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Component Reuse: The Key to More Sustainable Electronic Devices?

March 13, 2024
Jabil is getting into the business of recovering chips and other components from circuit boards. In the latest installment of The Briefing, we discuss the new effort with the electronics manufacturing giant.

What you'll learn:

  • Issues surrounding recycling of electronic waste.
  • Jabil's efforts to improve electronics sustainability.
  • Details about Retronix's groundbreaking technology targeting PCB waste.

 

The global electronics industry is struggling to rein in the massive amount of waste it leaves in its wake.

When electronic devices—and specifically, the circuit boards inside them—reach the end of their useful lives, they are most often discarded. Recycling any part of the device occurs only rarely, and saving any of the components for future use is even less likely. If anything is worth recycling, it’s the precious metals and raw materials used in the fabrication of the device. But even when it does happen, it can do more harm to the environment than good: it’s necessary to crush the circuit board and then incinerate it to recover the resources within.

For Jabil, one of the largest U.S. contract electronics manufacturers, it makes more sense to reclaim and refurbish components before the devices are discarded and reuse them, creating a circular economy.

Reusing components from one product to the next not only keeps the device from being incinerated or scrapped, it’s also more sustainable in the long term for customers in sectors such as aerospace, defense, industrial, automotive, and medical. As it happens, the largest portion of any system’s negative impact on the environment—and carbon footprint—stems from manufacturing its myriad components.

Jabil is engaged in design engineering, manufacturing, and supply-chain management for the electronics and consumer industries. It’s now getting into the business of recovering chips and other components from devices at the end of their lives (EOL) as a service for its customers. Jabil is using the technology it obtained last year from a company called Retronix, which can safely remove chips and other parts from circuit boards and requalify them for a second life.

Retronix is one of the leading players in component recovery and related areas, including reballing, retinning, and testing for component authenticity. It enables the safe extraction of precious components from a PCB. Importantly, it can recover these parts while maintaining security, quality, and certification standards that are important to the industries it serves. Jabil said Retronix can solve problems related to future component obsolescence, wring more value out of components over time, and reduce waste.

The move puts the company in a unique position. It can advocate for customers to adopt more sustainable practices in the design phase—when most of any device’s or system’s environmental impact is locked in—and at the end of the product’s lifespan—when it comes time to recycle, refurbish, reuse the device or the chips inside, said Jed Pecchioli, Jabil’s vice president of supply-chain operations.

“Our objective is to help our customers maximize every material and reduce electronic waste across the product lifecycle from design to end-of-life.”

The Difficulties of Dealing with Electronic Waste

The recycling process for electronic waste is constantly improving. But, according to Pecchioli, real innovation is rare.

Processing electronic waste is a rough-and-tumble process that starts with prying the PCB out of a device. Then it’s physically dismantled so that the components can be recycled separately or, in rare cases, refurbished. Once everything of value is removed from the surface, the PCB itself is shredded into flakes and subsequently incinerated to regain precious metals that are roasted, smelted, and refined for reuse in new products.

The trouble is that the process uses “expensive, energy-consuming, colossal machines in a somewhat fractured ecosystem that focuses more on recycling instead of putting reuse and recovery first,” noted Pecchioli.

Jabil said Retronix’s technology can effectively remove chips from the PCB and replace the solder balls that act as the point of contact between the ball-grid-array (BGA) packaging and PCB without damage.

The PCB is heated from underneath and then each component is removed when the balls of solder under the package enter a molten state called reflow, protecting the chips from heat, said Jabil. Then, the packages are detached from the surface of the PCB.

By reducing thermal stress, Retronix said that its technology safeguards component integrity and helps prolong the lifespan of the components being saved. According to the company, it can also remove and recover capacitors and other passive components from the PCB. It helps that most of the parts being recovered are typically used in industries where they tend to be subject to very harsh environmental conditions.

The other part of the recovery process where it stands out is reballing—removing and replacing solder balls on the packaging. The goal is to guarantee reliable electrical connections while avoiding failures. Instead of heating up the whole component to bond the solder balls to the IC, Retronix can heat up a single tiny sphere of solder and deposit it onto the package. That reduces the risk to the packaging and adjacent regions. Besides, it’s also useful for removing oxidation and other damage to solder balls.

While Retronix’s unique technology can usually recover every component soldered onto the PCB and return them in virtually new condition, there are limitations, said Jabil. Devices may not be recoverable because of overuse or age or due to the layout and complexity of the PCB.

Electronic Component Recovery is on the Rise

Jabil said demand for components reclaimed and refurbished by Retronix’s technology is growing fast.

The ability to recover components at the end of a product’s life is useful for companies in sectors such as automotive, telecom, medical, military, and defense. Since electronics products in these industries have lifespans lasting for decades, it can be tricky to track down replacement parts when repairs are required or if you’re trying to swap out specific components on the circuit board while leaving others alone.

The pandemic also pushed more companies to explore using reclaimed and refurbished components in their products, said Pecchioli. More specifically, demand for reverse manufacturing technologies like that from Retronix surged in industries such as automotive and industrial, which endured the worst of the global chip shortage. Out-of-stock ICs and other components have been the bane of many electronic designs.

But even as the global chip shortage ends and order times for components improve, demand for reclaimed components remains on the rise, said Pecchioli. “Now, demand has shifted more to a circular economy focus as customers work to meet their sustainability goals, specifically customers who are increasing the use of electronics in smart products,” such as household appliances and medical devices.

In 2020 alone, Retronix maintained that it recovered three million electronic components—and, in many cases, refurbished them, too—from more than half a million circuit boards, saving them from being recycled or discarded.

Where will it source the circuit boards to recover chips and other components? According to Jabil, the circuit boards must come directly from its customers to be disassembled. But Pecchioli said it uses its scale and insight into the electronics supply chain to lend its customers a hand in tracking them down. That makes it easier for customers to move their products into Jabil’s facilities to be disassembled.

“We are now able to add a layer of support, leveraging Jabil’s breadth of supply-chain services and offering reverse supply-chain solutions to help our customers optimize the return process and centralize recovery and recycling activities,” said Pecchioli.

Can We Sustain a Sustainable Electronics Industry?

However, many challenges remain on the road to a more circular economy for the electronics industry. 

First is the fact that not all components on the circuit board are created equal, and so they’re not valued equally when it comes time to recover and reuse them. While Jabil’s new component recovery technology gives it the ability to safely extract “valuable” components from products, it’s unclear what will happen to parts with less residual value or are difficult to recycle, including the PCB itself.

Semiconductor firms and other electronics companies are exploring the possibility of using more sustainable materials for circuit boards. However, it’s not evident yet whether they will make much of a difference.

In addition, while engineers are making more sustainable design decisions, managing components at EOL is a separate issue that not every company is equipped to solve on a massive scale. Electronics engineers can design products that are easier to recycle and repair, which is occurring on a greater scale. But whether the product ends up being repaired or recycled at the end of its useful life is typically not their responsibility. The final decision tends to fall to their customers or their customers’ customers.

Sourcing and dismantling products, requalifying the components that can be saved, and safely recycling everything else can be a complex and costly endeavor even for the world’s largest electronics makers.

Jabil said it’s equipped to help customers dispose of or recycle circuit boards and other materials from which it recovers ICs and various other electronic components. The company can cover every step of a product’s lifecycle from the design phase to the end of its useful life—what Pecchioli calls “board-to-dust.”

For instance, Jabil said it can repair a circuit board and extend its lifespan for customers or, if requested, it’s able to facilitate the decommission and deconstruction of devices at the end of their first life.

Since new devices are in constant demand, the world’s electronic waste problem is far from peaking. The electronics industry at large will likely have to overhaul how it operates to create a more circular economy.

On that front, Jabil hopes Retronix’s technology can help put a dent in the tens of millions of tons of electronic waste the world produces every year.

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