Why Is Europe setting the Standard(s)?

Let’s face it. Standards for the electronics industry (or any standard for that matter) aren’t very sexy. They’re generally either published on paper or a pdf so you can’t trot out a product and hold it in your hands or watch a Youtube video of it. 

It’s pretty hard for most people not to stifle a big yawn when, in my case, I tell them I work for IPC, an international standards development organization for the electronic interconnection industry.  IPC does most standards development either in teleconference calls or in hotel or convention center meeting rooms. So it’s not really an exciting process unless you consider two engineers disagreeing about the slope of a solder joint exciting.

But, and this is where the excitement comes in, who develops electronics standards and for what products can fundamentally transform our industry.  If not done correctly through industry consensus, this transformation process can cost the entire supply chain, including consumers, hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars. You’ve got to admit those are some sexy numbers!

Today Europe and the European Union are setting global standards or raising the stakes even higher with broader “standards” of regulation, registration and legislation. Take ISO 9000 registration. Created more than a decade ago, ISO 9000 is maintained by the International Organization for Standardization based in Geneva, Switzerland and is administered by accreditation and certification bodies.

A major industry has grown up around ISO 9000 and its family of quality standards. Search ISO 9000 on the web and you get nearly 8 million results. Every company regardless of size or location on the planet probably has some kind of ISO registration.

There’s published data to suggest that ISO has helped improve a company’s quality. But did ISO really help and at what price? This blog is not necessarily intended to spark a debate on ISO but rather the fact that ISO was promulgated in Europe without a lot of (or even any?) industry guidance.

Do you know the voting procedure for ISO standards? Each country gets one vote so two of the world’s largest markets, the United States and China, each get one vote in the ISO balloting process. And so does Bolivia and Bulgaria.  Now I’m all for democracy but (no offense to Bolivia and Bulgaria) ISO standards for electronics are going to have a more dramatic impact on users and manufacturers in the U.S. and China.

Want another big time example? How about the drive for lead free solder started by RoHS (Restriction on Hazardous Substances)? The Directive on the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment 2002/95/EC (commonly referred to as the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive or RoHS) was adopted in February 2003 by the European Union. The RoHS directive took effect on 1 July 2006, and is required to be enforced and become law in each member state.

For a number of years, the U.S. led the world on environmental protection and everyone followed our lead.  Then the US became less restrictive.  Europe started to follow the precautionary principle, while the US focused on evidence-based regulation.  Now Europe sets the bar and the rest of the world follows.

Now some of you are probably saying that “RoHS is a regulation and not a standard.” I maintain however when the EU established limits for the amount of lead in lead-free solder, this regulation became a de facto standard. I think most of the engineers that had to address lead-free materials and processes also would not see the distinction, in this case, between a regulation and a standard either.

Now, instead of market forces debating the merits of lead-free electronics assembly, RoHS required lead-free electronics for many products built in or shipped into the EU. And other countries, including China, adopted their own brand of RoHS as a protective measure. So now we have children of the European Union’s RoHS springing up all over the world with a slight variation in requirements. These slight variations are driving electronics manufacturers crazy. 

RoHS conservatively has cost the electronics industry hundreds of millions of dollars. This cost was borne by every company in the electronics supply chain from the solder manufacturer all the way up to the OEMs. And if we are truly honest, each member of the supply chain pushed the cost, or at least tried to push the cost, of lead-free electronics all the way up to the final source: the consumer.

Is lead-free implementation complete? For the most part, “yes.” Although there are still some nagging doubts about long term reliability for lead free products.

Did the electronics industry have a part in the development of RoHS? Oh sure there were hearings and comments and meetings in Brussels. But at the end of the day, I’ll bet, if you were to poll the global electronics industry including the European manufacturers, there would be little or no support for lead-free electronics assembly. Why? Not only because of the cost but more importantly, because lead-free electronics has questionable environmental benefits when compared to tin lead. As a matter-of-fact, in a comprehensive U.S. EPA study it was an environmental wash, so to speak, between tin lead and lead-free solder. Was it worth the money and investment? No!

What’s the answer?

Let’s not have one region set de facto global standards or registration or regulations. Let’s work to have the electronics industry collaborate to develop consensus standards for quality (ISO 9000) or the environment (RoHS). I think the industry can and I think the industry should.

OK. I have a vested interest in this process. But time after time I have seen users and suppliers come together to develop consensus standards that work and are accepted and used by the industry.

No country votes. No government bodies. No legislative institutions. What works is technologists, applying science and engineering in a cooperative spirit, to solve problems. I won’t claim that it’s easy and I won’t claim it’s fast. But I can claim it does work and work effectively. These standards can also use “must” and “shall” and as a result have the teeth of legislation but are accepted by industry.

My key point is: Let’s involve all the electronics industry stakeholders in the process of standardization and not bureaucrats in Brussels, Washington or Beijing.

5 Comments

  1. Posted May 19, 2009 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    Tony has a point. While RoHS and ISO9000,and we could add the IEC, have a huge impact on how things are done, they are legalistic requirements not technical standards [the IEC is technical but typically very late]. Europe is very good at producing these things on paper without any real technical or scientific backing.
    Having one vote per country, putting small countries like Lichtenstein or Albania on the same level as China, India or the USA is not democracy, it is an absurd dictatorship by the small and unimportant. We need an arrangement similar to the U.S.Congress [did I really write this?]
    But the real question is, how to involve the stakeholders?

    • Tony Hilvers
      Posted May 19, 2009 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      Wow, Werner. Thanks for the comment. I thought this would be a highly controversial topic. Apparently the electronics industry has no problem with either ISO registration or RoHS requirements.

      I think the first concern is to see if there are stakeholders or if this issue is like the weather or politics — everyone complains about very few are willing to take action.

      • Posted May 22, 2009 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

        Tony, I think everybody is concerned, but because of the down-sizing economy so stretched that they do not have time for commenting on issues, valid as they may be, when the perception is that it will not change anything.
        Don Quixote redux.

  2. Posted June 2, 2009 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    Tony, I hear you from over here in Europe!

    Actually I think your vision is perfectly achievable…

    Regional industry/research networks in interconnection have been growing over the last few years (in some cases a positive outcome of lead-free implementation!) and perhaps need now to be connected together (pun not intended).

    The European Lead-Free Soldering Network (ELFNET) was a good example of such an exercise in which most of Europe’s key stakeholders agreed on at least a Roadmap. We are still exploring ways to continue this initiative.
    http:\\www.europeanleadfree.net

    As you know there are also growing networks in China.

    There have been good past examples of Japan/Europe/US cooperation – tin whiskers testing standards is one that springs to mind.

    ITRI\Soldertec is very interested in continuing to work with IPC and others in gradually fitting all this together. It’s all about communication…

    • Tony Hilvers
      Posted June 4, 2009 at 10:18 am | Permalink

      Jeremy: yes there are a lot of industry groups in Europe working on technology issues. The point I was making in my article is that the EU should stay out of the standards writing business and allow industry to set the standards.

      and yes I know how tough the economy is right now but with regulations, we can either “pay it now or pay it later” from an advocacy point of view.


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