Mike Buetow

In the course of nearly 20 years in tech journalism, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to some very interesting people. Like, for example, when I received a call from one Jerry Falwell Jr. (the son of that Falwell), who wanted to know if an idea on printed circuit design that had been donated to his father’s Liberty University was worth patenting. (It wasn’t.)

Last month marked the first time, however, I spoke with a prince.

The opportunity presented itself in the course of reporting this month’s cover story on the Conflict Free Tin Initiative. As readers may know, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which was signed into law in 2012, had a chilling effect on companies doing business with the Democratic Republic of Congo. While intended to discourage firms from inadvertently underwriting the ongoing civil war in the DRC, Dodd-Frank effectively put the brakes on all commercial business in the country, including its lucrative mining sector.

In jumped the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for which Prince Jaime de Bourbon Parme is Special Envoy Natural Resources. Prince Jaime, who in 2005 took part in a documentary (Africa: War is Business) that detailed effects the war economy has in Africa, told me by phone that he was frustrated that while the story was well-known, the solutions were harder to find.

In response, Prince Jaime helped launch the CFTI, which ushers in a new model for validating that ores produced by certain secure Congolese mines can be exported and distributed in the global electronics supply chain without running afoul of US law. And it obviates the unintended consequence of punishing DRC citizens who, through the bad luck of geography, had seen their livelihoods ripped away by bureaucrats in faraway lands. The CFTI represents a logical framework for working within the world regulatory environment, which seemingly gets more stringent by the day.

Just after I finished with Prince Jaime, I phoned the PCB industry’s version of royalty, Dieter Bergman. Dieter is twice Prince Jaime’s age, but they share tremendous vision and a passion for making the world a better place.

My reason for calling was on the surface very different: to discuss whether there is value in promulgating IPC-2581 as an IEC standard.

IEC is the International Electrotechnical Commission. Based in Geneva, where it shares a building with ISO, IEC is an organization sponsored by the world’s governments. Dieter diplomatically likens it to a United Nations of standardization. I call it the epitome of bureaucracy.

My question for Dieter was singular and pointed: Would we as US-based standards writers be hurting ourselves in any way if we did not participate in IEC?

Dieter’s response was, shall we say, comprehensive. I’ll do my best to summarize it.

Since US companies don’t call out IEC specs in contracts or on master drawings, my thesis was that time and money were wasted promulgating IPC standards at the international level. Dieter had a different take. IEC standards are specified in Asia, he said, and representatives from China, Korea and Japan have been pushing hard to get their respective standards accepted by international standards bodies. IEC participants such as the Japan Electronics Packaging and Circuits Association (aka the JPCA) could submit their documents for IEC acceptance, and under the rules, could translate them into Chinese as an alternative to IPC’s. Doing so would leave the perception that Asia, not the US, is the leader. And there’s a distinct benefit to writing the rules of the game.

Because of government contracts, some players want to use government-sponsored standards. “So,” Dieter explained, “anyone who has a high linkage to a government project, if the research they need requires something built, they want it built to international standards,” regardless of whether those standards are any good.

A veritable industry encyclopedia, Dieter is wary of the unintended consequences of taking one’s eye off the big picture. “I think about ISO 9000 and RoHS and REACH and all the things that become law. It won’t take much of a pen stroke to say the only standard for building a board is IEC XYZ. IEC represents governments; governments represent regulation, and regulation is a requirement in some corners to get work done.”

As everyone says, the supply chain is global. National participation in international rules-making ensures the foundation of those rules is based on good science and common sense. There are perils to omission, Dieter warns. “If you leave [international standards groups] to their own devices, you’ll be on the phone talking to everyone about some new law that doesn’t make any sense.”

There are distinct parallels between the House of Bourbon and the house of Bergman. They both offer paths to make sense of, and to accommodate, rules that often are not of their choosing.

On a deeper level, whether it’s RoHS or REACH or Dodd-Frank or IEC, we as an industry do not want outside groups making rules that, without a say, we are then forced to live with. The CFTI is a wonderful solution, but it’s a solution that should never have been needed in the first place.

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