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RoHS to obsolete entire catalogues overnight
24 March 2004, News

The RoHS Directive has the potential to create a whole new phenomenon of widespread, simultaneous obsolescence at unprecedented levels, claims Paul Chinery, managing director of Dionics.

Every electronic component will at some point be retired, superseded by cheaper, faster and more frugal product for as long as Moore's law will allow. The root cause of such obsolescence can be varied, from company acquisitions and mergers through to simple economics.

This we all know.

However, the impending Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) Directive has the potential to create a whole new phenomenon of widespread, simultaneous obsolescence at unprecedented levels. Some industry commentators have compared the transition to RoHS-compliant manufacturing to that of the adoption of surface-mount technology during the 1980s and early 1990s. Although this analogy may be loosely accurate, there is one fundamental difference.

The conversion to SMT was generally implemented at a manufacturer's own pace, and so the manufacturing evolution spanned many years. No government imposed any timescales, as the adoption of this new technology was one of choice - and not a legislative requirement. RoHS presents a different challenge.

Accepting current exemptions, it will be a legal requirement for all electronics manufacturers to comply within a specific timescale - by 1 July 2006. With few companies addressing the problem today, the window of opportunity for conversion is slowly getting squeezed. This could result in unprecedented demand for 'lead-free' components literally overnight, creating a supply-chain imbalance

Deliberately ignoring the fine detail, RoHS bans the use of six substances in electrical and electronic equipment by 2006.

Lead (Pb) is by far the largest offender, typically found on the termination finishes of most lead-frame and array packages.

This presents a unique conundrum for the original IC manufacturer. Whereas components themselves do not fall within the scope of this controversial piece of European legislation, obviously they must comply with its requirements if the equipment that ultimately uses them is to conform. Research by Dionics has revealed that not all components are scheduled for conversion, and for the first time future obsolescence can be predicted with a high degree of accuracy.

It is hardly surprising that original IC manufacturers are not converting entire product portfolios simultaneously, as it is both costly and technically challenging. Instead, many have adopted a 'wait and see' approach, converting established products first while waiting for feedback from their customers for subsequent direction. We can foresee the possibility of unprecedented levels of obsolescence as the various manufacturers review their obsolescence strategies in light of the new legislation.

Because of the dominance that commercial electronics manufacturers have over the supply chain, it is almost certain that RoHS-compliant parts will, in the long term, become the adopted standard. Military and aerospace applications, now considered by many as almost niche, may command little or no support for traditional lead-bearing components. For equipment manufacturers not able to accept lead-free components, this creates another level of 'virtual' obsolescence where the functionality exists, but in an as yet unproven package.

The RoHS Directive will inevitably place fresh obsolescence challenges on the industry and it will be interesting to see how they are overcome.

For more information contact Dionics, 0944 24 76 71 33 66, www.dionics.co.uk


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