Manufacturers get the lead out

08/02/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online.

By FRANK TUTALO
Sun Staff

LOWELL Sometime in the future it could be two years or 12 lead will be eliminated from the manufacturing process of virtually all electronic circuit boards.

This inevitable change, already being pushed for by Europe and Japan due to environmental concerns, has vast repercussions for such local companies as M/A-Com, Raytheon and Analog Devices, among others.

Seeking to get ahead of the curve, several companies with Greater Lowell operations are exploring lead-free products, thanks to the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and the Lowell-based Massachusetts Toxic Use Reduction Institute.

"If businesses plan to be competitive for the next decade, they've got to do this as good as, if not better than, anyone else," said George Wilkish, a technologist at M/A-Com, which is providing its laboratories and several technicians as part of the two-year-old project.

Last week, participating companies got their first peek at a mass production of hundreds of circuit boards that feature lead-free solder, where lead components were previously used. Beforehand, two UMass Lowell graduate students, Pat Retelle and Hok Ming Pang, started examining them on their own.

Though it's still too early to tell whether the lead-free components will stand up, several indications are positive, said Richard Anderson, a senior principal engineer at M/A-Com. One hurdle, though, is the higher melting point of lead-free solder an additional 37 degrees, to roughly 217 degrees Celsius (equivalent to about 422 degrees Fahrenheit) which can damage other parts.

While lead poses little risk to users of electronic products, mining and manufacturing employees are exposed to it at higher levels. Due to the short life cycle of such electronics products as computers and cell phones, high amounts of lead can end up in landfills, where it later pollutes soil and water.

Liz Harriman, associate director of research for the Toxic Use Reduction Institute, said European and Japanese policies point to a 2006 implementation date for lead-free components. The six-year-old institute, headquartered on UMass Lowell's campus, has been instrumental in decreasing the amount of toxic chemicals used in manufacturing through several environmentally friendly programs.

The imminent regulations present a dilemma, though.

"A lot of major companies, and several American companies, aren't really in such a hurry because they can't afford to have two sets of products," said UMass Lowell engineering professor Sammy Shina, who is coordinator of the coalition.

The companies Raytheon, Schneider Automation Inc. of North Andover, BTU International of Billerica, Sanmina-SCI of Lawrence, Texas Instruments of Attleboro and Air Products and Chemicals in Marlboro have allocated employees, equipment and other in-kind contributions.

Mark Quely, a senior manufacturing engineer at Schneider, said the movement is being driven by customers who are more environmentally conscious, even though it could also mean more costs.

"From the manufacturing process perspective, the impact is not only on the alloys used but the needed capital equipment upgrades," said Quely, whose company is in the process of transferring its manufacturing to European facilities. "Equipment will need to handle higher process temperatures and the interactions between the process alloy and the equipment parts will increase maintenance costs."

The components will continue to be tested for another nine months. But even after that, more time and money will have to be invested in research before the alternative becomes proven technology.

Frank Tutalo's e-mail address is ftutalo@lowellsun.com