Green manufacturing is the name given to the process of reducing the consumption of energy and using ecologically harmless materials in the industrial production cycle. This involves everything from minimising waste to cutting toxic discharges, enhancing the efficient use of energy and limiting any adverse impact on the natural environment. It is especially important for the electronics industry to address these issues.
The sector produces millions of items a year, which have shrinking life cycles and, therefore, generate huge amounts of "e-waste". This often ends up in landfills, where the parts made from toxic elements can progressively poison the environment.
The European Union has taken a lead in introducing green manufacturing directives. These include one on Restrictions of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) which sets upper limits on the use of six hazardous materials in electrical and electronics products. Two of them are carcinogenic and the other four attack the human central nervous system. Another directive deals with the end-of-life treatment of electronic equipment and focuses on the producer's responsibility for ensuring correct disposal or recycling.
Besides that, eco-design requirements have also been put under the spotlight with another directive relating to "energy-using products" (EUP) stipulating points for compliance before a product is launched. As a result, many leading companies have set up programmes to implement green manufacturing processes, incorporating the key principles into their management philosophy and corporate culture.
Among these is Surface Mount Technology (Holdings) Limited (SMT), one of Asia's largest providers of electronics manufacturing services. Chairman and managing director, Chan Kei Biu, says the main objective is to establish the company as a responsible corporate citizen by observing and implementing green manufacturing measures. "This covers environmental considerations for every aspect of production, including resources conservation, pollutant discharges and components recycling," says Professor Chan. "Our policy is not to introduce nor use any materials in product design, production, field application and end-of-life disposal stages that may be hazardous to the ecosystem."
SMT's comprehensive system covers management practices, stock control, quality and reliability assurance, and manufacturing technologies. Going beyond that, it also embraces components testing, materials and waste control. Efforts made to be a green manufacturer are seen as offering the company a competitive edge, and creating environmentally safer processes is a major consideration for engineering, marketing and business planning. For this reason, special attention has been directed to introducing lead-free soldering, eliminating the use of heavy metals and having halogen-free materials.
"Overseas environmental regulations and increased customer awareness are also important factors," says Professor Chan.
In terms of its business activities, SMT specialises in printed circuit board assembly (PCBA) and offers complete product assembly services. These are mainly for customers in the areas of automotive electronics, computer peripherals, industrial controls, office and home appliances, telecommunications and consumer electronics. The company has also qualified for a series of ISO and safety certificates, as proof of its commitment to quality and environmental awareness.
Currently, there are two production plants in Dongguan and one in Suzhou, with a total of about 12,000 staff. However, two new factories will open in Changchun and Tianjin in mid 2007 and early 2008, respectively. The new facilities will significantly extend the capacity and scope of operations in different parts of the country, which make a major contribution to the mainland's GDP.
"Also, China's domestic market for automotives has been expanding rapidly," adds Professor Chan. "The potential of the consumer market is forever on the rise."
To prepare for the next phase of expansion, numerous senior management positions are currently on offer. These include posts managing warehousing, site materials, production and QA, and as senior maintenance engineers. The company regards the development of human resources as a key investment and, in order to attract and retain quality staff with the necessary levels of skill and commitment, has introduced the Six Sigma methodology. This has helped to enhance management practices, and there is also a wide range of continuous development and training programmes for staff at all levels.
Professor Chan is also chairman of the Hong Kong Green Manufacturing Alliance, which was established in February 2005. Its main purpose is to guide and advise local companies to adopt green practices and comply with stricter standards.
- Review environmental impact of all parts of manufacturing process
- Implement measures such as lead-free soldering, elimination of heavy metals and the use of halogen-free materials
- Comply with standards required or recommended by the European Union
- Obtain ISO 14001 certification which applies to best environmental practices
- Provide continuous training for staff on the importance of environmental awareness