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Eco-Friendly Electronic Product Design

Key Takeaways

  • Eco-friendly electronic product design is an important consideration in modern electronics design.

  • Important Design for Environment (DfE) standards.

  • E-waste plays a big role in the current environmental crisis.

A hand made of plants touching a robotic hand

Finding a balance between electronics and the environment

Sometime during 1996, Adrian Bejan composed the Constructal Law of Physics. In part, the law connects the design of socioeconomic systems with nature. But...the law also speaks about evolution in design. Specific patterns emerge when we begin comparing the design that allows our bodies to function--such as vascular systems--we find that the same design becomes apparent in natural waterways and other segments of nature.

From Bejan’s perspective, all of this reduces to flow. Constructal theory tells us that flow systems reduce friction or resistance to conserve useful energy. The requirement for flow ignites innovation. We innovate to find better methods to move resources. Bejan uses his study to show that plants, animals, and humans organize into groups or societies to have access to resources. Pathways--whether the roots of trees or ancient canal systems--or perhaps circuit traces--allow the movement of resources.

Those patterns also become apparent in things that humans devise. For example, transportation systems mimic similar patterns. While Bejan does not specifically address electronic systems, we know that similar patterns exist within the field. If not, we would not have any need for schematics and EDA software.

Eco-Friendly Electronic Product Design

If we consider that natural design influences electronic design, we might also consider how electronic design, devices, and products each can contribute to a sustainable environment. Continuing with this thought, the electronics industry as a whole and we, as engineers, designers, and technicians, may have a responsibility to serve as stewards to the environment. Stewardship balances the need to conduct business and manufacture things for consumption with the responsibility to preserve and conserve the environment.

Eco-friendly electronic product design considers everything from the lifecycle of the product to the type of etchants used for a printed circuit board. Prioritizing a sustainable environment in electronic design also covers how manufacturing processes use water and weighs the ethics of procuring the precious metals used for devices from problematic geographic locations.

Design for Environmental Standards

Innovation becomes apparent through the principals of Design for Environment (DfE). The techniques surrounding any type of design method match resources with requirements. Those requirements cover the functionality of the circuit, consumer preferences, and the purpose of the project. DfE adds another set of requirements. For PCB and electronic systems design, lessening the impact on the environment involves moving production processes away from using toxic materials, using less energy, and responsibly managing waste.

For example, a smartphone design may respond to the requirement of having less toxic, recyclable parts rather than disposable components. Or, the same smartphone design may require the use of improved power supply technologies that consume less energy.

A pile of old broken electronic

The problem of e-waste

Take a Deeper Dive Into Eco-Design

Environmental ethics entreats us to take a different look at the relationship between humans and the environment. Rather than subduing the environment for corporate or personal gain, we instead look for the balance that must exist between doing business as usual and preserving the ecosystem. When we work with PCB design, we consider electrical and mechanical design constraints that can alter the final product. Achieving the balance between business and environment often leads to additional constraints on methods or traditional practices.

Design for Environment aligns production processes with the life cycle analysis (LCA) of products. LCA considers each stage of a product but within the whole view of the product. Any environmental problem that appears in a particular area or stage of the product life cycle leads to a solution that impacts the entire product. When we think about life cycle analysis, we study six key areas:

  • Extracting natural resources

  • Supply chain processes

  • Manufacturing and producing a product

  • Distributing the product through wholesale or retail networks

  • Enduser applications and the consumption of resources

  • Disposing the product at its end of life

Taking a Balanced Approach to Electronic Product Design

Environmental awareness begins with design. Changing the requirements of a design and optimizing circuits so that a product requires fewer electronic components reduces the impact on the environment. In some instances, optimization can occur through modular or semi-modular product designs that incorporate interchangeable parts while minimizing the use of integrated circuits. The design process can also reduce the environmental impact of the supply change by limiting product weight or volume.

The electronics industry uses gold, tantalum, tungsten, and other precious metals for plugs, sockets, PCBs, integrated circuits, switches, relays, and other components. Using gold as a benchmark, the industry uses more than 350 tons of gold in one year because of the low contact resistance, thermal conductivity, corrosion resistance, and ductility properties of the metal. In many instances, the extraction of gold occurs in countries engaged in conflict or via extraction processes that endanger human life and the environment.

Global e-waste recovery and recycling efforts can offset the need for extraction while improving the balance between business needs and environmental needs. DfE-conscious companies utilize processes that reclaim gold, other precious metals, and plastics from discarded electronic devices. As an example, companies send reclaimed gold metal to PCB production centers that use the metal to produce new boards. The practice of recovering and reclaiming natural resources reduces social impacts, causes less damage to the environment, and reduces capital costs for the companies.

Design for Environment practices also reduce the environmental impact of the supply chain by increasing the reliance on local or regional sources and by using environmentally friendly packaging. Reclaiming and recovering resources reduces the cost of transporting raw materials. The balance between business and environment improves by reducing the cost of transportation for companies and the impact of carbon emissions on the environment.

Advanced analytics can work as a technological solution to reducing the impact on the environment. New designs can integrate sensors into products that monitor electricity consumption and control that consumption during standby, idle, sleep, or operating conditions. Reduced power consumption can also occur by integrating multiple functions into one device.

Waste Not, Want Not

Electronic waste adds complexity to Design for Environmental practices. Most countries and industries have little control over the approximately 65 million tons of e-waste flowing into the global waste stream. Estimates show that 75% of lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium, aluminum, copper, and ceramics residing in landfills came from e-waste. All of these materials, and others, can leach into soils and water supplies or generate hazardous fumes when burned.

 A man setting fire to piles of e-waste

E-waste is often not properly disposed of

The complexity of e-waste for DfE occurs through the requirement for sorting materials into different categories for recovery and processing. For example, separating metallic materials from non-metallic materials, separating plastic from glass, and disassembling products. While each of these issues adds complexity, the problem of e-waste grows through the export of electronic waste to developing countries for recovery and processing. When applied incorrectly, those processes can produce liquid waste that contaminates regional environments and becomes part of the food chain.

Removing the complexity of e-waste requires a complex, multi-tiered response that impacts electronic design. Design teams can specify only the use of materials that comply with the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive. Those materials include lead, mercury, cadmium, and hexavalent chromium, as well as the polybrominated biphenyls and phthalates used for flame retardants and wire insulation.

We can strive to make products more in harmony with the environment

Modular designs allow consumers to repair a broken or outdated component rather than discarding an entire product. Improved product design techniques can allow consumers to replace components or modules in a product without the use of special tools or any tools. Design teams can also use product lifecycle analyses to design products that operate for much longer.

Designing products in the modern age with all the considerations that need to be taken into account is difficult. While this is just the current nature of electronics design, having the best PCB Design and Analysis tools can simplify every other aspect of the design and analysis process. With Cadence Allegro, you can be sure you’ll have access to a full suite of design and optimization features. Cadence also has a suite of SI/PI Analysis Point Tools for post-layout verification and signal integrity simulations.

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