Monday, September 28, 2009

SMT Assembly Shows Steady Growth in Medical and Military Markets

In the beginning, when SMT assembly first began penetrating the board assembly market, it was thought that surface mount would work for office computer production, but never in critical areas such as military and medical applications. Today, it seems that these are two of the rock-steady areas to be in if you’re an EMS provider.

Much progress has occurred along the way to increase SMT assembly. In 1999, the FCC opened up bandwidth frequencies, spurring development of new markets for miniature low-power RF devices and specialized communication protocols for monitoring medical conditions and delivering medication to patients. Implanted medical devices, such as heart monitors, could communicate with external devices, uploading data to doctors for review without physically transporting patients to the hospital. In drug delivery, new electronics-controlled equipment allows patients to deliver their own medicine but with the added safety of dose and frequency control.

As assemblies shrink, board real estate becomes an issue. Especially with mixed-technology (through hole and SMT) boards, tight spacing makes soldering through-hole and SMT assemblies difficult for small medical devices. Selective soldering can resolve this challenge. This latest soldering development handled the density issue and met high heat requirements for soldering. For those connectors, capacitors, and digital displays still requiring through-hole plus SMT components, selective soldering fits.

Some mixed-technology PCB designs can still be wave soldered with carriers and masking, but stacked and double-sided assemblies are too intricate to be given this individualized approach to mass interconnection. Most assemblies using RF components are too complex to hand solder all of the through-hole devices without errors. Selective soldering equipment can be programmed to handle both in- and off-line programming. The equipment integrates easily with the rest of the automated production equipment.

The selective soldering process — with mini solder wave nozzles beneath the circuit boards, handling precise dip, drag, and small wave actions while flux is handled by spray, drop jet, or ultrasonics — is now a familiar sight. Through programming, the equipment can control the process and maintain line speeds.

Radio (RF) technology has grown at Merrimack-N.H.-based BAE Systems, where the firm recently completed its first real-time test of improved wireless communication technology. War fighters can now dispense critical communications without interruption during battle. The technology allows more traffic on networking systems. It gives users an advantage during air-to-air, air-to-ground, and soldier-to-soldier communications.

Under a $15.5 million Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) contract, BAE is developing wireless radios that can untangle interfering digital communications signals. The DARPA Interface Multiple Access (DIMA) program aims to increase network capacity and performance in highly congested mobile networks. The radios will allow multiple transmissions to occur simultaneously on one frequency and can support as many as five simultaneous conversations into the same time and frequency slot, even in the presence of severe near-far interference.

“With current technology, bandwidth is shared through assignment of unique time slots, frequency slots, or code words for each user, significantly limiting network performance,” said Brian Pierce, Ph.D., DARPA. “DIMA buys back the capacity loss caused by those limitations with technology that separates multiple, interfering digital signals.”

Known as multi-user detection, BAE Systems’ real-time technology enables users to communicate simultaneously on the same channel without centralized control or infrastructure. Recent experiments validated the technology in a mobile, ad-hoc network environment and demonstrated the vehicle-mounted DIMA radio’s ability to receive up to five simultaneous transmissions from different users while traveling at 15 mph.

“By next March, we expect to operate at speeds greater than 30 mph in highly interfering scenarios, and may even operate as high as 60 mph,” said Joshua Niedzwiecki, manager of BAE Systems’ communications and signal exploitation research group. “This would further validate the technology in more operational scenarios. If fielded in Iraq, for example, it could prove vital in areas where interfering electronic transmissions reduce the amount of transmittable military communications.”

With new applications and specialized equipment, both medical and military markets hold steady for EMS assembly inside the U.S. Both serve a growing need for RF communications in monitoring and communications.

Gail Flower, editor at large

Read Editorial Advisory Board member Craig Hunter's take on SMT in rugged applications: SMT Components Toughen Up for Rugged Applications

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

eWaste: Establishing an Environmental Program

In the past several posts of this eWaste series, we’ve looked at electronics recycling and end of life (EOL) management from the EMS company’s and recycler’s perspectives. Today, we’ll look at the idea from one OEM’s viewpoint, and follow this networking and security vendor's internal and external initiatives to construct and implement an environmental program. David Cox, senior VP of Blue Coat Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: BCSI), describes how the BluePlanet program started, their method for laying out an environmental roadmap, and other steps that any company can take to shape their reduce/reuse/recycle program for sustainability and profitability.

The BluePlanet environmental program, designed in partnership with consultants from TFI (see Pam Gordon’s Do’s and Don’ts in the first eWaste post), operates on a company-wide level, interconnected between different departments. For example, the company implemented a take-back program when customers upgraded to new models, recycling the legacy products into their spare parts program. This required coordination between account managers in the field, channel partners, the rework and repair team, and shipping, as well as a marketing push to get the word out to customers. A simple “swap mentality” didn’t yield many returns, and since upgrades occur on the customer’s schedule, not coordinated across the customer base, distribution was highly fragmented. Logistics were difficult at first, Cox admits, but incentives for success included reduced cost of replacement/refurbished units for customers, reduced excesses in component build, and satisfying the many green info requests that come through in a request for quote (RFQ). “This program pushed us to really study our installed base, and there are additional benefits reaped from that,” Cox adds.

As much as the environmental program is global in scale and a company-wide project, it also is reliant on the individual employee. Blue Coat created an E-Heroes program, wherein employees submit ideas for how Blue Coat can become more green. This includes anything from designing products for ease of rework (reducing scrap and waste), considering the impact of raw materials used, designing for the environment (DfE) in new product introductions (NPIs), carbon footprint in travel and shipping, and more — even the kind of ink used on packaging. Since the company’s products enable increased application response times in consolidated server environments, it was only natural to execute a server consolidation internally, going from 85 servers to 3 and conserving energy as a result. Cox said these internal suggestions led to a solid program from the start, with a comprehensive approach and clear goal. As with the take-back program, secondary benefits like boosted employee morale and a recruitment edge were realized.

Blue Coat, like many EMS providers we interviewed for previous posts, chose to partner with a dedicated recycler for some of its EOL needs. “We found that 98% of some products were recyclable or recoverable,” Cox notes. Blue Coat’s hardware, manufacturing, and process engineers took a workshop on design for recyclability (DfR), which can boost this materials reuse even higher in the next product generation. Cox suggests performing due diligence on a potential recycling partner and looking for specs like a global footprint, commitment to correct practices, and satisfied clients. Read more about choosing a recycling program in the eWaste post, “Which Electronics Recycling Model Fits Your Business?”

Blue Coat is over the first few hurdles in establishing an environmental program. The company is now at a point where it can see and understand all of the future opportunities available, and can leverage the steps it's already taken. With the unifying and company-building power of the BluePlanet implementation, Cox now looks forward to determining longer-term goals for the company’s environmental strategy.

Meredith Courtemanche, executive editor

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

eWaste: Which Electronics Recycling Model Fits Your Business?

Electronics recycling comprises several end of life (EOL) processes, from disassembly to data destruction to metals salvage and other steps. Some companies are one-stop-shops, smelting, grinding plastics, recovering useable components, and reselling raw materials. Others partner with recyclers, perhaps performing data protection and initial disassembly then handing over waste to dedicated processing centers. Beyond this are a myriad of brokers, specialists, and other processing/resale points that can make the reverse logistics of EOL more complicated than the traditional assembly supply chain. It is through this multi-tiered network that broken computer parts become flower pots, for example.

Celestica is an EMS provider entrenched in the design, assembly, ship, and after-market support of electronics. However, as Mike Andrade, senior VP and GM, North America, Celestica, points out, the company is not a major physical recycler. Instead, they use their experience with supply chains to design a network of reverse supply chain partners. Today, Celestica handles initial breakdown of waste electronics for some customers and then sends the eWaste to certified recycling partners in the U.S. and Canada. As customer interest and the company's EOL management program grows, Celestica will work to expand with a secondary network of partners globally. “We’re in the middle, orchestrating sustainability, from design for environment (DfE) to EOL,” explains Andrade. Kimball Electronics, also an EMS provider, has a repair depot, which incorporates its recycling operations. The Kimball employees are especially trained in their products, more than a recycling partner can be, so they are uniquely able to manage eWaste components, including repairing parts to avoid recycling entirely.

Li Tong Group is a dedicated recycler based in Hong Kong. The company partners with EMS providers like Elcoteq and Foxconn globally. Electronics recycling can be done correctly and make money, if you have a long-term business model, say Li Tong’s Phil Cruickshan, director, ICT. The company generally buys waste electronic products, processes them down to the raw components, and resells these metals, plastics, etc. This is different than the traditional model of charging a rate or fee for electronics recycling services. Another key to their business model is global, long-term partnerships. Much like the long-term EMS/OEM partnership, this is based on trust, total costs, traceability, and a good track record.

For those about to enter the recycling field, either as a supervising partner or as an involved recycling company, the waters can be murky. Not only are there an estimated 1,100 small recyclers in the U.S., selling to a range of brokers, but the regulatory environment is fragmented and vague. While the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive gives EU recycling rules, these are still unclear in some areas and unenforced, or enforced without uniformity, across Europe. In other regions the laws are even less standardized and enforced. Regulations differ from state to state, says Ed Grimes of Kimball Electronics, and many of these regulations are changing. Without security and enforcement, “recycled” electronics end up in dumps in places like China and Pakistan, creating human-safety violations, fueling the counterfeit components trade, and damaging brand reputations. With electronics infiltrating new sectors, from children’s toys to displays on washing machines, eWaste recapture requires a wider net and serious supply chain management capabilities. Every piece of eWaste should, ideally, be accounted for and traced. Recyclers like Li Tong combine Social Accountability 8000 (SA8000) and OSHA compliance with extreme traceability and quality (IS0 9001) regulation to avoid these pitfalls.

Next week, the eWaste series concludes with a look at one OEM that is nearly 2 years into their environmental program. The company used internal (employee) and external (customer) input, along with green-program consulting from TFI to shape their program, and shares their perspective on starting the green program and where they plan to take it.

Meredith Courtemanche, managing editor

Read the rest of the series:
eWaste: Turning the EOL Burden into Profitable Revenue Streams
eWaste: Is Recycling a Value-add EMS?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

eWaste: Is Recycling a Value-add EMS?

Electronics manufacturers differentiate themselves in the marketplace and for contract customers with value-added services, traditionally design, final assembly and ship, or quality testing. As end of life (EOL) management gains importance — poor EOL control takes on a specter similar to that of an in-field recall — EMS providers and OEMs are considering recycling and environmental programs when signing contracts.

Ted Gardham, director, sales and business development for EMS provider Elcoteq, notes a 10× increase in OEM interest in electronics recycling. “This will spike coming out of the recession, as environmental programs will meet government and consumer demand,” he adds. A recent survey of manufacturers by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) reveals that nearly 20% have been asked to provide “environmental footprint” information to their OEM. As far as end markets go, Celestica’s Mike Andrade, senior VP and GM, North America, notes that while consumer demand/awareness and non-government organizations (NGO) pressure has led consumer electronics manufacturers to be the first companies heavily focused on green, other electronics companies such as those in the server, storage, and communications space are quickly catching up. Regional differences are also prominent. For European OEMs in particular, electronics recycling is an expected service, not necessarily a value-add. Therefore, the quality of your recycling program is evaluated against peers’. Elcoteq partners with Li Tong, a recycling company based in Hong Kong. I’ll cover the various recycling models, and what to look for when partnering with a dedicated recycler, in next week’s segment.

For an EMS provider managing the EOL process, traceability on the back end mirrors the look of a front-end supply chain. Customers are demanding this level of visibility to avoid damaging PR after botched recycling jobs and also to closely monitor costs and resources. The damage poor disposal does to a brand is yet to be fully understood, but the EMS providers I spoke with all saw it as comparable to a product recall: bad press, negative brand recognition, and a destroyed EMS/OEM relationship. Kimball Electronics pays special attention to the recycling of cathode ray tubes (CRTs) due to the high lead content, and cold cathode fluorescent tubes used in LCD displays. Celestica also focuses on data protection when products they manufactured enter the waste stream.

“A recycling strategy is not a stand-alone,” notes Andrade of Celestica. Design for the environment (DfE), modular products that can be upgraded rather than replaced, use of less toxic materials in product build, and limiting the transport involved in the supply chain are all environmental initiatives that should be promoted along with EOL disposal. An environmental management service was a “natural outgrowth of RoHS” for Celestica. The knowledge that EMS providers have built up through lean initiatives is easily transferable to environmental programs, such as eliminating waste (this time, carbon or energy waste) in operations. “A lot of suppliers need to understand that implementing lean to green practices can also help with the bottom line by eliminating waste,” says Mark C. Tomlinson, executive director and general manager of SME. The Society runs the Lean to Green Manufacturing Conference, September 28 to 30 in Austin, TX.

Reduce, re-use, recycle programs are consistently cited by OEMs as a service either expected or desired from their contract electronics manufacturing partners. Environmental initiatives are on many OEMs’ roadmaps, though it will not become a buying criterion for a few more years, Andrade says. “It’s clear that being a green manufacturer will be the entrance fee for suppliers in the years to come,” agrees Tomlinson, SME. Since OEMs face internal and outside pressure to implement green initiatives, they are turning to those partners with a demonstrable skill at managing supply chains, tracing multiple products through multiple use stages, and controlling costs. In many ways, the supply chain overhaul that started with RoHS ideally prepared EMS providers to take this next step and add EOL to their offerings. Once you have a sound, functional system in place, be sure to promote your program and the benefits it can provide for the customer. If you are competing in a market where the other EMS providers also have green programs, note the differentiators in your system, whether that be global reach, monetary returns, data protection, etc. Avoid “green washing,” where the client doesn’t get any tangible data on the benefits of your environmental program.

In the next segment of this eWaste series, I’ll look at different electronics recycling business models and the reverse supply chains involved. Finally, we’ll examine the environmental program one OEM implemented, and how they involved the internal workforce in shaping their green initiatives.

Meredith Courtemanche, managing editor

Miss the first post? Read it here: eWaste: Turning the EOL Burden into Profitable Revenue Streams