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RoHS: the good, the bad and the ugly
6 April 2005, News

What do franchised distribution, the independent channel and a chip counterfeiter have in common? The rapidly approaching RoHS Directive looks set to transform their respective businesses in some way.

The franchised distributor should, in theory anyway, have the easiest role in tackling the challenges presented by the Directive. After all, they have direct relationships with the original IC manufacturers, so they have all of the answers - do they not?

Let us not forget, this is a formidable task - there are an estimated 100 000 products affected by RoHS across Europe. Add to that some 13 000 EOL (end of life) notifications per month and the scale of the problem becomes apparent. But precisely where is the bottleneck? Why, given that July 2006 is almost upon us, is there so much uncertainty surrounding compliance.

Recent industry reports cite a growing sense of frustration within the distribution community regarding the lack of RoHS data emerging from the component manufacturers. This frustration has allegedly escalated to a point where some distributors are openly considering removing certain franchises from their line cards. Only time will tell if these hollow threats mark the beginning of a change in the supply chain landscape.

One thing is certain - those distributors that have embraced the green issue will undoubtedly win market share.

Independent distribution, though not at the forefront of lead-free legislation, could still experience a period of uncertainty in the wake of RoHS. An independent's traditional activity has focused on component shortages. With a significant number of components yet to be manufactured in RoHS compliant variants, satisfying any RoHS compliant shortages from within the channel may prove difficult if not impossible. Whilst the legislation is unlikely to generate a component famine, many component manufacturers are still reporting only sporadic demand for lead (Pb)-free devices, making accurate forecasting as we go forward virtually impossible.

The sector that has the most potential to benefit from the RoHS Directive could actually be the criminal fraternity. Counterfeit components, a growing menace in modern electronics, are not that difficult to manufacture. In fact, they are not manufactured at all in the usual sense. You simply take a component and remove its markings. Now remark the device with another part number from a product that shares the same outline package and dimensions. The part number you select should obviously be more expensive and ideally in short supply. Of course it will not work, but that is not important as repeat orders are understandably rare within the counterfeit community.

Thankfully, forged components have been relatively easy to identify due to the primitive methods employed in remarking. Whilst we are not suggesting they are printed with potatoes, they do not usually employ sophisticated laser marking. Even if they make it past a visual inspection, they will almost certainly fail an electrical test by doing the unexpected, or perhaps nothing at all.

Now picture a more challenging scenario: a component manufacturer has been selling a part for many years. It is a popular device, used in various applications, but it contains lead (Pb) - a substance controlled by the imminent RoHS Directive. After much research and reliability testing, the manufacturer releases a Pb-free variant and adds a 'G' suffix to the original part number.

However, despite this new introduction, there are still considerable volumes of the original product within the supply chain. It would be relatively easy for the forger to 'tweak' the original part number to create an RoHS compliant counterfeit. The goods are already in the original packaging, as they are - to all intents and purposes, original.

This 'factory new' product would be considerably more difficult to identify. Moreover, electrical testing will not reveal the fake, as it is not really a counterfeit in the traditional sense. It will still perform as its datasheet suggests it should - it simply contains lead (Pb) on its terminations. Disturbingly, this illegal use of lead would probably only be identified by laboratory analysis, or a future audit by the enforcement authorities.

This extract comes from a series of RoHS component guides produced by Dionics, freely available at www.pb-free.info/guidance_documents.htm. For any other information contact Dionics, info@dionics.com


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