Skip to Main Content

Chips and Drivers: With legislation looming, Bay State takes charge in getting the lead out

By Used with permission from Mass High Tech Online. By Matthew French

Leave it to the European Union and Japanese to impose rules that will undoubtedly affect the way U.S. companies do business.

However, it should be no surprise that companies and organizations from New England are leading the way in meeting the new challenge.

At stake is more than just New England businesses. At stake is the very method by which electronics have been manufactured for decades.

In short, the EU and Japan are looking to ban lead in the electronics and electronic components they import from the United States. Lead has, since the dawn of the electronics era, been a staple component in everything from printed circuit boards to monitors. It’s a material that binds well and adopts a more malleable form when subjected to heat.

It has been, in effect, the glue that holds the electronics industry together.

But those days are coming to an end. Lead is now the villain, the enemy, the contaminant of landfills and groundwater. Lead is quickly going the way of asbestos, and there are few advocates lobbying for its use in anything. Even sportsman are having to respond to lobbying efforts to remove it from fishing weights and bird shot.

The EU has legislation pending that would require companies to comply by January 2006. That date has been pushed back as compliance has proved to be more difficult than anticipated. Japan’s industries are taking the lead in that island nation, and regulating themselves as a marketing tool, according to Liz Harriman, associate director for research at The Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

“Japanese companies are able to call themselves ‘more green’ by offering electronics and components that don’t have lead,” she said. “They are leading the charge there, but the EU is leaving it up to the legislating bodies to make it mandatory.”

“Like the ISO 9000, there is a movement to make lead-free electronics the standard,” said Dr. Sammy Shina, a professor of mechanical engineering at UMass-Lowell. “TURI has sponsored my research for about seven years and has been involved in helping to reduce the effluent from soldering and the plating for printed wiring boards.”

Obviously, the interest in developing lead-free electronics extends beyond New England, as practically every electronics company will have to comply if it hopes to do business overseas. But at least eight New England companies have teamed up with TURI to form the Lead-Free Electronics Consortium: M/A Com of Lowell, BTU International of Billerica, Schneider Automation of North Andover, Texas Instruments in Attleboro, Lexington’s Raytheon, Sanmina-SCI of Haverhill, Analog Devices in Wilmington and Air Products and Chemicals facility in Marlborough.

“Massachusetts companies started their involvement in this about three years ago by providing the time, money, space and materials for research,” Shina said. “They would propose different materials be used instead of lead, but they quickly learned it’s not just using a new material, it involves a completely new manufacturing process. The main concern is that whatever lead alternative emerges be as reliable as lead has been.”

Instead of using a mixture of lead and tin, the most suitable substances thus far have proved to be nickel, a nickel-silver composite or copper. But all of those materials require a higher temperature to melt, making them more difficult bonding and sealing materials with which to work.

Massachusetts isn’t the only place to form a consortium of expert companies to study and research the issue. The National Electronics Manufacturing Initiative (NEMI) has a similar study, but it costs more to enter that program than many companies can afford, Harriman said.

“Everyone, from the large original equipment manufacturers to the outsourced manufacturers to the small chip and board makers, will be affected by this,” she said. “Our consortium will provide its information to those who can’t spend the money to join the NEMI project.”

Harriman said that companies in the U.S. have been reluctant to change for two reasons: lead is easy and reliable to work with, and lead is cheap. Very cheap.

The green politics of Europe and Japan’s small geographic footprint dictates that lead in landfills in those regions is a political and health care hot button.

Change never comes easily, but when the world collectively says “jump,” even the powers-that-be of corporate America start leaping through hoops.