RoHS one year later: The good news is…the bad news was wrong

By Ron Lasky

When RoHS implementation was first proposed, many feared the worst. Now, one year has passed since RoHS implementation and, for the most part, events have gone more smoothly than expected.

Coming up to speed

In 2005, the European Union (EU) implemented the recycling law: WEEE (Waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment). This law requires the ‘producer’ to register and submit a plan for the recycling of most EEE sold in the EU. Because EU countries needed to set up infrastructure to manage WEEE registrations, implementation has progressed more slowly than previously anticipated.

The companion law to WEEE is RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances). RoHS took effect July 1, 2006. This law limits the use of lead, mercury, and hexavalent chromium, as well as two flame retardants used in plastics (PBDE and PBB), to less than 0.1 % ‘per homogeneous material’. RoHS law also restricts the use of cadmium to less than 0.01%.

Most people incorrectly think the primary intent of RoHS is to protect the environment. In truth, the fundamental purpose of RoHS is to make recycling EEE easier and safer.

In the late 1990s, only ten percent of EEE was recycled. To help put this in perspective, considering the volume of EEE being produced and in circulation throughout the world today when compared to more than fifteen years ago…it’s easy for everyone to see it is more difficult to work toward accomplishing a current target of 100% recycling if the electronics in today’s world contain materials recognized as hazardous.

Concerns in the corner office

  • Changing my manufacturing process to be RoHS compliant is daunting
    While this task is significant, companies like Motorola and IBM, have worked on RoHS compliance since the late 1990s. By writing papers on their successes and working with their suppliers, a large experience base in establishing RoHS compliant assembly has been developed.Therefore, solder paste and component vendors, PCB, SMT assembly equipment, and other suppliers can help executives a great deal in implementing RoHS. Also, companies can review proceedings of industry organizations such as SMTA or IPC to gather information that will aid in their RoHS compliance plans.
  • What if my products fail in the field? Everyone knows lead-free solder reliability is unproven
    Tin-lead solder has 100 years of reliability data history and is a tough act to follow. However, organizations such as iNEMI, and various individual companies, have performed tens of millions of dollars of lead-free reliability testing since the late 1990s.Add to this, more than 200 million lead-free-soldered cellular phones have been operating in the field since 2001. This field data indicates the reliability of lead-free assemblies is equal to, or better than, tin-lead soldered assemblies. While laboratory studies suggest lead-free solder does not perform as well in high-stress applications, such as might occur in a ‘drop test’, many applications with these types of concerns (i.e. military) are currently exempted from RoHS. Meanwhile, alloy developmental work to address lead-free shortcomings is already underway.

  • What if my EEE products don’t pass RoHS-customs inspection?
    Many executives dreaded the dawn of July 1, 2006 with the same trepidations experienced with ‘Y2K’. Companies feared their EEE would get stopped by EU customs (even those with strong feelings they were RoHS compliant).Instead, the EU appears to have taken a more friendly and helpful stance for companies sincerely trying to do the right thing vis-à-vis RoHS. The EU has not yet made ‘examples’ of companies failing RoHS inspections if the company’s intent is to comply.So, if your company shows a positive attitude, it appears the EU will work with you to help you comply.
  • What about China RoHS?
    China RoHS was implemented March 1, 2007. At the time of writing this article, China RoHS is still only a labeling law. Hence, companies need only disclose which hazardous materials are in their EEE.

What else should I be thinking about?

Right now, the biggest threat to executives in the electronics industry and EEE is counterfeit components., June 2007

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