What every maintenance engineer should know about RoHS

Jeff Shafer, Newark InOne
Tags: workplace safety
It's true that maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) parts are exempt from the European Union's Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive, which took effect July 1. But it's also true that everyone who buys or uses components is, or will soon be, impacted by RoHS.

Green landscape
The United States electronics industry has spent the last few years preparing to comply with RoHS, which prevents hazardous materials from being used in electronic and electrical equipment shipping into EU countries after July 1. Six substances are restricted – lead, mercury, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyls and polychlorinated diphenyl ethers. While RoHS applies only to the European Union, other countries such as Japan, China and Korea have already proposed or enacted similar legislation with deadlines coming fast and furious over the next two years. Closer to home, California's RoHS-style law will take effect in January 2007. No legislation at the federal level has yet been proposed, but many feel that it's inevitable, as it will be too chaotic to try to comply with a patchwork of state/local laws.

Record number of obsoletes
With the electronics components industry shifting to compliance, a huge number of MRO parts are also getting converted. Many component suppliers expect to discontinue their line of leaded components once they’ve introduced RoHS compliant parts. The cost and complexity of running two lines is too burdensome. MRO engineers and buyers are, or will be, dealing with a record number of parts that are going obsolete. Manufacturers who do continue to produce leaded parts may start to charge a premium as supplies dwindle.

How to handle this? There are a number of fee-based services available in the marketplace that monitor product life cycles, and Newark InOne offers a Product Watch service automatically, at no charge, based on purchase history. (See sidebar below.)

Backward compatibility/lead-free solder
Backward compatibility of parts is also an issue to consider with the switch to lead-free parts. Backward compatibility means that the new part can be used effectively in older equipment. Issues of backward compatibility is especially important in MRO, where lead-free parts being produced now will be used in equipment built long before environmental legislation arrived. Backward compatibility is certainly the goal as manufacturers release RoHS-compliant versions of their parts. Yet 5 to 10 percent of manufacturers have produced compliant parts that are not exactly the same as their non-compliant versions.

One difference that can render a new part not backward compatible is the maximum reflow temperature for the solder. Traditional tin-plead solder has a reflow temperature of about 217 degrees Celsius. Lead-free solders have a reflow temp ranging from 235 C to 260 C. Whether the reflow temps render the part non-backward compatible depends on how the part is used.

“We have not seen widespread problems with backward compatibility of lead-free parts, but we have seen some,” says Janice Fleisher, a manager at Newark InOne. “Lead-free soldering is a major concern for many Newark InOne customers, and we have addressed it with a series of short Webinars (www.newarkinone.com/rohs) that can be viewed on demand, anytime, at no charge.

Inventory issues
Since parts are becoming lead-free even when they’re destined for RoHS-exempt industries, most companies stocking parts are dealing with both compliant and non-compliant inventory. As you can't tell whether a part is compliant or not just by looking, it's important to carefully label, segregate them physically, and keep track of them in your inventory system. Newark InOne does this in its own warehouse to avoid any possibility that a non-compliant part is being shipped when a complaint part is ordered.

Part numbering has been another major issue in the conversion to compliant parts. While the distribution industry asked manufacturers to issue new part numbers for compliant versions, only about 70 percent of them are complying. Some indicate compliance by lot or date code. This is adequate for shipping new parts, but without a compliant part number, problems can arise when parts are flushed back into distribution as returns. Newark InOne assigns new part numbers to RoHS-compliant parts even if the manufacturer did not. That ensures that the part can be identified as compliant or non-compliant at any stage in its useful life.

Another way the company help its customers keep track of their inventory is with detailed labels and a packing slip that gives manufacturer number and name, a part number, RoHS status, country of origin and a English description. The packing slip also provides self-adhesive bin labels with detailed information, including a part number in both text and barcode formats.

Be proactive
Unlike, the Y2K changeover, environmental compliance will be an ongoing challenge for parts manufacturers, distributors and end-users. The European Union is already planning additional environmental legislation for batteries and chemicals that will affect the industries that use electronic components. Some experts predict the changeover to environmentally compliant electronics will take 20 years. During this extended conversion, it is critical that maintenance engineers begin to understand the ramifications of RoHS and manage the changeover effectively.

“We recommend that engineers first take the time to understand the legislation and how it applies to their situation,” says Fleisher. “There's a wealth of material available on the Web. Then look for distributors or other suppliers who don't mix stock in their warehouses, clearly label and flag compliant parts on their websites, proactively inform customers about changing part numbers, and offer conversion services that do the hard work for you. RoHS is a challenge, but it doesn't have to be a hassle if you talk to the right people.”

Critical information and services to help you comply with RoHS

Newark InOne developed a number of complimentary services to help make the transition to RoHS compliance as painless as possible for engineers and buyers. These include:

RoHS Express: Access the industry's first RoHS legislation and technical manual, U.S./Canada green laws, lead-free soldering Webinars, legislative analysis and much more to help understand how RoHS impacts your company. www.newarkinone.com/rohs

RoHS Data Service: Find out which of your parts are compliant, which part numbers are changing, which have compliant substitutes available, and much more. www.newarkinone.com/bom or 800.463.9275

RoHS Electronic Catalog: The catalog offers 40,000 searchable RoHS-compliant parts, and the capability to view "old part numbers" for components that have converted. www.newarkinone.com

RoHS Quality Assurance Policy: Read about the company’s 10-step policy that offers assurance and documentation around the compliance status of components. See Step 4 at www.newarkinone.com/rohs

Product Watch Obsolescence Notification Service: The company automatically sends notices to customers who have purchased parts that are becoming obsolete, detailing the number still available for purchase and compliant alternatives, if available.

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