One of the thorniest issues in the conversion to lead-free electronics is compliance information. The International Electronics Manufacturing Initiative (iNEMI) worked with the IPC, the electronic industry's packaging group, to offer a standard for collecting, tracking, and disclosing information on the material content of components, but so far the standard has done little to alleviate the confusion about RoHS certification and material content information.
A recent study on the status of RoHS conversion conducted by Technology Forecasters Inc. of Alameda, CA shows more confusion on declaration than any other lead-free issue. For those customers who buy direct from component suppliers, the issue is a tad less thorny. They obtain material declaration information directly from their suppliers. The declarations come in many formats, but at least there is a direct flow from supplier to customer.
For those customers buying components from distributors, the documentation chain is broken. Technology Forecasters found that 48 percent of component customers expect to get material content documentation from their distributors. Most distributors, however, have thrown up their hands, saying, "We can't provide material documentation since we are not involved in the manufacturing process and thus can't legally certify what's in the components." Distributors have been advised by legal council that when they provide RoHS certification they take legal responsibility for assuring the accuracy of the declaration. So most are remaining hands off.
So customers turn to the websites of the component suppliers in hopes of finding declaration information. In the best cases, they will find a RoHS certification document for the component. But they will have to go to another part of the website to find detailed material content data on the component. Then, they're left to decide how to capture the information. A printed screenshot of the documents? That becomes a document storage nightmare if the product in question includes hundreds of components. Another solution is to capture the links to the documentation. But that's problematic because websites change regularly, so the link that's captured this morning could contain different information 10 minutes later.
Many in the industry hope the iNEMI IPC standard will help. "Material composition comes in as many forms as there are suppliers," says Michael Kirschner, president of Design Chain Associates in San Francisco, a firm that helps companies manage design information. "iNEMI came out with a PDF in an attempt to standardize and it's going through adoption." He says iNEMI will release a revised version of its standard this fall. Kirschner notes that another problem with compliance documentation is that customers don't have adequate staff to collect and manage the documentation even if they can get it.
To make matters even more confusing, the governmental bodies issuing directives have not specified what they need to accept a product as compliant. The UK has come the closest to issuing specifics for RoHS certification, but even their guidelines are vague.