Do OEMs Have Tin Ears? Print E-mail
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Written by Mike Buetow   
Monday, 01 March 2010 00:00

At the risk of beating the tin drum (and wasn’t that movie painful enough to sit through?) once too often, I will mine (get it?) the Conflict Metals subject one last time.

To recap, Conflict Metals refer to ores extracted from the battle-raged Democratic Republic of Congo, where millions of citizens have died, casualties of a fierce civil war underwritten in part by revenues from contested mining activities.

Following my last two columns, I have heard from various sources who hoped to refine my thinking. One noted that the Congo supplies less than 5% of the world’s tin, suggesting the electronics industry, which as these things go is hardly a major consumer of the metal (some estimates put electronics’ share at 2% of the global consumption), could survive just fine without the DRC as a source. (By the way, tin owns no patent on the issue. The DRC also sits on large deposits of tantalum.)

Second, while the audits proposed by the International Tin Research Institute and other similar-thinking groups (see last month’s Caveat Lector) are a step in the right direction, in some cases they are redundant with existing corporate practice. And reclaimed materials are exempt from the discussion, because, among other reasons, the alternative would be to landfill the disputed metal. As Cookson Electronics president Steve Corbett, one of the few willing to speak on the record, told me, “Customers are not looking for verification on reclaimed materials. And we say, ‘You really don’t want to throw a wet blanket on reclaim, because you want to keep it out of landfills.’ ”

In that sense, even the most intense certification programs are inherently incomplete. While some companies would be able to guarantee there are, in the words of one colorful source, “no Congolese atoms” in their products, there simply is no way for industry as a whole to ensure its products contain no amount of Conflict Metals.

In the US and elsewhere, pending legislation – which one source called “ludicrous” – emits the radioactive notion that through industry pressure, governments can solve the civil war. “According to the politicians, there are legitimate mines,” said one solder supplier. “It’s like the cotton picking of the Civil War: the South cotton is bad; the North is OK. We’re picking sides in a civil war in Africa.”

Nevertheless, it would be a mischaracterization to suggest solder vendors are simply throwing up their hands in despair. Solder suppliers are actively trying to determine if their smelters use ores from the DRC and, if so, remove scofflaws from their vendor lists.

It’s true the industry cannot determine which tin atoms came from where. Still, pressure is heavy from OEMs like Nokia, H-P and Intel that wear their respective corporate social responsibility (CSR) statements like a badge. That could explain why solder suppliers aren’t balking at ITRI’s proposal to add $50 a tonne to underwrite compliance audits, as they seem intent on passing those costs along to customers that demand the audits.

But I came away certain that the industry should push back on this issue. This approach should be twofold: First, it should use governmental channels. Though IPC might be too small to be effective, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) or the National Association of Surface Finishers (NASF) might be a good place to start. (If you can put a good spin on hexavalent chromium, what can’t you do?) Second, it needs to attack the exchanges.

According to my sources, the London Metal Exchange will not certify that the metals in its warehouses are free of Conflict Metals. Solder vendors should collaborate to remedy this, for if the LME doesn’t comply, the effort toward compliance will be uncertain, at best.

Finally, I should clarify that not every solder supplier buys raw materials from the exchanges. Some buy direct from smelters. My apologies for suggesting otherwise.

Jumping, but not for joy. I’m old enough to remember the old Toyota commercials where everybody would jump into the air at the end, and the voiceover would say, “Oh, what a feeling!” Well, Toyota has made car owners jumpy again, but not with pleasure. As I write, the nation’s media and blogosphere is afire with speculation over what is to blame for the automaker’s sudden acceleration problems. Some, including Dr. Michael Pecht of University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Life Cycle Engineering (CALCE), are pointing to a breakdown in the electronics throttle system. Which begs the question, are the much-publicized recalls tied to a lead-free problem?

Bob Landman, a reliability expert and a Life Senior Member of IEEE, has been vocal that the connection between lead-free solder and tin whiskers is both real and potentially deadly. He asserts “the increased use of electronics in automobiles when mixed with RoHS can make for a deadly cocktail. We don’t know what the causative agent [in regard to the Toyota recalls] was, but I have heard recently of new autos showing up at dealers that will not start. That cause has been linked to tin whiskers.”

We do not yet have enough information to determine whether tin whiskers or even lead-free solders are at issue here. One would hope Toyota comes clean, if indeed the true cause can be determined, so that the industry at large can learn from their mistakes.

P.S. Landman moderated a chat on tin whiskers during Virtual PCB this month. See the transcript on-demand at www.virtual-pcb.com.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 10 May 2011 10:40
 

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