Component distributors have taken up the duty of providing environmental information to their customers. All of the major distributors have developed Web-based data centers to help customers understand green directives and allow visitors to check on the compliance status of individual component manufacturers. Some distributors such as TTI Inc. of Fort Worth, TX, Newark InOne of Chicago, Phoenix-based Avnet Inc. and Arrow Electronics Inc. of Melville, NY have put together view-on-demand Webinars explaining the details and issues involved in environmental compliance. TTI produced a series of RoHS Webinars last fall that were initially attended by 1,400 people. The Webcasts are still viewed by dozens each week.
Distributors have worked to mitigate some of the confusion and difficulties associated with the transition to green parts. Thorny issues have plagued the move to compliance. There are lingering questions about how to suppress tin whiskers. There is an industry battle over whether suppliers should issue new part numbers for lead-free components. There is also plenty of confusion about compliance certification and materials declaration. Distributors have stepped in to educate their customers and help alleviate some of these problems.
Some distributors such as Avnet and Newark InOne have created their own labels that indicate whether a part is RoHS compliant or not. Collectively, distributors have asked component makers to ascribe new part numbers to lead-free versions of their components. The National Electronic Distributors Association formally issued a letter to the industry asking for new numbers. About 65 to 70 percent of component manufacturers have complied.
For the remainder, its a toss up. Some will issue new numbers, some won't. Avnet and Newark InOne have added their own labels to help clear up the confusion. "We've gone with a new label on all our products," says Jeff Shafer, SVP or products at Newark InOne. "The label has a description that declares whether the component is RoHS complaint or not." Newark InOne has also issued a catalog that is entirely made up of RoHS-complaint parts.
Shafer notes that customers need to know more than simply whether a part is lead-free or not. Design engineers also need to know details about the solder. "A lot of people look to see if the component is RoHS compliant or not, but they don't know the solder details," says Shafer. "They need to know about the temperatures involved, whether they need to be at 230 degrees or 260 degrees."
As engineers design products that will be distributed beyond the July 1, 2006 RoHS deadline, they need to find compliant parts. Many distributors now provide alternatives for parts that are not yet compliant. "We list substitutes. You can go on our website and click on a product and it offers a RoHS-compliant substitute," says Shafer. "Our sales staff is also trained to meet with the customer and talk about overall compliance capabilities, especially as it relates to the bill of materials."
For small- and medium-size OEMs, the distributor becomes the conduit for compliance information. The smaller OEM cannot easily go to each and every component supplier for compliance data. "We're a data communicator. When customers are buying parts, we have a responsibility to say whether the part is complaint," says Darr Greenhalgh, director of supply chain solutions for Arrow. "We also provide information about what's going on with regulations and we explain how they affect our customers." To this end, Arrow has presented 200 seminars worldwide.
Selecting components for environmental compliance has become part of the BOM scrubbing service at many distributors. "Our customer can take their bill of materials and bounce it against our database and it will tell them whether the parts are compliant," says Greenhalgh. "The tool actually has the ability to proactively change out the parts that are not compliant."
Distributors have kept an arms-length distance between the supplier information and the design engineer. Since the distributor is not involved in the manufacturing process of the component, the distributor can't vouch for the material content of the part. Instead, distributors are pushing supplier information through to customers without altering it. "We pass through information from suppliers as we get it," says Greenhalgh. "We don't generate the data, we just pass it through, acting as the medium. If the customer has 50 suppliers, we can funnel all of the data related to compliance."
Since suppliers have not yet standardized on compliance data, distributors tend to gather and pass along as much information as they can get from individual suppliers. "We collate all of our manufacturers' press releases on their compliancy," says Rob Birse, director of marketing communications at Allied Electronics Inc. in Fort Worth, TX. "Since there is no standard in place for material declaration, we collect everything we can from the supplier and make it available to our customers online."
Standards on material declaration and compliance certification are still in development by industry groups such as IPC and RosettaNet. But design engineers need the data now, so distributors are gathering it in all its varied forms. "We've made recommendations to the industry early in the game, but some of the standards are only coming to fruition today or just two days ago," says Jerry Czerwonka, director of quality at Avnet. "Since standardization is coming late in the game, everybody is doing it slightly differently. So all we're able to do is list the links to the different component manufacturer websites." The links go directly to the manufacturer's lead-free information.
For distributors, the information goes both ways. As well as sending supplier data down to customers. Distributors are also running information from customers back up to suppliers. "We're making recommendations to the component manufacturer based on what the end customer really wants," says Czerwonka. "We surveyed our customers and brought the results forward to our suppliers."
Distributors also have the challenge of stocking a proper mix of lead-free and leaded parts. For at least the next year, distributors will likely have to stock both products. "For a while, customers will need both leaded and lead-free," says Hecht. "That puts us in an interesting predicament. We have to keep a little of both. We have lead-free on the shelf now, but we're also keeping some leaded."
One of the most important roles for distributors during the transition to lead-free is education. Distributors have stayed on the leading edge of developments so they can turn to their customers and pass along what they've learned.
Most distributors have created internal teams of compliance experts who follow new developments and communicated those down to the customer in webcasts, emails and articles. "We assigned a RoHS expert to each or our branches and we have monthly conference calls to keep them up on the issues as well as updating them on what's transpired over the past 30 days," says Conrad. "We co-sponsored 16 seminars during the first six months of this year. They were one-day events that looked at all aspects of RoHS, from manufacturing through the supply chain. They were a smashing success."