Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ubiquitous Electronics

This summer has been one of slow improvement for electronics, and also of high growth despite a recovering economy. I spent a good part of July focused on SEMICON West in San Francisco, the major chipmaker and packaging tradeshow in North America.

When I flew out to San Francisco, I noticed that American Airlines offered Internet connectivity for notebook users while in flight. There were many other unexpected changes too, such as having to pay for my checked bag, food, and earphone buds for listening to the movie. But, hey, at least I could check my e-mail. American Airlines now uses Gogo Inflight Internet service on 318 of its domestic carriers, allowing fliers wireless access to the Internet. GoGo’s supplier, IL-based Aircell, also provides wireless connectivity service on 80 Delta/Northwest aircraft, and some Virgin America planes as well. United and others plan to follow suit shortly.

The network operates with an air-to-ground system with three antennae on the aircraft connected to Aircell’s mobile broadband network, and 92 cell towers in the U.S. The equipment weights 125 pounds and costs approximately $100,000. At 3.1 megabits per second, it’s also fairly fast.

After arriving on the coast, I spent one Saturday introducing my three-year-old granddaughter to the public library. In the library, we walked through security walls and finally found the information that Bella wanted to know about: the location of the café and lunch patio. Next, we viewed meeting rooms and met the teachers who used video and passed out flash drives to older students.

Whereas written books are important, the jungle gym of equipment and doughnut-hole seats made the library a fun place to be, even for those too young to sit still and read. “There are the computers for adults, Grandma Gail. I’m too little,” Bella proclaimed. But these rows and rows of desktop computers were on low-level desks, much too short for adults.

“These computers are for children from 2 to 12 year just like you,” I said as I watched her face light up. The rows of computers took up more space than the rows of children’s books. We spent 45 minutes using various drawing tools and looking up YouTube videos.
We left the library with an armload of books checked out using the barcoded library card without a librarian’s assistance. It amazed me that Bella accepted the push-button elevators, sensor-enabled walk-throughs, and computers for all ages, teaching with video and flash, barcoded self-check out, and other electronics devices. What she didn’t accept was the fact that she could not keep the books permanently. Sharing remains an issue.

I spent that week attending SEMICON West. At the Moscone Convention Center, in the Extreme Electronics presentations, I found several developments in the printed electronics area. Novacentrix presented information on their PulseForge Tools, which use coated PET and Metalon ICI-001 copper ink and an Epson C88 inkjet printer. In the flex circuit area, using bulk copper for conductivity and pulse-forge processing (an excimer laser plays a role) can lower the cost of printed circuits, produced at the speed of 1,000 feet/min., according to Novacentrix.

Electronics remain a ubiquitous backdrop and focus that continues to change our lives in every imaginable aspect.

Gail Flower, Editor-at-Large

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

eWaste: Turning the EOL Burden into Profitable Revenue Streams

What does a garden pot have to do with your electronics assembly operations? In fact, you may have manufactured it, or parts of it. This pot, created by TerraCycle Inc., is a composite of 100% electronics waste (e-waste) like circuit boards and computer parts. Directives like RoHS and WEEE were implemented with the idea that less-toxic electronics would be more easily recycled into the consumer and industrial cultures. Recyclable electronics are the focus of many new product introductions (NPIs), primarily in the consumer electronics segment.

In several upcoming segments, I’ll explore the OEM demand for end of life (EOL) management, how suppliers are meeting this demand, what the “reverse supply chain” looks like, pitfalls of bad recycling strategies, and different electronics recycling business models, with the help of top EMS providers like Elcoteq and Celestica, electronics recyclers like Li Tong, and others involved in this growing industry. Let’s start with top 10 do’s and don’ts of electronics recycling, provided by Pamela J. Gordon, president, Technology Forecasters Inc. and TFI Environment. Pam contributes regularly to TFI’s blog, which often has an environment-conscious take on electronics manufacturing. Here are her Do’s and Don’ts for electronics recycling.

1. Before you even think about recycling, design solutions for your customers with minimal hardware — substantially (e.g., 50%+ by weight) or even completely (e.g., software on existing hardware platforms) reduce hardware. After all, your customers are buying “hardware,” they’re buying a means to meet their needs. (The EMS providers interviewed for this series on eWaste agree — the first step in EOL management is designing for it.)

2. “Postpone recycling” by designing products and your business model for reuse. Your products can live useful lives again and again with upgrades (especially via net-based software) and efficient refurbishing. Consider a leasing model.

3. Collect products that your customers are no longer using, and mine them for hard-to-find and/or valuable parts for refurbished units. Reap hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars savings. (Look for more on this Do in our recycling models segment.)

4. Design your products also for high-value recycling. Train engineers in design-for-environment (DfE) principles, including easy-to-disassemble modules for reuse and materials that are worth something.

5. Minimize the cost and environmental burden of product collection; design “reverse logistics” according to minimal distance traveled and lowest carbon emissions.

EOL Don’t
1. Don’t assume that the photos you’ve seen of unsafe “casual” recycling in under-regulated regions are exaggerated; this practice really is as bad for human and environmental health as it looks.

2. Don’t use a recycler that does not offer proof of where and how your products were recycled; the product has your name on it and publicity is given to brands whose companies irresponsibly recycle products. (Those interviewed all agree — no matter who is at fault, when photos show up of dumped electronics, only your brand is visible.)

3. Don’t wait until the end of your product’s design/manufacturing cycle before creating a reverse-logistics and recycling plan; design products for high-value recycling. (This is where the expertise of EMS providers can really make a difference, as they have done this before.)

4. Don’t think that no one wants products at the end of their first use; second- and third-hand sales are multimillion-dollar businesses for someone; it may as well be for your company than a broker.

5. Don’t choose a recycler that outsources the recycling to some unknown-to-you entity. See the first “don’t” above.

In coming weeks, you’ll see more interviews, with information on allocating resources to provide recycling as a service, how to promote this service with clients, how to select a recycling partner or run the program in-house, and the impact of EOL management.

Meredith Courtemanche, managing editor