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Design for Sustainable Consumer Electronics: PCB Materials and Supply Chain Management

Representation of equilibrium achieved through the Fibonacci sequence


During the 12th century, Leonardo Fibonacci had an idea about a practical problem. He wanted to calculate the ideal expansion of rabbits breeding over one year. While the rabbit breeding may not seem like a topic for extensive research, Fibonacci dedicated himself to the task and discovered the ratio of 1.6180 ... or the Golden Ratio designated as Phi.

We now know that Fibonacci discovered a proportion that people could use to create or design anything in perfect balance. The ratio traces back to the Fibonacci sequence where every number in the sequence equals the sum of the two numbers that precede it. Fibonacci’s sequence starts with one and goes to infinity:

                    1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, ….

Research shows that the ancient Egyptians used the Golden Ratio when building the pyramids and that Phi becomes evident in the architecture of the Parthenon as well as natural phenomena such as snail shells, flowers, DNA, and human bodies. From a design perspective, the Golden Ratio creates patterns that we find pleasing because of perfect balance and alignment.

Another Beautiful Design: Sustainability

Design for Sustainability or D4S takes a very long view of product innovation and production strategies. This long view incorporates environmental and social issues as part of an equation that leads to end-to-end product development and life cycle evaluation. If we separate the life cycle of a product into its individual phases, those environmental and social issues touch everything including design, marketing, the supply chain, and disposal. 

The true beauty of Design for Sustainability rests within the scope and breadth of the issues. D4S applies to both developed countries and developing economies. While we may speak about environmental issues in a broad context, those issues become much more specific in terms of land, air, and water pollution or the many complex elements of climate change. 

Although the term “socio-economic” seems detached from daily operations, Design for Sustainability tells us that the problems associated with poverty, health, safety, inequity, and working conditions influence strategies, innovation, market opportunities, the quality of products, production efficiencies, and multiple operations every day. Connections between the issues may occur at the local community level for small companies or at global market levels for transnational corporations.

With the future as a central objective, companies take a multi-faceted approach to the definition of value. The definition of “value” stretches past local or national concerns into the impact of consumption on a global scale. However, the breadth of the global scale requires a targeted approach that considers the competing but sometimes aligned social, environmental, and business needs of developed as well as developing economies. D4S provides the targeted approach.


 Production and economic development needs for social, commercial, and environmental discussions

An understanding of business and production needs.


These are Lively Times

Taking a lifecycle view of products may seem like a cliché. With Design for Sustainability, though, the product life cycle is the central focus. In the D4S context, product life cycle begins with the extraction, processing, and supply of raw materials. 

Let’s use integrated circuits as an example. D4S considers the discovery, mining, refining, and supply of materials such as:


  • Silicon dioxide

  • Aluminum

  • Gold

  • Silver

  • Copper

  • Boron

  • Germanium

  • Lead

  • Phosphorus

  • Alloy 42

  • Borophosphosilicate glass

  • Gallium arsenide

  • Kovar

  • Platinum silicide

  • Polysilicon

  • Sichrome

  • Silicon nitride

  • Spin-On glass

  • Tin

  • Titanium dislicide

  • Titanium tungsten


Just the production of silicon involves mining quartzite. Producing the 99.99999999999 percent pure silicon needed for integrated circuits requires blasting the quartzite in a powerful furnace to create a chemical reaction. Other chemical processes convert the silicon metal into silicon tetrachloride used for optical fibers and trichlorosilane to produce the polysilicon used for integrated circuits. Each part of the process involves different companies. The extraction of quartzite includes the labor and equipment to operate mines located in the United States and the profitability concerns of ownership headquartered in Belgium.

Manufacturing integrated circuits begins with preparing silicon wafers, optically reducing and transferring masks to the wafer, doping, adding successive layers, and producing individual integrated circuits Those processes use gases and chemicals including acetic acid, acetone, ammomium fluoride, hydrochloric acid methy alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, nitric acid, phosphoric acid, sulfuric acid, xylene, and other compounds. Processing operations using those and other chemicals and gases produce hazardous and toxic byproducts that require special methods for cleanup, control, and disposal.

A D4S point-of-view considers the potential for ecological damage, human health damage, and resource depletion that occurs at each stage of the product lifecycle. In viewing only the opening stages of the integrated circuit product lifecycle, we could encounter the exposure of plants and animals to toxic substances, the emissions of dust particles and other pollutants, the release of carcinogens, and the depletion of water and mineral sources. Companies focused on Design for Sustainability seek methods for achieving profitability while minimizing impacts on people and the environment on local, regional, and global scales.

A D4S life cycle assessment of products evaluates the social and environmental impact across the product life cycle. For example, capacitors, surface acoustic wave filters, special types of glass, and aircraft engines rely on tantalum—a rare earth element. In developing economies such as Nigeria, the unregulated disposal of large quantities of mine tailings that contain uranium and thorium produces health and environmental hazards. 

The majority of tantalum mining occurs in possible conflict regions with Rwanda, Nigeria, the Congo, and Mozambique producing more than 50 percent of tantalum concentrate. Along with the problems of disposal and possible conflict, those mining operations may utilize child labor.

Excess PCB materials in a stack

Increasing awareness of the source of electronics materials can help the entire electronics industry.


Emphasis on Design for Sustainability pushes companies to look for alternative methods that minimize environmental and social impacts. Secondary methods for obtaining tantalum include extracting metals as a by-product of tin smelter waste, municipal waste landfills, industrial landfills, and manufacturing scrap.

Sustainable Consumer Electronics: There’s No Stopping Now

A life cycle view of any product also encompasses distribution, use, reuse, recycling, and disposal. In these latter stages, Design for Sustainability considers energy use, emissions, waste, vibration, noise, radiation, and electromagnetic fields. Each of these factors has the potential to affect people and the environment. When combined, these factors can produce higher and long-lasting impacts at different levels.

Those impacts becomes apparent through different applications. For example, a typical smartphone container includes cardboard packaging, paper instructions, bubble wrap to protect the phone, and plastic bags for individual components such as earbuds and a power supply. Different companies located in different regions or nations may contribute part of the packaging materials. The Smartphone includes a plastic cover, fasteners, adhesives, and a special glass screen that responds to our touch. A printed circuit, components, and batteries inside the phone consist of materials ranging from aluminum and cobalt to copper, silicon, and nickel.

Design for Sustainability covers the recyclability of the cardboard and plastics used to package the phone. In addition, D4S focuses on the EMF radiated by the phone and the environmental impact of a device that has planned obsolescence. Dumping an obsolete smartphone into a landfill not only wastes copper, silver, gold, palladium, yttrium, lanthanium, and other precious metals but also adds pollutants to the earth. 

Manufacturers working from a D4S perspective can remove responsibility from the consumer by producing upgradeable phones that have a modular design, feature recycled packaging and metals, and have batteries that a consumer can replace. In addition, those manufacturers can also seek rare earth metals from conflict-free locations that offer fair working conditions.

The Final Part of the Equation

Design for Sustainability effects business perspectives about profitability, social impacts, and environmental costs. Those perspectives become an even higher priority through the need for compliance with international and national regulations. 

Two standards—the Waste Electrical and Electronic (WEEE) Directive and the Restriction of Use of Certain Hazardous (ROHS) Directive—influence sustainable product design. The WEEE Directive encourages the design and production of electrical and electronic equipment for meeting targets for re-use, recycling, and recovery. The ROHS Directive requires the redesign or withdrawal of products that contain restricted substances.

Compliance with those standards can reduce profits. However, companies begin to:

  • Adopt best practices for reducing manufacturing and end-of-life costs

  • Gain competitive advantages by selecting environmentally and socially friendly materials and designs

  • Realize the benefits of reducing resource consumption through improved mechanical, electrical, and electronic designs

Each of those steps yields new marketing opportunities, enhanced reputations, and cost savings.

When looking through what you as an engineer working in a design, analysis, or production team could do to impact design for sustainable consumer electronics initiative, there are many options. With Allegro PCB Designer, you’re capable of working with your partner teams in real-time on designs that utilize sustainably harvested components, and conscientious manufacturing cycles.

If you’re looking to learn more about how Cadence has the solution for you, talk to us and our team of experts.