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Hong Kong S&T Park tackles China RoHS

Posted: 16 Jan 2007     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:China RoHS  ROHS  IC  semiconductor  HKSTP 

Less than a year after the European Union's RoHS directive took effect, the industry is again bracing itself for another, reportedly tougher, environmental regulation to be implemented March 1—China's Administration on the Control of Pollution Caused by Electronic Information Products.

Known in the industry simply as "China RoHS," the law essentially has the same intent as the EU version: to reduce the use of substances deemed harmful to the environment, or those that make recycling of electrical and electronic wastes difficult and costly.

To help manufacturers comply with RoHS, the Hong Kong Science & Technology Parks Corp. (HKSTP) announced its partnership with CMA Testing and Certification Laboratories (CMA Testing) to provide a complete suite of RoHS substance-analysis services, which will be operated under HKSTP's Material Analysis Laboratory. This service offering will enable manufacturers to determine in detail the hazardous substances present in their products, and know if these fall within the levels prescribed by RoHS.

S.W. Cheung, HKSTP VP for business development and technology support division, said he expects the demand for product-testing services to soar as the industry shifts to more environment-friendly designs. In a talk with EE Times—Asia, Cheung discussed how RoHS is changing the electronics design and manufacturing landscape, and how HKSTP's services help manufacturers address the new demands of the RoHS era.

EE Times-Aisa: How has the EU RoHS affected China manufacturers since July 1, 2006?
S.W. Cheung:A lot of manufacturers had to change their production lines. The big ones had to invest in new production techniques to avoid the use of banned materials. It's very complicated because not all end markets changed at the same time. Europe has changed, but not the United States. To cater to these mixed markets, some companies maintain two production lines—the old one that uses lead and a new one that doesn't—further adding to production costs.

How different is China RoHS from the EU version?BR>For one, the China version is tougher. Its scope is wider, covering manufacturers, importers, retailers, distributors—the whole supply chain. The EU RoHS covers only producers and doesn't deal with the whole supply chain.

The EU version also covers imports and exports, while China RoHS doesn't include exports, as end markets have different requirements.

China's version also has a unique provision where products under its scope should be labelled with the mandatory safe period or the time frame during which the product remains environmentally safe. Product markings should also specify the hazardous contents used in the product and the packaging material. The time frame for this provision is likewise tight, as only a year has been allotted between the promulgation of the law and its scheduled implementation.

The EU RoHS has specified certain product categories as exempted, while China's version has no provision for exemptions, although we'll have to see in March whether that will remain so. Also, China RoHS has a peculiar provision that only China labs certified by the government could carry out product testing. When the test is done by European, Japanese or U.S. labs, the results won't be accepted. At present, only 18 labs have been certified by the China government.

Since there are two different versions of RoHS, what implementation difficulties are expected?
If manufacturers have already configured their production lines to meet the EU requirements, it's already the first step to clearing China RoHS. But as the latter is more complicated, meeting the EU RoHS is no guarantee of approval in China.

What's the most difficult requirement in China RoHS?
I believe the most difficult would be getting into the 18 certified labs.

I think the China government is making the law very strict to show that China is serious in its environment agenda. But a lot of issues are expected to arise when the law is finally implemented in March. The government might find loopholes that need to be addressed. Rules are easy to set, but the problem is implementation. If people break the law, how do you find out and how do you stop them? Many in the industry are concerned. It's the same problem China is facing with the intellectual property issue.

Tell us about HKSTP's testing facilities for China RoHS.
HKSTP does not do certification, but assists the certified labs. We are a public-funded body, so we don't compete with profit-oriented organisations. Six labs in Hong Kong offer pre-screening testing to help companies guarantee that they meet the RoHS standards. CMA Testing, in particular, is our partner.

If these companies pass the pre-screening in the labs, they don't have a problem. But if they don't pass, that's when they come to HKSTP. We have much more sophisticated equipment that can identify in detail the problem areas where they failed. We help manufacturers determine why they didn't pass. Labs, on the other hand, simply say whether they passed or not. It doesn't matter to us if it's the EU or China RoHS they're targeting—our equipment is able to pinpoint the specific area they should work on.

Do you see a rise in the number of testing labs offering similar services?
I expect more labs will be certified to offer general testing services in the future. But I don't see many offering the same detailed testing services as HKSTP because the equipment is very expensive, and companies don't really need it unless they fail the tests. Companies won't want to invest Rs.22.66 crore ($5 million) in equipment they would rarely need.

How does RoHS relate to the electronics design value chain? What do electronics engineers need to know about RoHS for them to be able to come up with better designs?
RoHS has significant implications in design—not just in technology or functional design, although this is very important, but in the materials used. Right from the earliest stage, designers must determine what raw materials to use for a particular product. Their choice must meet environmental standards and the demands of the application it is intended for.

This is creating new challenges in the field of materials development because new materials are needed to replace the old ones that do not satisfy these requirements.

Moreover, because of the Waste Electrical and Electronics Equipment (WEEE) directive, designers can no longer make products that are difficult to recycle. Electronic products generally have a short lifetime. Designers in the past only knew how to make good products, but they didn't know how these products could be disposed of. They didn't consider in their designs the recycling or handling of these products once they have lived out their shelf lives. Because of WEEE, they have to design products that can be recycled or easily disposed of. Recycling or disposing of old products is often more expensive than designing and manufacturing them, so this poses a new challenge to designers today.

Design is no longer just for function. Material and packaging are important as well. HKSTP has anticipated the importance of this field and has opened its InnoCentre facility to specialise on industrial designs, with particular focus on packaging and environment-friendly materials. The goal is to be able to create products that could easily be recycled at the least cost.

On the whole, how prepared are China manufacturers to comply with China RoHS?
The big companies are ready, but the small ones may disappear. Complying with China RoHS calls for changes in the production line, and this could mean redesigning the whole factory layout, and adding new equipment and facilities like waste treatment. The big ones have capital for this, but the small ones don't.

How confident are you that full compliance will be achieved once China RoHS takes effect?
I am very confident. Anybody who wants to be in this business has to be fully compliant. But of course, there may be some who would try to cheat or find loopholes they could get through. But if China, the EU and the U.S. are serious about reducing environmental hazards—indeed, if everybody is serious—those who try to circumvent the rules will be penalised.

Environment-friendly design is becoming important, and HKSTP's role is to support companies by helping them solve problems in material development and packaging design, as well as in energy-efficiency and waste management research. Even in the EU, RoHS had caused some initial difficulties. This is to be expected in China as well. We hope that China will execute the law faithfully, even if it's tougher. After March, I think they may have to relax some of the law's provisions. But on the whole, I believe this is the right track, although companies will have to bear the pain initially or go out of the picture.

- Christine Telesforo
Electronic Engineering Times-Aisa

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