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 Not just RoHS to worry about anymore...

Most designers are aware by now that the European Union has created a new directive that calls for designers to consider the environment in all phases of their design. Now designers must consider the effect on the environment during the whole life cycle of a product and not just the materials banned in the RoHS directive. Because each phase of a design can involve so many issues, and new issues are arising so quickly, being up-to-date on environmental design is difficult. One of the major issues now is with the 'End Of Life' (EOL) stage – with dismantling and recycling being huge concerns. Designers have to find a balance in creating a low-cost, efficient product with manufacturing issues like material cost, regulation compliance, energy usage, and EOL environmental cost and impact. This article takes a look at a few eco-friendly design issues and what companies are doing to find the balance between what is efficient and low cost and what is environmentally friendly.

One hurdle to overcome is education of Electrical Engineering and Computer Engineering students to make them aware of regulations and issues regarding electronics and the environment.  Very few schools have courses on the subject and when they do, it’s usually an elective. Part of the problems is fitting these courses into an already large course load, and another is getting these courses accredited. Everything that is not in a “need to know” category is an elective.

Another hurdle is educating the consumer. Labeling will have to be a big part of this. We are all familiar with the labeling of appliances that show their energy consumption, but what about other electronics? While labeling is voluntary now, soon the EU will extend labeling requirements to a variety of products, but hopefully make it less expensive and bureaucratic. New labels may also include phone numbers and websites that provide information on how and where to recycle and what hazardous materials to be aware of.

Car manufacturers overseas are using electronics to inform consumers of more eco-friendly driving habits. According to EDN, iSuppli said that the new-generation Honda Accord, for example, contains an eco-driving system with an eco-lamp on its instrument cluster whereby the engine's engine control unit (ECU) calculates the revolutions per minute (RPM) information, variable cylinder information and torque-for-MPG information, and the eco-lamp turns on when the vehicle is in its most fuel-efficient mode,.

Some of the questions companies must ask are:

  • Where can companies get the up-to-date information they need to help?
  • What documentation will be needed to show compliance?
  • How can managers overcome some of the remaining critical issues (i.e., uneven legislation across the world, evolving technical standards, limited resources?
  • How critical is pricing of eco-designs or parts as a competitive issue?
  • Who is ultimately responsible – the manufacturer or the consumer?

Sometimes what’s important is to get the product off the drawing board and then work on becoming more environmentally friendly, but that’s not always the case. For example, how do we design an environmentally responsible kettle? Perhaps that is the wrong question to ask if we really want to re-evaluate a product from an ecological perspective. The real question should be focused on what service the kettle provides. How do we generate hot water for beverages with a minimal environmental impact?

The ECMA Standard for design of environmentally sound electronic products specifies requirements and recommendations including:

  • life cycle thinking aspects
  • material efficiency
  • energy efficiency
  • consumables and batteries
  • chemical and noise emissions
  • extension of product lifetime
  • end of life
  • hazardous substances/preparations
  • product packaging

In many cases, incentives are available for green manufacturing. The voluntary Energy Star program in the U.S. is expected to expand. Energy Star and EuP share the same goal: reducing a product’s energy consumption during its useful lifecycle. Launched in 1992, the program rewards manufacturers of electronic equipment that rank in the top 25% of energy performance levels for a given product category. Although these programs aren’t mandatory, without participation, many companies will lose business from the government and consumers who increasingly opt for these products.


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