Some vendors hail environmental benefits, others fear higher manufacturing costs
A year ago, the European Union offered its initial plan to address environmental issues by setting up the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) list.
Since the legislation became law on July 1 in the EU countries, companies doing business in that region are required to avoid using lead, hexavalent chromium, mercury, cadmium, polybrominated biphenyl and polybrominated diphenyl ether in the manufacturing of its products.
Currently, there is no such legislation or law in the United States, though domestic companies doing business in the EU are required to comply. That is seen as a significant challenge in some quarters.
While some companies think the law's passage was an appropriate move and prepared for necessary changes in advance, others find that it would not address the current environmental climate to a great degree, and would cause more of an economic and logistical hardship than is necessary.
Those who have not complied and do business within the EU risk enforcement action, but executives at Blackmagic Design, an Australian developer of high-end video editing processing cards, do not share that concern.
"The process was relatively simple and straightforward," said Victoria Battison, spokesperson for Blackmagic Design, "and we felt that there was little reason not to be compliant. The parts were available and we had more than 12 months to prepare."
Because the company operates its own plant, it was able to upgrade its production facilities while securing lead-free components to "maintain the integrity of our products," Battison said.
The company, which lists six corporate addresses on its Web site (including Las Vegas, with the rest overseas) is building one version of each product for the world market, to ensure that "every part we used was devoid of any kind of lead, which was a very small amount in our case, regardless," she said.
Another company that complied was Tewksbury, Mass.-based Avid Technology. While not stating that the corporation was for or against the RoHS legislation or its possible cost to the corporation, Senior Manager of Networking & Storage Andy Dale spoke positively of the change.
| Blackmagic Design says the process of removing hazardous substances from its high-end video processing cards was "relatively simple and straightforeward."|
"It's a very good step for the environment," Dale said, noting that the steps taken to comply with the new law were reminiscent of those that came into play during the worldwide Y2K situation several years ago.
While some companies seemed happy to adhere to the new EU law, other companies may have done so more grudgingly, perhaps since many needed other components that they could not garner as easily, among myriad reasons. Others may have simply felt that it constituted an overreaction.
"This is really a non-problem," said Will Wohler, president of Wohler Technologies of Hayward, Calif., near San Francisco. "I think that the [EU's] concerns are pretty badly misguided."
Wohler, who estimated that the law cost his company "at least $100,000, possibly much more," reasoned that "there is a lack of prioritizing the risks to the environment and human health, and there is no consideration of balancing costs and benefits."
He spoke of one portion of the EU legislation "that explicitly excludes considering costs in implementing the directive," he said, adding that the law does not address the most pressing environmental needs elsewhere around the globe.
In China, for instance, where a similar law is slated to take effect in 2007, "they are not reliably able to prevent acute toxic spills into waterways," Wohler said. "While the EU wants the rest of the world to adopt their RoHS legislation that should not be first priority, since other regions have many have far more pressing environmental concerns."
As for ensuing cost concerns, "they will vary by manufacturer," he said. "They are more significant for the smaller companies, because they have a smaller base to spread to costs over."
Wohler also spoke of "a hidden cost that we will all pay"-the result of diverting attention from innovation to deal with the transition and ongoing compliance. Also, end users will have an additional cost that will fall back, in many cases, on manufacturers in the form of liability impairments.
"People may say that they have solved all of the problems and think that they have," Wohler said. "Yet, there will be some reliability issues," such a "RoHS-induced occurrence" in the field with a switch supplier that had a problem with a new plastic material.
For others, the question about RoHS is more a matter of implementation. That group includes Roger Crumpton, CEO of the International Association of Broadcast Manufacturers, an international trade association representing manufacturers and suppliers of products and services to the broadcasting and electronic media industries, based in Reading, U.K.
"On a philosophical level, we should all aspire to this and not add to the waste streams of the planet," Crumpton said, though he expressed concerns about staggered implementation times around the globe and further struggles for manufacturers.
"They [may] have to build two different products" be it routers, switchers or mixing decks, he said. "Adherence to one standard can be very challenging because the rules and the exemptions are very complex."
Those exemptions are different in Europe and China, for instance, which "further complicates the build standards for manufacturers," Crumpton said.
"There is a component/supply issue here," he continued. "In some industries, high-volume users get the supplies early in the manufacturing cycle. But in broadcast engineering, many manufacturers have found it difficult to source components, especially in cases of high specialty, low-volume demand."
Nonetheless, the law is the law. Companies that were "in denial" and put off compliance now "have to get on with it," Crumpton said. "The problem is the way this thing rolled out. Some manufacturers spotted this a few years ago and dealt with it diligently. Others have to catch up fast."