Electronics Manufacturers Must Also Focus on Design-In Sustainability to Meet Environmental Commitments
By Dr. Stephen Coulson, Chief Science Officer and Founder, P2i
Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues have been increasing in importance across most industry sectors in recent times, and manufacturing has been no exception. Scroll back five or ten years and these concerns may have been put on the backburner by many manufacturers but today that situation is changing fast. The Paris Agreement is putting pressure on manufacturers to adopt more sustainable policies and working practices. Meanwhile, a growing number of investors are being set up purely to fund ESG focused projects and governments are increasingly putting in place green procurement initiatives.
However, the figures remain bleak. In 2019, a record 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of electronic waste was generated worldwide – an increase of 21% in just five years. By 2030, it is expected that figure will almost double to 74 million Mt by 2030.
The electronics manufacturers’ perspective
From the perspective of electronics manufacturers, in particular, the message is clear, they need to focus on reducing waste but also on extending the product lifecycle with design-in sustainability. That involves protecting the product from damage, most notably from liquids and environmental threats. After all, if products are not damaged, then they’re not being thrown away and in terms of electronics there’s less of a need to mine for more minerals and create a bigger environmental footprint.
In the electronics manufacturing sector, damaged products represent the fastest growing waste stream. The urgency in the race to reduce waste is clear. Manufacturers need to be acting now in order to meet the ESG demands of customers, partners and investors alike; not to mention the sustainability of our planet as we know it today. Yet many manufacturers simply don’t have the right systems in place to prevent liquid damage and, in turn, reduce waste.
Extending the product lifecycle
Making products that live for longer will be the fastest route towards satisfying ESG demands for electronics manufacturers. This is evidenced through findings from the Global E-Waste Monitor 2020 report by the World Alliance for the Statistical Control of Electronic Waste, which states that 75% of emissions linked to a smartphone can be attributed to the manufacturing stage. However, extending the life of these devices by 4.5 years can cut emissions in half.
By implementing protective technologies that extend the product lifecycle into products when they are built, manufacturers can save on the costs of tear downs and repairs later on. While manufacturers will naturally want to upsell new products to consumers, a question mark hangs over the incumbent products once users upgrade. Again, this is where protective technologies that prolong the lifecycle can allow manufacturers to release used products that will last into the secondary market.
Equally important is the need to design-in circularity, where products that have been happily used for a number of years can be returned, recycled and reused; further reducing waste streams and protecting our precious resources.
Liquid coating limitations
Liquid-based conformal coats typically do not deliver reliability and repeatability which will be a growing requirement to protect devices and prolong their live. These coatings often protect certain components, but do not protect the full board inside the device which can spell doom for devices that are susceptible to water ingress such as those with multiple moving parts or are open in design.
Accidental droppage can also create problems, even in well-sealed devices. Components that protect the insides of devices such as O-rings and gaskets can be dislodged, allowing liquid to seep in. Device cleaning presents further danger. Chemical cleaning products can be particularly harmful if they reach the inside of a device. This has become a more significant problem as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has meant devices are likely to be being cleaned more often – especially those who are shared by multiple people such as tablets shared by staff in offices or retail environments.
Lasting nanotechnology protection
Adding solid protection to devices will only increase their bulk and weight, making them less desirable to consumers and removing the design freedom of the engineers who take great pride in their work. Manufacturers will want to have freedom to design these devices to look appealing and be comfortable for users to handle and operate. To enable this, they should consider technical solutions that can prevent lasting water and corrosion damage without compromising on device design.
The latest nanotechnology solutions allow electronics manufacturers to have complete confidence in device protection that supports their ESG goals and initiatives. Even when water can easily enter a device, whether by damage or design, nano-coatings can eliminate the chances of internal corrosion.
As less than 20% of electronic waste is currently collected and recycled, this approach will enable devices to be fully re-worked, allowing recycling and reuse strategies to put treated devices and sub-assemblies back in to use, further reducing landfill and incineration.
In the not-so distant future it’s likely that manufacturers will be forced to publicly report against ESG requirements. To get ahead of this, some are already transparently displaying their ESG credentials on their websites. Furthermore, as government’s step up their environmental strategies, there is also the potential that they will implement fines for companies that fail to meet set ESG targets. Those that get ahead of the game now will be proactively removing the risks ahead of those reporting requirements, while those that hold off will have to rush in reactionary measures.
Additionally, an average of 78% of consumers saying they are more likely to buy from a company that stands up for ESG. Therefore, manufacturers that are slow to adapt could also fall behind in competitiveness if more consumers decide to place ESG credentials at the heart of their buying decisions and consequently choose the brands that have been proactive.