RoHS: an outsider's perspective
Chuck Dow, Director of Quality at Lantronix, discusses recent RoHS legislation and its global implications.
Since January 2003, when the directive was first authorised, electronics manufacturers around the world have been taking steps to ensure that their product lines are compliant in time for the deadline.
With other countries passing similar legislation, the restrictions being placed on manufacturers cannot be escaped.
Although Lantronix is in the USA, with considerable presence in Europe, noncompliance is not an option.
The risk of having to stop selling products and the potential of incurring heavy fines is simply not possible for electronics manufacturers wanting to do business in this region.
Both the RoHS and the WEEE directives have placed a huge burden on the electronics industry.
In terms of diverting organisational resources to develop RoHS compliant products as well as the financial impact, this initiative has ultimately affected an organisations ability to develop new products.
Although Europe is the first region to introduce regulations controlling the use of hazardous substances within the manufacturing process, several other countries are following suit.
For many manufacturers where European sales made up only a small percentage of total business, leaving the market was a serious consideration when the directive first hit the headlines.
But, with the growing popularity of this environmental legislation, it is impossible to escape its far-reaching effects.
Hot on the heels of the European Union, China, Japan and Korea are also implementing similar legislation.
However, due to the lack of cohesion and discussion between governments, the rules and restrictions vary massively from country to country.
For example, once the directive comes into force in China the rules surrounding the production of electronics will be far less stringent than those in Europe and Japan.
In the USA, it has been determined that RoHS legislation will be passed on a state-by-state basis rather than at a federal level.
California is leading the way and the other major electronics producing states are expected to follow suit shortly after.
As other countries begin to develop their own plans, RoHS can no longer be escaped.
If electronics companies want to stay in business they must adapt or suffer the consequences.
With the deadline fast approaching, every effort needs to be made to ensure products are compliant in time for the deadline or risk exclusion from the European market by competitors who have made substantial investments to make their product lines RoHS compliant.
With implementing the RoHS standards came a number of challenges.
Luckily, from the Lantronix perspective, there has been a plethora of information to enable us to respond to the directives requirements.
However, rather than simply substituting one component for another, each of Lantronix products needed a complete redesign from the board-level up.
This challenge thus diverted at least 5% of our total engineering resources to product redesign.
With a vast number of components currently in production, making our entire product line RoHS compliant within the given time frame is not feasible.
Decisions therefore needed to be made to determine which products, if any, needed to be made obsolete.
From our base of 60 products, we decided to end of life 10% of our older products and put our efforts on redesigning the other 90% with RoHS compliance by May 2006.
The main challenge facing the electronics industry was the lack of readily available RoHS-compliant components that allow manufacturers like Lantronix to develop these new products.
Not just lead free solder was needed, but all the individual components for each of our products had to be free from hazardous substances.
Until these could be sourced, we were unable to commence work on redesigning our products.
Although the RoHS decision was reached in early 2003, due to the lack of component availability, only in the last 15 months has Lantronix been able to comment on the redesign of our product lines.
With only a few organisations able to supply RoHS compliant components, demand for them by the other manufacturers was immense, ultimately increasing lead times.
RoHS has a major effect on our roadmap of product development, which we are only starting to now catch up with.
Since RoHS is a top priority for Lantronix, we diverted a proportion of our engineering and financial resources to develop RoHS compliant products; therefore our new product development was delayed.
Although Lantronix is an electronics manufacturer, all our product assembly is outsourced.
However, this is also an area, which has been affected by RoHS.
Due to risks associated with cross-contamination production lines, which have previously produced noncompliant products, cannot be used in the manufacturing of goods that comply with the directive.
Also complicating matters further, with the alternative RoHS compliant solders typically having higher melting points of up to 260C as opposed to 215C requires the expensive retooling of assembly lines.
RoHS therefore necessitated that all the production plants used by Lantronix went through a thorough refurbishment in order for our new RoHS compliant products to be manufactured.
The legislation has required a huge capital investment from all those within the industry and unfortunately for many, this cost has been absorbed by the manufacturer.
For many of our customers who have been using Lantronix for a number of years, paying extra for a RoHS compliant product that has exactly the same features was inconceivable.
The decision therefore needed to be taken to swallow the additional costs associated with developing these new products.
Adding to the complexities of RoHS, both military and telecommunications products are not affected straight away when the directive comes into force.
Due to questions surrounding reliability, electronics used within military devices will not have to be complaint however, equipment which serves both a civilian and military function, will need to be RoHS compliant.
Within the telecommunications industry, an additional four years are to be given to complete the transition.
This poses an interesting dilemma for manufacturers; do they continue to produce two different lines of products and deal with the difficulties of managing those two different lines and the need for increased storage or do they switch entirely over to a RoHS compliant product line.
For Lantronix, in order to conform with the labelling rules set down by WEEE, all products carry the required marking whether they are destined for Europe or Asia, which eliminates the need to carry multiple product lines.
RoHS is no longer just affecting the electronics industry in Europe; it is now having far greater effects further afield.
This is the biggest change the electronics industry as ever faced and its effects will touch everyone from the consumer to the large industrial manufacturer.
For all of those within the industry the last 18 months have been difficult, having to redesign existing product ranges and source compliant components.
However, the outcome is a positive one and when coupled with the WEEE initiative it will have positive effects on the environment.
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