Driven primarily by two European Union directives, the U.S. computer industry is in a state of flux that may place ecological considerations on par with profit, speed and bandwidth in the development of new equipment.
In February, the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) and the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directives, went into force.
Basically, these two directives require computer makers to implement product lifecycle management programs (including free take-back programs) and the elimination of certain hazardous substances like lead, by 2008 from production lines.
In anticipating of these directives, which have been discussed for years and follow closely the lead of eco-labeling efforts like the U.S.’s Energy Star and Blue Angel in Germany, many companies have taken a proactive approach to the inevitable beginning the redesign of products years ago, said Amy Wohl, founder of Wohl Associates.
“They’re taking the issues seriously because it’s a business issue for them,” she said. “If the Republic of Germany says you can’t sell your computers here, that would be a big issue for some of these companies because they do considerable business there.”
There are similar legislative efforts to the WEEE underway in the U.S. as well but these measures tend to deal with disposal and recycling rather than the design change required to comply with RoHS, said Frances O’Brien, Equipment Asset Management research director for Gartner.
“They’ve got some years to implement it but still that is going to force (the industry) to start designing products that do have less lead, less mercury and all the bad things that are in these PCs,” she said.
No Lead, No Fan
Japan’s NEC in particular has taken the lead with launch of its PowerMate eco at last year’s August Comdex show.
The PowerMate eco contains no lead, is made of NEC-developed, 100% recyclable “NuCycle” plastic, and uses no fan thanks to its low-power Transmeta chip and laptop components.
Hewlett Packard has also gotten into the act with the development of a line of small-footprint variations of their PC product lines.
Both companies are targeting large corporate clients, not the consumer market for these offerings.
Call centers and hospitals are prime clients as is any ordinary Japanese office where workers are often clustered desk-to-desk in groups of eight, said Larry Miller, vice president and general manager, Mobile Solutions Division, NEC Solutions America.
“The thing the eco does represent is a very clear stake-in-the-ground, line-in-the-sand that it is absolutely possible,” said Miller.
“I’d like to claim that next year all of our computers will be made in the same way, but this is the first in this way and it’s made because we could. So, its the first of a parade rather than the beginning of a revolution.”
While NEC and HP have been at the fore on issues like product lifecycle management and recyclable designs, the toughest area yet to be tackled is the removal of lead from components as required by RoHS.
To get started, HP designed and built a lead-free, proof-of-concept computer in 2002 similar to NEC’s eco but never marketed it, said David Lear, HP’s Environmental Strategies and Sustainability director.
“Lead is a huge issue,” added John Burkitt, HP’s Design for Environment program manager. “To turn that (process) off and turn a new one on overnight its pretty major because it effects every electronic piece of equipment in the world.”
This is perhaps the biggest single challenge facing the electronics industry, affecting the manufacture of some 200,000 products worldwide, said Terry McMannis, Intel’s Technology & Manufacturing Group director of Environmental Health & Safety.
The problem is reliability. Lead-tin solder in use today is very malleable making it an ideal shock absorber. So far, more brittle replacement solders have yet to show the same reliability in arduous real-world applications like aeronautics and the military.
Replacements like the front runner, a tin/copper/silver alloy, also require higher melting temperatures, which can affect chip life, said HP’s Lear.
Bowing to the inevitable, in 2001 Intel began work on removing lead solder from its chips.
Since then the company has made significant progress but is still peeved with the whole affair, said McMannis, since lead in electronics makes up only about 0.5% of worldwide usage.
By comparison lead/acid batteries use 80% and ammunition accounts for 5% of worldwide production.
“It’s 60 years of good, clear experience using this particular material and we’ve decided to change it,” he said.
“If I’m really concerned about lead in the environment, I’d worry about the lead batteries first.”
Where Intel would prefer to spend its research time is on energy conservation — an area the company feels it can have a much greater ecological impact.
It’s chips already exceed Energy Star requirements by 10-watts, for example, only consuming 5-watts of power in sleep mode.
According to Ted Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, while significant efforts are underway at many levels within the industry to address the myriad of environmental challenges it faces, there is a long way to go before the industry can claim green status.
Still, with WEEE and RoHS leading the way, things are moving in the right direction.
“There is some serious front-end design work going on,” said Smith.
“But every time you hear a designer say that, you hear in the same breath that ‘we have to be able to justify it to the bean counters as helping the bottom line’ and certainly not hurting it. So, they want to be as green as they can without spending any money.”