‘RoHS 2’

As the EC reviews RoHS, where’s the scientific data to support updates?

The European Commission is set to review the RoHS Directive before the end of the year. One of the changes on the table is the addition of part or all of WEEE’s Categories 8 and 9, which include the medical electronics sector as well as monitoring devices.

Circuits Assembly recently spoke to Ken Stanvick, an expert on RoHS – now having been in effect for more than two years – and one of three cofounders of Design Chain Associates (www.designchainassociates.com).

When asked when and if medical electronics would be affected by the regulation, he laughed. “If I had the answers, I’d give you the lottery numbers,” he said.

But then he proceeded to give some solid answers – and raised a few questions of his own. A number of options are under review, Stanvick said. “I suspect the time frame for which way they are leaning will be the latter part of this year or the beginning of next year.” For Category 8 (medical) and Category 9 (monitoring), “the intention is to include them. It’s more a matter of when than if.” One possibility, according to Stanvick, is the continued exclusion of the categories, an option he deems unlikely. Second, the EC may exclude them, but encourage ecodesign. That, however, doesn’t seem feasible. “No one trusts the industry to do it on their own,” he noted. Third, and most likely, is to include parts of the categories. At the earliest, medical and monitoring electronics could be included in RoHS by 2012, according to Stanvick. “My concern is that they don’t have any real good/bad examples of reliability issues with the use of Pb-free solders out there, so it’s hard to convince people who are reviewing the exemptions. Where are the scientific data to prove this is any more or less reliable than what is currently included?” he asked. “The counterargument to [rapid inclusion of Categories 8 and 9] will be that companies should have, in fact, looked at it in 1993 when the whole discussion started to take place.” He believes the EC thinks firms have already had time to prepare. 2012 will provide time for state laws to catch up, but is a conservative estimate. “2014 is one of the options recommended, but the manufacturers look at 2012 as a reasonable deadline.”

For the medical segment, Stanvick is confident “what may be excluded in the category of medical will be implanted devices because they are encased” and already controlled by the FDA. But, for example, for heart monitors – and other non-implantable products – insufficient reliability information exists, so they could be included. We’d be “hard pressed to continue Category 8 as a blanket statement.” They will “include some or exclude some; they may continue material exemptions associated as products.”

He knows many medical electronics companies looking at and even doing Pb-free designs. “They are hedging their bets. There is really no fear because there is good information out there.”

The addition of these categories is only one part of the overall RoHS review. The commission is looking at additional materials separately. They are reviewing existing exemptions (required to be reviewed by 2010).

But again, he added, “based on state holder feedback, there is a lack of scientific evidence. There are Pb-free solders in millions of products and billions of solder joints, and bad news in this country travels fast. If there were a secret liability problem that a company ran into, we would have heard about it.”

Asked about reinforcement for compliance, Stanvick said, “In the US, the attitude is to catch someone not in compliance and make it a headline. In Europe, they want to test products coming in and work with the manufacturers of the products. As long as you are cooperative, they’re not going to put you up as a poster child for RoHS enforcement.”

Europe’s approach has its positives and negatives. It’s a “nice way to do business. However, the downside is it makes people more bold who aren’t making the investment.”

As RoHS stands, product categories are not well defined and there is no consistent interpretation beyond the specific items in the categories, according to Stanvick. One member state may include a product, but another state may say it’s outside the scope. “RoHS is meant to be indicative,” he said. (China, on the other hand, has a specific list of products.) “Interpretation of RoHS leads to frustration with manufacturers,” he concluded.

But this is just another learning curve, he added, just as it was with the transition from SnPb to SAC. And that transition “didn’t sink the industry.”

What is his advice for the medical electronics industry? Right now, they should have a plan for legacy products and how to support them. And with new designs, they should design in a Pb-free system where it makes sense.

Indeed, even with Pb-free components more readily available than leaded today, Stanvick sees the glass as half-full. “I think we are losing tribal knowledge about making leaded joints; if you’re using leaded, you’re the exception.” The lack of higher volume processes using SnPb hastens the knowledge loss.

As an aside, Stanvick mentioned China’s version of RoHS. He said indigenous Chinese companies have somewhat put the regulation on hold, with a don’t-worry-about-it attitude, while the US continues to struggle to be compliant with China’s labeling rules. “I see no rush for their catalog,” he said.

Furthermore, get ready for the next big industry buzz: carbon footprints, or greenhouse gas emissions. “Big questions are coming from significant players,” he emphasized, and “work is being done on this right now.” Companies need to know, “What is the carbon footprint of my product?” This includes harvesting materials from the ground all the way through to recovery and disposable. “This is the next hazardous material, and it’s coming faster than most people think. It’s the next RoHS,” he concluded.

Goodbye Analog, Hello Digital

There were, as of last August, 112.8 million TV households nationwide, according to the Nielsen Ratings. Of those households, a reported 66% have three or more TVs, while the number of TV sets averages 2.24.

Last time I checked, I watch TV in a three-bedroom house that accommodates five televisions. I can move from one room to the next and never miss a thing – overkill is an understatement. Most people I know have at least two, with most in the three or four range. Considering we each have only one set of eyes, that’s a lot of televisions.

The question is, how many of those TVs are ready for Feb. 17, 2009, the day digital-only broadcasts begin? The countdown is on, and even though the only holdouts I know are my grandparents, an overwhelming 98% of Americans have an analog TV at home, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. Like my grandparents, quite a few analog users will be in for a surprise come 10 months when their TVs quit working; 60% of viewers reportedly are unaware of the changeover. They will find out soon enough, and when they do, 48% of rabbit-ear users will opt for the federally subsidized converter box. (Nearly 11 million coupons for the converters have been requested, and more than 500,000 redeemed, according to MSNBC.)

CEA says, through 2010, fewer than 15 million TVs will be removed from U.S. households that receive over-the-air broadcasts, 95% of which will be sold, donated or recycled. Although that number pales in comparison to the total number of TVs in use, that’s still a significant chunk of TVs that will need upgrading.

Surprisingly, analog TVs are still being sold. In fact, the Federal Communications Commission recently levied more than $3 million in fines against big-name sellers for not properly labeling analog TVs, with Wal-Mart hit for $992,000, Sears $1.1 million, Circuit City $712,000, and Target and Best Buy both close to $300,000.

While retailers scramble to label their dwindling inventories of analog TVs, digital units are taking their place on shelves. If you are in the group who doesn’t want to hang on to the relic in your living room (or in your garage, perhaps?) and would rather not fork over $40 for a converter, be sure when you go digital, you find a TV with an ATSC tuner. Looks can be deceiving: Read the fine print.

Either way, manufacturers are looking forward to the greater-than-normal electronics sales brought about by the looming digital shift, for even if consumers opt for converter boxes rather than new digital screens, that means 50 million or more of those new units will be sold in the next year. It will be interesting to see how the numbers stack up next spring, when analog broadcasts sign off for the last time. While it will mark the end of an era for analog, it may also signal the start of a recovery for electronics.

‘Gates Way’ to the Future

Las Vegas transformed into a Techie Mecca last week, as the Consumer Electronics Show lured gadget hounds one and all. While I sat at home nursing my Wii arm after the endless holiday pursuit of retaining pro bowler status, so my Mii wouldn’t lose those sparkly stars on her turquoise ball, nearly-retired Bill Gates launched a “new digital decade.”

The first time he headed up this trade show, Gates was trying to ease word-processing and e-mail use (and battling Apple Computer while doing it). This time around, even while more than a billion personal computers are in use globally and 40% of the world’s population has cellphones, making devices user-friendly remains elusive. The new decade will be more influenced by a “user-centric” trend, says Gates, in which users will no longer “have to bridge between devices” and will be “marked by ‘natural user interfaces’ such as touch screens and gesture controls.”

PC World touts some of these gesture-controlled products Gates referred to: “JVC’s ‘snap and gesture’ system for controlling a television, in which your hand is literally the remote control” and Sony Ericsson’s Z555 cellphone with a “motion sensor that will mute the handset when you make a gesture.” (Sounds a lot like Wii.)

Other best-in-shows, according to CNET.com, were the Philips Eco TV, a 42″ flat-panel LCD with 1080p resolution and power-saving features; Motorola’s Rokr E8, with ModeShift technology, featuring “a smooth ‘glasslike’ surface with touch-pad controls that digitally ‘morph’ depending on how the handset is used.”

Lenovo launched IdeaPad laptops, which include textured lids and “sleek ‘frameless’ screens,” CNET.com also reports. And the answer to the small iPod docks currently on the market is Logitech’s Squeezebox Duet, a network digital audio streamer with a handheld remote with the power to navigate your music collection while listening to large home stereo speakers.

CNET.com also says the best in home video came in the form of the EchoStar TR-50, which takes features of DVRs for satellite and cable users and makes them possible for those still using rabbit ears.

Rabbit ears? Amazingly, there are still holdouts, and I call them my grandparents. Last week on Los Angeles radio station KROQ, Consumer Electronics Association spokesman Jim Barry asserted about 70% of the country has cable, while 20% has satellite. That leaves the rest to the trusty antennae (or nothing at all). However, Feb. 17, 2009, will be the last day for analog broadcasts. Anyone still watching TV via rabbit ears will need a converter box, priced at around $50 to $60.

About TVs, Barry said the space between 42″ and 50″ LCD plasma/flat panels is where “the sweet spot” lies, and last year, for the first time, flat panels outsold other TVs. The next-generation is the OLED, he added, with the “thickness of two credit cards.” Eventually, we will be able to “roll up or fold up” our TVs.

The paper-thin trend also applies to computers. PC World reports Fujitsu rolled out a concept Fabric PC, which uses “e-paper” as its display, making the design light and pliable.

The biggest news at the show, however, was the battle between Sony’s Blu-ray and Toshiba’s HD DVD. Leading HD DVD movie studio Warner Bros. became the latest to opt for Blu-ray, cutting to two – Paramount and Universal – the number of large studios supporting HD DVD.

Sony’s announcement that Blu-ray movies will include portable PSP versions falls at a good time. Wired.com says, “By inserting the disc into a PlayStation 3 and connecting the PSP, disc owners will be able to copy the special lower-resolution version … onto the memory stick in the PSP.”

While Sony cheered Warner Bros.’ decision, others said it’s a Pyrrhic victory. “No side won this week,” said Krishna Chander, senior analyst, storage devices, at iSuppli. “Every day the Blu-ray HD-DVD camps spend prosecuting this standards war represents a day lost in their race to remain relevant. Amid the rise of exciting new digital media offerings like YouTube, iTunes and On-Demand services, the window of lucrative opportunity is closing for both standards,” she said.

However, no one argued over who brought the largest TV to CES. Panasonic won that war easily, with its 150″ plasma, 46% larger than the previous record.

Here are a few other gems that showed up on the exhibit floor, as reported by Wired.com: Sandisk’s tiny Sansa Clip MP3 player; Sony Ericsson’s W350 cellphone; Gateway’s P-171XL FX; Samsung’s SGH-i450 music phone and SGH-G800 5-megapixel camera phone. And LG’s LG60 LCD 60″ flat panel that is a mere 45-mm thick, says PC World.

While flat panels get larger and slimmer, MP3 players get smaller and handier, and cellphones get sleeker and smarter, High-def video “will be everywhere” and 3-D virtual worlds will abound. “The second digital decade will be more focused on connecting people,” Gates said in his final CES keynote. Maybe this time, we’ll get there.

Big Spenders

Ready or not, it’s that time again. It took only a nanosecond to replace the scarecrows and jack-o-lanterns with red and green lights and frosted trees in the holiday display case. Is it me, or do stores begin holiday promotions earlier every year?

It must be working. The Consumer Electronics Association reported last month that consumer electronics alone will generate a staggering $48.1 billion in sales in this quarter as electronics dominate wish lists of adults and teens alike. Some $22.1 billion will be spent on holiday gifts, or 46% of total consumer electronics revenue for the quarter, the association says.

CEA expects electronics to account for 22% of all gifts given, with CE devices occupying two of the top five items on adults’ lists and four of the top five on teens’ lists.

For adults, computers are one step ahead of peace and happiness, followed by a big screen TV, clothes and money. Wide screen TVs moved up to the third spot from No. 11 last year.

The teen list, however, remains unchanged since 2006: clothes, MP3 players, video games, computers, and cellphones. Both groups also expressed interest in notebooks/laptops and digital cameras.

The average gift giver will spend $358 on electronics this holiday season, CEA says.

The Wall Street Journal said, however, that consumers will show more restraint when it comes to buying items for themselves, as the price of crude oil reaches a record $100 per barrel. The WSJ said shoppers “may repeat the kind of procrastinating that delayed back-to-school sales.”

However, it also said the National Retail Federation expects U.S. retail sales to increase 4% compared to the prior holiday season.

It’s not just teens and adults clamoring for electronics this December. CNNMoney.com finds toy companies battling the likes of Sony and Nintendo for top billing among pre-teens.

“About 25 million kids ranging from newborns to 5-year-olds received electronic toys as gifts in the 12 months ending July, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, often at their own request,” CNNMoney said.

What does all this mean? Get out your wallet. That little rectangular piece of plastic keeping you from retiring is calling your family’s names.

Or, maybe, like the Whos down in Whoville [How the Grinch Stole Christmas], you remember what holidays are all about: spending time with the ones you love and appreciating those who make a difference, big or small, in your life. Yes, flatscreen LCDs and iPods are great, but sometimes, when I’m stuck in Christmas traffic and stress begins balling up in my gut, I sadly realize we have forgotten that retail isn’t supposed to run the show, even though it often does. Like the CEA survey shows, your new Mac or PC comes before harmony and joy. Where have our priorities gone?

A Business Continuity Reminder from the California Fires

Last week, when I first heard about the fire in Malibu, I thought, Not again! Malibu is always on fire. But I really took note when the infernos multiplied, affecting San Diego, Ventura, Orange, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties.

I remember in 1993 looking out the window of the Wells Fargo Bank where I worked, watching flames and smoky red sky on both sides of the building. It was as if the end of the world had begun in Laguna Beach.

However, according to national news – and from what friends in the area have said – this past week’s fire in Southern California was the worst in my lifetime. Aside from the claim that my best friend now has “black lung” and my mother dirtied five Swiffer Dusters cleaning the house, fortunately no one I know lost a home.

Yet, the acreage affected, according to an Oct. 27 Washington Post report, was more than 500,000, with at least 1700 homes destroyed. And the damage has been estimated at $1.5 billion, according to AIR Worldwide Corp. Also, as of Oct. 30, some of the fires weren’t completely contained.

With this amount of devastation in such a progressive area, it’s no surprise that tech firms were affected. In response to mandatory evacuations, Sony Electronics’ U.S. headquarters and its nearby assembly facility in San Diego had been closed for three days as of Oct. 24, affecting some 2,000 employees. Kyocera stopped production of chip packaging in the same area because a number of its 500 employees were unable to reach the factory. Directed Electronics in Vista experienced a power outage, while Irvine’s Gateway gave employees the option of working from home. Hewlett-Packard and Hitachi temporarily closed local facilities.

While the long-term business impact as a result of this downtime is unknown, according to the latest reports, these companies did not lose facilities to the flames. Nonetheless, if the wind had changed direction, the outcome might have been much more debilitating – a not-so-gentle reminder of the importance of a thorough disaster recovery plan.

Writing in Computerworld, Pepperdine University CIO Timothy Chester said, “The whole purpose of planning is to make sure you’ve always got options – so that when you find yourself in a situation, you’re familiar with what those options are, as opposed to having to think them through with very little response time.”

A good example of familiarity with disaster options is the case of Fawn Electronics in Elm City, NC. In June 2006, Circuits Assembly recounted the fire that completely destroyed the EMS firm’s manufacturing plant. While a catastrophe, the results of what came out of that fire are a reflection of good contingency planning and a great reminder for all facilities.

Fawn returned to production within a month after following strategic steps, starting with an assessment of damage on the first day. The company had a disaster response team in place to notify all associates. Personnel from the corporate office informed suppliers and incoming material was put on hold. Fawn contacted insurance companies immediately and management called customers. By the end of the first day, several temporary sites had been identified.

On day two, “procurement readjusted the MRP system (which was fully backed up) and began expediting the supply pipeline now that a temporary facility had been located.”

By day four, recovery was underway, with a construction trailer serving as a command center at the disaster site. By week’s end, equipment suppliers had brought in benchtop demo units, and larger equipment for automated production had been ordered. After 10 days, equipment from the fire that could be salvaged was relocated for sorting and handling. By week four, Fawn was shipping product from a subcontracted facility.

In this article, written by Fawn’s Art Rutledge and Kim Boykin, eight disaster tips are listed and they bear repeating. Key concerns to consider for a strong business continuity plan include:

  1. The company should have multiple ways to contact employees and should update contact information at least annually. Available emergency contact information should include contacts for immediate support and relocation.
  2. “Production support options should include a list of facilities capable of absorbing a total loss of facility capacity.” An understanding of agreement options should be available.
  3. “Insurance coverage should be reviewed at least annually and replacement costs should be carefully analyzed.”
  4. “Customers’ consigned materials and equipment insurance coverage should also be reviewed both at project launch and periodically for interoperability with your own insurance coverage.”
  5. “Backup strategies should include provisions for hard copy documentation and designs/programming for unique pieces of custom equipment.”
  6. Design data should be considered, as well as replacement lead-time issues for tools.
  7. “Have a basic crisis communication plan and a means of communicating with the local media.” Employees should know these internal policies.
  8. “Develop a spreadsheet to assess recovery activity status.” This should be a living document readily shared with recovery team members.

Preplanning and communication are crucial, and not just in the event of a massive fire. Threats to Southeast Asian and other area electronics plants from typhoons, earthquakes and power outages are known to occur as well. What is your company doing to prepare for Mother Nature?

Side note: Qualcomm has committed $1.5 million to relief efforts in the San Diego fires, while Arrow Electronics will match North American employee donations to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund. We salute the generosity and efforts of these companies.

‘Lady Geek’ Left in a Lurch

Back in June, I presented a report about kids using electronics earlier in life and with more zeal than ever before (Kids and Electronics: Putting the i in Wii). Now, after a September report by Saatchi & Saatchi, ladies, it’s your turn.

As evidenced by every trade show in the industry – most recently at IPC Midwest – the electronics manufacturing world is represented predominantly by men. So it comes as no surprise that consumer electronics manufacturers and retailers are missing the boat when it comes to connecting with “Lady Geek.” In fact, a Saatchi & Saatchi report suggests that in 2007, roughly $1.2 billion will be missed because of an insufficient focus on women.

Thirty-five percent of female Internet users polled said they’d increase spending on consumer electronics if marketers and retailers approached them better and offered more guidance for purchasing decisions, the report claims.

Remarkably, half the women who responded said they walk away from their electronics shopping excursions out of frustration – both in person and online – when they have trouble finding what they’re looking for. And a third of them do not feel comfortable asking questions, “with one respondent describing electronics retailers as reeking of a ‘strong scent of man,’” says the self-proclaimed advertising “ideas” company.

Almost one in three women said technology advertising is generally irrelevant to their needs, while the majority feel a sense of disillusionment when it comes to brand owners and retailers not understanding the female customer. In fact, many women “dread shopping for consumer electronics,” reports Saatchi & Saatchi.

An astounding 43% of women go shopping for consumer electronics without a specific product or brand in mind, the company claims.

Therein lies the problem: a lack of pre-shopping research. I doubt there would be so much anxiety at Circuit City if a plan were hatched beforehand. For large electronics purchases, I tend to visit Consumer Reports first and comparison shop online to find the best buys. Perhaps these 43% are impulse buyers. Not a window-shopper by nature, I have trouble relating.

I find it noteworthy that only 9% of respondents said it was significant for their gadgets to appear feminine. In other words, ixnay on the inkpay. We’re not buying it. We like sleek black iPods, cellphones and TVs as much as the next guy – without the bling of encrusted rhinestones.

That being said, if women don’t believe electronics are marketed for them properly, then what do they want from companies if not for the items to be “feminized?”

Planning director at Saatchi & Saatchi, Belinda Parmar, said, “Although more women than men aged 24-35 now play computer games, you wander around a computer games aisle in most shops and you’ll soon realize why women are so turned off by the way they’re approached.”

Hold the phone. More women than men play computer games? I find that very hard to believe. If that’s the case, then I’m in the minority. From what I can tell, most video games, like Parmar refers to, are geared toward technophiles with a penchant for blowing things up while tapping into their inner sniper.

I think that if women feel patronized by how they’re approached by electronics retailers, they’re not exactly referring to video games; I would tend to think they are talking about other more sophisticated items, such as laptops, but I could be wrong.

Saatchi & Saatchi says women spend, on average, about $640 annually on personal technology, amounting to a market currently worth $30 billion. Those figures seem rather significant, especially if the statistics of this report are any indication of the market potential should women feel more technologically nurtured.

Since I don’t share the sense of fear identified by this survey, I’m curious, what could the industry do to get women more involved? In what ways are we feeling left out? I suggest taking a more proactive role by knowing what you’re looking for before hitting the stores. That would help ease the anxiety when it comes time to ask questions.