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Australian electronics contract manufacturers getting ready for RoHS

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AS the 1 July deadline for the European Union’s Reduction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) rapidly approaches, Australian contract manufacturers are working hard to make sure they have the necessary processes and equipment in place for customers who need compliant products. But there are still lessons that need to be learnt – with technology and heeding advice.

Andrew Greatbatch, vice president of corporate development for GPC Electronics , said electronics manufacturing services (EMS) providers need to consider the new manufacturing processes and documentation requirements imposed on their customers by the new laws.

“EMS providers need to be well versed in RoHS laws so that they can assure their customers and European regulators of compliance,” he said.

GPC Electronics is an EMS provider with factories located in Penrith, west of Sydney, and Christchurch, New Zealand. For over 12 months a project team has been developing the business and manufacturing processes necessary to handle RoHS issues, Greatbatch said.

“RoHS compliance means that the seller must ensure and be able to provide supporting evidence that their products don’t contain any of the restricted substances. Gathering, storing and reporting component composition information is tedious, but crucial if you have to provide a defence,” he said.

“For GPC Electronics this meant an extensive implementation in SAP setting up the systems to collect all the data. All information is stored electronically, and can be recalled quickly if required.”

Greatbatch said the requirement to use lead-free solder has had the greatest impact on EMS providers.

“Most other banned substances are used in purchased components, but lead-free means that new processes and equipment has to be installed,” he explained.

“Because lead-free solder pastes have higher melting points, reflow oven temperature profiles need to be adjusted. Ovens need to be able to reach the required temperature, and ideally have several zones for a linear temperature ramp to avoid thermal shock.”

Startronics, an EMS provider with manufacturing sites in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Wellington, has also established a range of activities to support customers with RoHS compliance.

The company’s lead-free product manager Chris Jarvis said there are numerous alloys developed for lead-free soldering, with a wide variation in performance, melting points and long term reliability.

“Issues are still outstanding around the mix of termination alloys used to tin components and how these react with alloys used in the soldering process,” he explained.

Ben Douchkov, manager of Sydney-based electronic equipment and design manufacturer Benetron, is taking a cautious approach when it comes to working with lead-free components. He said the company has some customers who require lead-free products and it has done some sample runs. But he is hesitant to do a mass conversion to RoHS-compliance processes as he has seen “hic-ups” with some of the new parts.

“I have a gut feeling that some lead-free parts will be faulty and mistakes will be made during the conversion to the new processes,” Douchkov said.

“We are hanging back a little to see what happens. We are letting others go ahead and we will learn from their mistakes.”

Douchkov’s advice to companies to avoid problems is to stick to quality manufacturers and brands, instead of looking for the cheapest option.

Rob Martin, general manager of Newcastle-based EMS provider Steel River Manufacturing , agrees technology is a little behind in terms of lead-free soldering, but believes companies should not “wait on the fence” when it comes to RoHS as it that would contribute “to the downward spiral for manufacturing in Australia”.

Martin said he has been attempting to raise the local industry’s knowledge of RoHS, with mixed success.

“Mid-size OEMs refuse to acknowledge the need to be RoHS compliant,” he said. “We have had one customer who had a meltdown when he realised all of his product cannot be sold overseas because it is not compliant. He did not listen to our warnings and now we are playing catch-up with the customer.”

While some small companies are panicking, larger companies are not worrying about RoHS at all, Martin said.

“They showed some interest initially, but have gone dormant again – thinking the storm in the tea cup has gone away.”

Martin said the OEMs he has talked to believe it is the duty of the contract manufacturer to ensure compliance, all without affecting their bottom line.

“OEMs want us to redesign all their product for them as they don’t understand what is involved,” he said. “They still have their heads in the sand.”

Martin said Australian companies are far behind in recognition of RoHS, let alone compliance, when compared to countries like New Zealand. He is full of praise for Roland Sommer, managing director of RoHS and WEEE Specialists International in Christchurch, for raising the local industry’s awareness of the legislation and its impacts on both sides of the Tasman. Martin also called for more support of the efforts of the Australian Electrical and Electronics Manufacturers’ Association (AEEMA) in lobbying the Australian government.

“OEMs need to support AEEMA to get RoHS-like legislation introduced into Australia otherwise we will become a dumping ground for the rest of the world,” Martin warned.

“As a nation that primarily imports its electrical and electronic appliances we now run the risk of having all of the RoHS member nations dumping their non-compliant material onto us. These non-compliant goods will compete further against our own internal product.”

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