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Electronics design wises up to environmental woes

Posted: 16 Jun 2014  Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:design  recycle  sustainability  environment 

The creation of a new product entails decisions made by an engineer or designer that affect the end-customer, as well as the supply chain and the environment. Thusly, careful judgements improve the prospects of waste reduction throughout the supply chain, guaranteed adherence to regulatory demands, and recyclable, longer-lived end products.

For the designer, designing for the full life of the product becomes a balancing act. A variety of factors, including manufacturability, costs, durability, recyclability, and user experience, must each be considered and weighed.

"Especially in electronics, the supply chain is very messy and very complex," said Carole Mars, research manager for the electronics, toys, general merchandise, and home and personal care sectors for the Used Electronics Management Innovation Workgroup at The Sustainability Consortium.

A number of realities in the electronics industry add to the difficulty in addressing design-for-environment questions. "Electronic parts are being miniaturized, and the more miniaturized they are the harder it is to take the product apart and recycle it," said Wayne Rifer, director of research and solutions for the Green Electronics Council. "In addition, products are being manufactured with more types of material in them."

Open the windows

Further, the complexity and breadth of the supply chain can get in the way of understanding the full implications of design choices. "The first challenge is understanding the supply chain beyond first-tier suppliers," said Karl R. Haapala, assistant professor at the School of Mechanical, Industrial, and Manufacturing Engineering at Oregon State University. "There is a lot of opacity around what's happening beyond that point," Haapala added. "OEMs should work to know where materials come from, what processes have been used in making them, and even the workforce that is being used."

Open lines of communication can lead to better and smarter product design decisions. Contract manufacturers and electronics distributors are working to do their part by providing free information on how to design in an eco-friendly way with different parts.

"Companies like Avnet, Arrow, Mouser, and Future Electronics are putting together better design guides, and a bunch of contract manufacturers, including Jabil and Flextronics, are doing the same thing for developers," said William Lumpkins, chair of the 1874P Standards Working Group at the IEEE. "By working together, everyone saves a lot of money and hassle."

Reduce, reuse, recycle

As a first step, it's critical to consider the full life cycle of the product when creating a new design. "The funny thing about this is that it's not a new idea," said Lumpkins. "Now, though, OEMs are realising that everyone will save money. It's starting to come together and there's a convergence."

In designing for the environment, it's important to think carefully about how to use materials more efficiently. "There's a lot of environmental impact that can be traced back to the types and amounts of materials being used," said Haapala. "We have to figure out how to design to do more with less, essentially, and that's a big challenge."


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