How to Decarbonize the Electronics Industry
A report by IDTechEx examines the incentives and opportunities for the electronics industry to support the push toward sustainable manufacturing processes.
As concern about the impact of climate change has grown, more people have become aware of the role the electronics industry plays in contributing to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, specifically 4% of global emissions. This has increased pressure on the industry to reduce its carbon footprint and be more transparent about its environmental impact.
Manufacturing plant. Image used courtesy of Pixabay
As a result, many companies in the electronics industry have begun to implement more sustainable practices and focus on reducing their emissions, including using renewable energy sources, implementing energy-efficient production processes, and designing devices that use less energy during operation. There has also been a growing trend of using recycled materials and the development of circular business models that aim to reduce waste and extend the life of electronic products.
A report from IDTechEx, Sustainable Electronics Manufacturing 2023-2033, examines incentives and opportunities for sustainable innovation and which new manufacturing approaches seem the most promising, concentrating on printed circuit boards (PCBs) and integrated circuits.
Key Incentives Driving Sustainable Electronics Manufacturing
There has been a shift toward sustainability and recognizing the need to take action to reduce environmental impact.
Within the semiconductor and electronics industries, government mandates and green investment initiatives have driven sustainable change. Public opinion has also been impacted as more people purchase exclusively from or work at companies that utilize sustainable practices.
Despite these drivers, some companies still seem hesitant to shift their manufacturing processes, citing concerns about initial costs, legislative red tape, and emissions disclosures. However, many long-term opportunities exist for companies willing to make the switch. Implementing low-emission manufacturing processes or utilizing material recycling and recovery options can reduce costs of energy consumption, waste treatment, and any excess operations. Additionally, as environmental legislation is likely to get stricter, prioritizing these practices will put the industry ahead of the curve and make any future changes easier to adopt.
Electronics Manufacturing Opportunities
Several opportunities exist during manufacturing to reduce waste and improve processes.
To combat rising energy prices, IDTechEx recommends introducing low-temperature and rapid processing methods to manufacturing. These methods can drastically reduce waste by using additive approaches that directly build a PCB layout, printing only necessary material, rather than the traditional subtractive manufacturing, which will use excessive materials, raising both costs and emissions. Switching to additive methods for PCB manufacturing has reduced water consumption by up to 95%.
IDTechEx expects additive manufacturing could influence the success of flexible PCBs. Flexible PCBs support a wider range of applications than conventional rigid electronics, making them important to emerging technologies and industry products.
Adoption of PCB substrate materials by 2033. Image used courtesy of IDTechEx
Switching to sustainable manufacturing and the growth of flexible PCBs inherently go hand-in-hand as the flexible boards require new processing techniques, such as replacing typical FR substrates with plastic or paper. Plastic-based PCBs using materials like polyethylene terephthalate (PET) would benefit from low-temperature processing due to relatively low heat tolerances. Adopting these new technologies will be a stepping stone in expanding the scope for future advancements.
The report also considers the effect of digitizing the manufacturing process to increase efficiency, reduce waste, and improve cost-effectiveness through artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things. By automating processes and introducing sensor technology, it becomes possible to detect leaks and excessive or improper material use early on, which will help companies reduce material waste and costs.
Manufacturers can also benefit from digital analysis of their processes to identify unnecessary elements, whether making actions more efficient, removing excess material, or reducing energy consumption.
Manufacturing process. Image used courtesy of Pixabay
Digitization has increased in popularity among well-known electronics brands. In 2021, Apple announced its partnership with Sustainable Semiconductor Technologies and Systems (SSTS), a program created by imec, a Belgian research institute. The SSTS program is designed to improve sustainability through digital solutions and manufacturing modeling.
Reducing Supply Chain Dependencies
Following some disruptions in the electronics supply chain in the last three years, there has been pressure on manufacturers to reduce dependencies on geographic manufacturing monopolies, like the Asia Pacific region. Hundreds of billions of dollars have gone toward supporting and renewing local manufacturing efforts.
Removing manufacturing monopolies is likely to increase cost-competitive electronics production. IDTechEx suggests that access to renewable energy could help US and Europe-based companies leverage in building local manufacturing facilities.
New facilities built using green building standards can have considerable energy savings and independence while reducing supply chain greenhouse gas emissions. Building with sustainability in mind will ultimately be more cost-efficient and provide an advantage over existing production lines that will have an increased cost to replace older equipment with more sustainable manufacturing methods.
The Future of Sustainable Electronics Manufacturing
IDTechEx supports the movement of the electronics industry toward sustainable manufacturing processes.
While reducing an entire industry’s carbon footprint can seem like a large undertaking, many incentives and opportunities now make the transition easier for companies.
Overall, an earlier transition will have more significant financial and environmental impacts.