Cleaner design for electronics

According to a recent report, cleaner design could help to boost the competitiveness of UK electronics firms by saving the industry more than £205m a year.

Cleaner – or eco-design is the practice of designing items to minimise environmental impact over their lifetime while still satisfying customer requirements. The process involves identifying how a product affects the environment – everything from its raw materials and manufacture to how it is handled at the end of its life – and then looking at how these impacts can be reduced through design.

The potential benefits of the method can be seen through the successful redesign of one of Fulleon Ltd’s products used in fire alarm systems. The Cwmbran company has made savings of more than £92,000 a year from reduced costs as a result of enhancements made to its ‘break-glass’ call point. Its investment in new tooling, time, prototyping and testing was repaid in just over a year.

Life cycle assessment

Eco-design guidelines were developed and a life-cycle assessment approach adopted as part of the project. As well as an improved product that has helped generate a market lead over competitors, the redesign has also delivered environmental benefits, including reductions in raw materials, energy use, packaging and end-of-life waste.

Envirowise, the government programme dedicated to helping business improve efficiency and produce less waste, has been investigating the potential for cleaner design across the UK electronics industry.

The programme has reviewed all aspects of the production costs and the end-of-use of printed circuit boards populated with semiconductor devices.

Its findings included:

  • companies could cut their production costs by five per cent by introducing current best practice eco-design, conservatively worth about £116m in savings across the industry;

  • every year about 12,400 tonnes of populated printed circuit boards reach end-of-life, with about 8,300 tonnes of the total coming from equipment that was assembled or manufactured in the UK;

  • total potential savings if cleaner design was fully taken up across the UK could be worth more than £205m;

  • end-of-life circuit boards are realistically worth about £2 per kg to recover, generating about £13m from equipment produced in the UK;

  • high-grade components from IT and telecommunications equipment could net as much as £60 per kg, realising more than £79m from UK-made or assembled equipment;

  • the volume of electronic waste is growing by between three and five per cent a year – about three times faster than the rise in general waste.

Cleaner design

As well as the competitive edge that could be gained from the reduced manufacturing costs and the rethinking needed to tackle spiralling waste and its disposal costs, the study also highlighted possible and likely changes in European law that could force businesses to adopt cleaner design methods.

  • The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive will require end-of-life equipment to be collected for recovery, recycling and reuse and is expected to become law in 2003.

  • The directive on the Restriction of Certain Hazardous Substances (RoHS) will mean certain materials must be phased out of electrical and electronic equipment by January 2008.

  • The Eco-design of End Use Equipment (EuE) Directive is in its early stages but aims to reduce the energy consumption and overall environmental impact of the targeted products within the EU – both in manufacture, use and at final disposal.

    The study forms the basis for the creation of an Envirowise strategy on how best to promote eco-design’s benefits and to encourage companies to adopt and develop best practice. The report concluded that support from Envirowise could play a major role in increasing the numbers of companies taking up eco-design over the next five years.

Four free Envirowise guides focusing on cleaner design are already available, Cleaner product design: an introduction for industry (ref. number GG294), Cleaner product design: examples from industry (GG295), Cleaner Product design: a practical approach (GG296) and Packaging design for the environment: reducing costs and qualities (GG360) with supporting case studies, CS326-Product redesign cuts materials and costs (Fulleon) and NC201-Electronic equipment manufacture benefits from cleaner design.

The publications spell out the benefits of cleaner design, which include lower production costs, improved product function and quality, increased market share, improved environmental performance, compliance with legislation, easier disassembly and increased recycling potential and a longer product design life.

Three more guides illustrating eco-design’s success in reducing manufacturing costs and in end-of-life recovery for the electronics industry are planned for launch this summer (2003).

Reducing costs

Envirowise also offers one-day designtrack visits for companies with up to 250 employees from an independent expert to help identify opportunities for reducing costs through eco-design.

The review covers environmental and financial aspects of the product across the life cycle, including raw materials, manufacture, use and end of life disposal. Motor controller maker, Saftronics 2S was one of the first firms to benefit from the scheme.

They found that the modifications identified could reduce the environmental impact of their products by 65 per cent and save the company about £33,000 per annum. Managing director, Bob Tremlin said: “The Envirowise designtrack visit highlighted just how much we can gain from environmentally aware product design.”

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