other alloys (including tin, silver and copper-based alloys), but many have predicted that there could be issues and unforeseen side effects, in particular with field equipment like cameras. How will it work in the desert, the arctic or the humidity of El Salvador?“You can simulate it, but you don’t really know,” said Crumpton.Many of these manufacturing processes haven’t been fully developed, and redesigning a wafer board requires a lot of R&D and real-world testing on the part of manufacturers to ensure that their compliant gear will maintain the same quality that customers are used to.And soon, even the small regional suppliers, who only sell in the US market will have to deal with the fact that they can’t get their lead-based sub-components anymore, and suddenly will have to redesign their hardware.The IABM, which represents over 220 manufacturers, including the who’s who of the industry, is helping them sort out their compliance issues with a special interest group, legal advice and shared resources. But, Crumpton explained, “we’re not on a mission to try to stop the law, or change it, because we don’t think that’s achievable.”In fact, it’s way too late for that.“Nobody woke up to this early enough—the broadcast industry and the IABM included—because the time to lobby was five years ago,” he explained. “Now the view is that if the consumer electronics industry can’t change their minds, then frankly, the broadcast industry isn’t going to either.”To make matters even more complicated, the Japanese and Chinese have passed similar regulations, but they don’t include the same “special exemptions” that the EU has granted, creating an absolute minefield for manufacturers who want to ship one product worldwide.“You’ve got a situation where a company has studied all of this, made changes in their manufacturing, understood the regulatory regime, understood what exemptions apply, and generally got their act together, and then suddenly the Chinese regulations aren’t giving exemptions. So even if companies are being conscientious, which many of them are, they’re finding it really hard.”With recent studies predicting that the average British citizen is likely to produce somewhere around three metric tons of electronics waste products in their lifetime, it’s easy to understand why the EU is taking these measures.“It’s very difficult to argue with the underlying principal,” said Crumpton. “But the implementation has been very poor and very badly managed by governments and suppliers.”

Written by Scott Lehane

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