Promoting a Circular Economy in Electronics Manufacturing

AJ Gonzalez | September 4, 2020

September 3, 2020 | Pete Starkey, I-Connect007

Organised by the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration in Berlin, Germany, the sixth international Electronics Goes Green Conference—exploring scientific and environmental aspects of green electronics technologies and products—could not be held as a physical event in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was creatively rearranged into a virtual format.

I was intrigued by the subject of a workshop session presented by iNEMI as a Zoom interactive video webinar, entitled “Promoting a Circular Economy Through Best Practices in Eco-Design and a Standardized Procedure for Extended Reliability Assessment.”

What is a circular economy? According to Wikipedia, it’s an economic system aimed at eliminating waste and the continual use of resources by utilising reuse, sharing, repair, refurbishment, remanufacturing, and recycling to create a closed loop.

Interested to learn more, I registered to attend and was rewarded by a fascinating insight into innovative eco-design and extended reliability from the perspective of iNEMI’s roadmap, which defines the state-of-the-art in the electronics industry, identifies its future sustainability needs, and sets R&D priorities.

Grace O’Malley, iNEMI vice president of technical and project operations, welcomed workshop delegates, briefly described the structure and objectives of iNEMI and its recent sustainability activities, and invited Tom Okrasinski. As the senior manager of product environmental engineering at Nokia Bell Laboratories and chair of the sustainable electronics roadmap technical integration group, Okrasinski moderated the session.

Okrasinski set the stage with a sunburst chart, illustrating the gaps and sustainability needs revealed in the 2019 iNEMI roadmap. Of the 13 high-priority gaps identified, the top five were (1) materials regulations, (2) data collection in the supply chain, (3) increasing materials recycling content in pursuit of a circular economy, (4) the harmonisation of value recovery framework, and (5) the harmonisation of sustainable design criteria. From these five, it was intended to prepare proposals for development into projects within iNEMI. Okrasinski introduced two speakers to discuss proposed topics in detail.

First was Juan Dominguez, a supply chain engineer with Intel, on the subject of extended reliability assessment for electronic components. He discussed opportunities for using ICT products and components beyond their initial design life whilst maintaining their intended performance and reliability. The motivation for the proposal made reference to the report of Eionet—the European Environment Information and Observation Network—and to the roadmap of the U.S.-based REMADE Institute, aimed at accelerating the adoption of the circular economy by mitigating technical and economic barriers to material recycling, recovery, remanufacturing, and reuse.

Strategies for remanufacturing and refurbishment required an understanding of the difference between end-of-life and end-of-use. For electronic materials, end-of-use was typically set by use-condition standards, but actual end-of-life was not well characterised—although there were societal and environmental motivations to increase the lifetime of electronics. Customers preferred to reduce the buying cycle and upgrade via software and additional services. Future legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would also motivate a push for an increased lifetime of components.

Dominguez discussed degradation and failure mechanisms in systems, remarking that there were numerous possible failure modes and interactions, and listing several overstress and wear-out mechanisms. When considering the challenges of assessing the actual lifetime of system components, there were two options. The system-level option was very complex because it required all components to be assessed, with interactions and functional tests available for the system. The more straightforward component-level option required that failed components could be isolated and removed, and then reattached to the system as needed. Member feedback was sought regarding these two options—the second being preferred for simplicity—and the iNEMI project proposal for extended reliability assessment of electronic components was a topic for discussion.

The motivation for the proposal was that electronic components might be more reliable than would be assessed using existing standards, the life of a product could be extended, and the consumption of resources reduced. But presently, there was limited data for assessment of extended reliability, and no standard process existed. It was proposed to develop a standardised procedure for components to be assessed, classified, and selected for refurbishment or reassembly for extended use beyond their nominal life.

The second topic was presented by Julio Vargas, global battery programme manager with IBM, who discussed innovations in eco-design, what best practices had been adopted, and how resource efficiency could be promoted on a global level.

The primary goal of innovators in the eco-design space was to drive and socialise eco-design best practices in the industry to meet circular economy goals. Design teams were keen to build a knowledge base for eco-design, but there was limited academic training available and limited industry discussion around the subject. It was clear that eco-design could influence manufacturing, maintenance, packaging, branding, and end-of-life, and that pressure from consumers could move voluntary standards to become mandatory in the future. Therefore, the intention was to develop a list of best practices used by industry leaders in eco-design, identifying those that would have the greatest impact on society and the environment, and to advance the ability of the industry to implement them.

Areas of focus included ICT design practices, maximising positive impact on society whilst minimising impact on the environment, designing for energy efficiency and low power consumption, material choices and recycled content, design for reuse, refurbishment and recyclability, battery choices, and choices for specific chemicals such as flame retardants. Relevant standards establishing base eco-design requirements were EU eco-design directive 2009/125/EC, CEN/CLC/JTC 10—energy-related products: material efficiency aspects for eco-design—and IEC62430:2019—environmentally conscious design (ECD): principles, requirements, and guidance.

Vargas listed key principles for the eco-design of ICT hardware under the headings energy use, materials, and design for the environment, and gave examples of the innovative actions and published strategies of certain iNEMI members, including IBM, Dell, Intel, Microsoft, and Nokia. The next steps were to finalise the scope and feasibility of the proposed project, identify who would be interested in participating, define the deliverables and expected benefits, determine by literature search what had already been done, identify the innovators, and then launch the project. Open discussion would be aimed at understanding the biggest challenges seen by individual organisations in implementing eco-design practices at the product development stage and identifying the key eco-design tools they were using.

In roadmapping the future sustainability needs of the electronics industry, the iNEMI technical integration group highlighted some key challenges and opportunities associated with the realisation of a circular electronics economy. This virtual workshop offered an occasion to engage with industry leaders and to understand how collaborative efforts could be leveraged to achieve the objective.

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