The lead-free initiative may be compared by many to Y2K. But unlike Y2K, an industry problem that effectively disappeared after New Year's Day, 2000, the transition to environmentally clean components may last a decade or more. Analyst Peter Lachapelle of I2 has tracked the electronics industry's struggle to convert to lead-free components, and he estimates the transition will last a decade or more. The Dallas-based i2 Technologies Inc. has partnered with UL to provide tested materials content information on individual components that manufacturers can use to indicate compliance with environmental regulations.
Lachapelle's claim is based on fragmentation in regulations and disparities in the strategies component suppliers have adopted—or have failed to adopt—to go lead-free. "This is just beginning," Lachapelle says. "There are a number of other directives coming after RoHS [the European Union's Restriction of Hazardous Substances] and WEEE [the corresponding Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment regulations], so companies will be dealing with this for 10 to 15 years without a doubt."
Lachapelle sees inconsistencies among directives being developed by individual U.S. states as they forge their own green initiatives. "The California laws will be different from Maine's and Maine's will be different from Maryland's," Lachapelle notes. He sees disparities in Asian regulations as well. "China's laws will be different from Japan's."
Some differences are slight—the type of compliance documentation required—while other differences are profound. Some states intend to lower tolerances for traces of banned sub-stances, and some are adding new substances to the banned list.
Testing for Tin Whisker Mitigation
The International Electronics Manufacturing Initiative (iNEMI) will soon release the results of its third set of tin whisker experiments, which total more than 9,000 hours of testing. Tin whiskers are the pesky spike-like growths that occur on pure tin plating, and they're the reason lead was added to tin solder 50 years ago. "Bell Labs recognized the problem in the 1950s," says Ron Gedney, a consultant on lead-free issues for iNEMI. "The whisker problem went away until the European Union decided to pull lead out of all components."
The results of iNEMI's recent testing will include a recently discovered phenomenon in tin whisker generation—heavy oxidation or "corrosion" of tin that occurs in humid environments. The iNEMI experiments are designed to give suppliers a tool to determine whether their components will be free of whiskers. "The supplier community jumped on 100 percent pure tin," Gedney says. "So we set out to find a set of accelerated tests suppliers can use to verify if their components qualify as whisker-free."
Green Compliance Not Getting Attention it Deserves
Eric Karofsky, research analyst at AMR Research, has emerged as one of the electronics industry's leading experts on the conversion to green parts. He warns that manufacturers are not moving quickly enough to comply with lead-free regulations. "Unfortunately, executives will finally pay attention to RoHS and WEEE when their negligent actions put them on the front page," Karofsky says. He notes that green compliance will become a competitive issue in the component market.