Regulations, policies, and plans are being adopted around the world which require manufacturing companies of all kinds to implement sustainable engineering practices. These efforts are numerous and are intended to protect human and environmental health as well as the integrity of supply chains that may rely on non-renewable resources. While these regulations largely focus on limiting the release of chemicals—either during production or end-use—that contribute to anthropogenic climate change, most also address the potential hazards to both workers and consumers posed by the process chemicals and materials used to manufacture a product. The electronics manufacturing industry is no different, of course, and every electronics engineer is certainly at least aware of the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS).
One of the most watched of these novel plans is coming from the European Union (EU) in the form of the European Green Deal. This sprawling framework is devised to help EU member states meet emissions targets—namely, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030, as compared to levels measured in 1990—and achieve other circularity benchmarks regarding the recyclability, repairability, and reusability of products. This framework was bolstered by the European Climate Law, passed in July 2021, that legally binds EU member states to these benchmarks. To accelerate the changes mandated by the European Green Deal, the European Commission drafted the Circular Economy Action Plan, which details how governmental and private entities can minimize their environmental footprint while also minimizing the impacts on businesses that these progressive steps may incur. Ultimately, the European Commission writes that the Circular Economy Action Plan will create a “regenerative growth model that gives back to the planet more than it takes, advance[s] towards keeping its resource consumption within planetary boundaries, and therefore strive[s] to reduce its consumption footprint and double its circular material use rate in the coming decade.”1
Like most industries, the electronics manufacturing industry utilizes processes that inherently contradict the goals of the Circular Economy Action Plan. The fabrication and assembly of PCB devices is a power-consumptive process, and it cannot yet be guaranteed that this power comes from a green source (although efforts to reduce power use are ubiquitous and laudable on the part of tool vendors and factories everywhere). The shipment of raw materials, electronic sub-assemblies, and components through a supply chain still (usually) relies on carbon-positive logistical networks such as trucks, especially in the “last mile” between an OEM and their customers or vendors. There are other examples like these but suffice it to say that this enterprise-level waste and pollution generation is not a topic considered when discussing sustainable products.
The Circular Economy Action Plan provides a basic blueprint for “circular electronics,” but the design of truly sustainable electronics requires concerted effort and focus to develop specific technologies, methodologies, and policies. Indeed, forward-thinking companies have since begun to nucleate around what is now commonly referred to as “eco-design for electronics” or just eco-design. Generally, eco-design is the design of products intended to have the greatest positive impact on society and a minimum impact on the environment and economy. In the electronics manufacturing industry, this can refer to the design of the whole product, especially for smaller consumer products such as ICT devices, but more usually refers to the electronics components themselves—the PCB assemblies, wire-harnesses, components, housings, etc.
Some of these forward-thinking companies have banded together to share expertise and resources to achieve shared eco-design goals. The International Electronics Manufacturing Initiative (iNEMI) is a not-for-profit research and development consortium consisting of leading electronics manufacturers, suppliers, associations, government agencies, and universities.2 It leverages the collective experience of its member network to create and socialize roadmaps for future technology requirements. It should then be no surprise that one of iNEMI’s key areas of research is sustainable electronics. IPC is a member of the iNEMI Eco-design Team and works with them to provide webinars detailing specific cases of eco-design by companies including Nokia, Samsung, Schneider Electric, Fairphone, ADVA Optical, Fronius, IBM, Framework, and Barco. These webinars are available for free on YouTube (via iNEMI) and are valuable resources for designers who would like to know more about specific examples of eco-design in electronics products. After all, one of the key takeaways from these webinars was that eco-design cannot happen in a vacuum, and that it is essential to share knowledge regarding specific advances in technology where possible (and not confidential, of course).
This webinar series is a wonderful resource for teams who are doing product design, including electrical and PCB designers. And while a few of the strategies presented therein may affect the whole product, not only the electronics—human-centric design, general modularity for reuse, use of recycled material in product packaging, the intelligent utilization of tools or ISO 14040 to conduct LCA—there are those that are essentially targeted toward the PCB design itself. These strategies mostly focus around three areas: design for repairability, design for recyclability, and design for reuse. Those of you who have used the IPC-2231 DFX Guidelines document called Design For eXcellence may think that at least one of those is familiar.
For the unacquainted, the IPC-2231 DFX Guidelines document provides a framework to establish a design review process for the layout of printed board assemblies. This design review assesses the manufacturability attributes of printed boards, namely design for manufacturing, fabrication, assembly, testability, cost, reliability, environment, and reusability. Ah, there it is: design for reus(ability)—DFR. Yes, at least one IPC document does currently touch upon a review of eco-design principles in the layout of printed boards. However, as of IPC-2231A, these sections (design for environment and design for reusability) are not as robust as they should be in the face of the European Green Deal or any of its tenets of circularity (and likely impending regulations thereof, as well).
I don’t write this to disparage our document, but rather to signal that IPC is aware that electronics manufacturing companies will soon be responsible to regulatory bodies around the world—not only the EU—as well as to the environment. We are actively reviewing the IPC-2231A to revise it within the next two years. As part of that revision, we are making a point to include (among other things) discussion of PCB designers, and their teams can begin to implement review processes for creating and assessing eco-design benchmarks for their designs. As the IPC-2231 is a guideline, these will not be normative requirements, but rather best practice suggestions from the 1-14 DFX Subcommittee and our friends from iNEMI, who will be joining us to help review the reusability and environment sections of the document (and add sections as necessary).
But we won’t stop there. While a revision of the DFX Guidelines document is IPC’s priority, we anticipate that we may be able to expand IPC eco-design activities to include the creation of a new eco-design for electronics guideline that provides a holistic coverage of circularity concepts and how they touch every step of the electronics manufacturing pipeline. We feel that this is an excellent opportunity to make a real difference in eco-design for circular electronics, but again, it all starts with the IPC-2231 DFX Guidelines document.
To that end, if you consider yourself to be an eco-design “expert,” or know someone who is, please reach out to me. I would love to hear how you think IPC can help the electronics industry navigate the new circular economy.
The European Green Deal is likely just the beginning of an explosion of “greening” around the world. While IPC is determined to help electronics manufacturing companies become greener themselves, it will take continued input from industry, both through consortia like iNEMI and standards development activities through organizations like IPC, to produce meaningful change.
When it comes to confronting these new opportunities in sustainability and circularity, I think that we should embrace the spirit of the late, great Stan Lee and say, “Excelsior!”—or as we mortals would say, “Ever upward.”
- “Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of Regions,” Eur-Lex.
This column originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of Design007 Magazine.