Ecology and PCB manufacturing. Can they be combined?

Without torture, we ourselves are sometimes tired of how "green" issues and sustainability can nowadays find their way into all fields of human activity. We are also amazed at how companies that for years have been proven to be major polluters of the air or the landscape around us suddenly rush to add paragraphs to their strategic documents with environmental themes and chant sustainability. Perhaps that is why we thought we would take a comprehensive look at the broader context, which also affects PCB manufacturing, and shed some light on four key areas where this connection can make sense.

The first is undoubtedly regionality/locality. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, we have seen the concept of the global village successfully worked on for almost three decades. Hand in hand with the development of technology, it was possible to buy raw materials and products globally, to find suppliers and customers across the planet and, above all, to 'optimise resources'. Typically, not paying expensive labour in North America or Western Europe but using cheap man-hours on the other side of the planet. And to do that, look for the cheapest and fastest routes for transportation. The risks of such an approach were overlooked for a long time because anyone who did not do such a thing was simply not competitive. The limits were laid bare only in the wake of lockdowns, pandemics, the US-China trade war and the commodities crisis. The transportation of everything "across the planet" began to grind to a screeching halt, and many companies began to realize firsthand that regionality could make sense in many ways. This effect will intensify in the future.

Why? Because the concept of Industry 4.0 (and the increasingly frequently referred to Industry 5.0) is based on massive automation of all parts of production. What sounds to some like the apocalypse of the traditional way of working has a significant side effect. If five hundred people worked in a Chinese factory in the recent past, and in a Czech factory too, the price of human labour was an absolutely crucial factor in the total cost of production. If there are already 50 such people today, and in the future there may be only 15 (and specialists who must be paid above the standard everywhere in the world), man-hours cease to be the most important part of the final sum. On the contrary, logistics, time delays and pressure for a lower carbon footprint and overall sustainability of operations will start to become more pronounced. This is where there is room to move production back to the places from which it fled far to the east some time ago.

The second big chapter is the environmental intensity of manufacturing. In this case it is possible to find an analogy with most other things we live with today and every day. Some time ago, it was common to have a desperately inefficient Freon fridge in the home, or cars eating diesel by the litre. Some time ago the equation was discovered where green became economic - and that paradigm has changed. Printed circuit board manufacturing today is no longer a black hole. But, at least in European terms, a tightly controlled and continuously improved zone, where it has to be figured out how to deal with the chemicals polluting the water, how to send the energy consumed back into circulation again and again. At the same time, each newly purchased machine typically reduces energy consumption by up to 50% compared to its ten-year-old predecessor. At the same time, production is monitored by near-perfect information systems that no longer prevent production downtime. Again, this is not just good for the planet, but primarily for the manufacturer, who is able to save costs as a result.

The third big issue is the strict environmental standards that customers from major automotive, airline, medical device and electronics companies have committed to. Logically, this pressure also goes from them to manufacturing. You would find plenty of examples - packaging material, chemical composition or the form of printing are all addressed. Until recently, the commonly used screen prints have been replaced by much cheaper forms of printing. Paperwork is disappearing, everything is sent electronically via PDF or manuals. Similarly, a good manufacturer has a configurator system set up to enter everything directly into production as efficiently as possible. Without the need for more and more expense.

Which way to go? One of the big topics is biodegradable printed circuit boards. In short, they are looking for ways to make electronics so that they don't end up in landfills or in nature, but are degradable. It is estimated that over 20 million tonnes of electronic waste are generated in this way every year. That is why technologies that have the potential to break down with the least economic burden are already making inroads into the production of printed circuit boards. For now, it's still a bit more academic debate than everyday practice, but a group of scientists at the University of Illinois has already built a fully functional PCB that will break down when exposed to water.

So going forward, there's no need to be skeptical exactly, because we're not playing with such bad cards. There is the prospect that with automation and the further development of digitalisation, production will move back closer to us, further reducing the overall environmental footprint of production. The expectation is that the most influential companies will force their suppliers to comply strictly with all the rules as well. And there is hope for a reduction in e-waste. One thing is certain, actions, not words, will decide.

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Luděk Buchta
Marketing Manager