Turning to aged components amidst supply chain disruption

3 min read

Although issues with the global supply chain weren’t anticipated to disappear over 2022, few could’ve predicted the chain of events that have taken place over recent weeks.

Whilst COVID-19 travel restrictions have finally begun to lift and all social distancing measures in the UK have been scrapped, the tragic situation in eastern Europe won’t help with any hopes of an improvement in the component distribution channels any time soon. 

In the wake of the ongoing issues with supply, signs of desperation are beginning to show in the industry. People are turning to aged components and even looking at non-RoHS compliant parts as they’re unable to source new ones. This isn’t something we at EMS can support, but it’s a clear indicator that some companies are no longer enforcing their environmental commitments in an attempt to keep business moving. 

The supply chain crisis escalates

The world has begun to open up after two years of battling against the challenges of the pandemic. However, devastating circumstances have meant that any hope of the supply chain returning to normal was short-lived. 

COVID-19 has had a severe impact on the global supply chain, causing a shortage of raw materials that’s had a knock-on effect on the manufacture of dozens of different parts required for electronics manufacturing. Semiconductors and silicon microchips are in incredibly low supply, and demand for these components is only getting stronger. 

We’re also seeing even more of a surge in the prices of raw materials, meaning it’s harder than ever to source certified parts at a reasonable price. Demand is perhaps at its most volatile, impacting manufacturers’ abilities to pre-order and predict their supply quantities and causing additional constraints on businesses around the world. 

For smaller manufacturers without sufficient stockpiles of materials or necessary reserves, the outlook is bleak, and many are being driven to what feels like their only option. 

An alternative solution 

Manufacturers unable to source new components have been forced to use old or ‘aged’ components instead. 

Whilst different manufacturers tend to define ‘aged components’ differently, EMS considers an aged component to be one that has been unused from an approved supply source, rather than a salvaged or reclaimed part that’s been used previously. However, even if a part hasn’t been used but has been sat around for some time, its components will age. In the case of printed circuit boards, chemical reactions will reduce the circuit’s quality and will cause the individual components to deteriorate. Of course, used parts will decline in quality much faster than unused components. 

At EMS, we judge the suitability of an aged component based on its age and its proposed application. For example, we’d be confident that a five-year-old integrated circuit (IC) used in a desk calculator should function adequately, and the potential risk if the part was to fail is low. However, we wouldn’t approve the fitment of the same aged IC into a road vehicle or a pacemaker, as the reliability and quality requirements of these applications are much higher. 

We’re very aware that the demand for certain components is at an all-time high, but the risk from using aged components in specific applications hasn’t changed. You can view our statement on the use of aged components to find out more about our internal guidance for commercial use. 

Adjusting priorities 

Another symptom of the current supply chain disruption is the resurfacing of parts that aren’t compliant with the Restriction on Hazardous Substances Directive 2015/863/EU (RoHS 3). This directive from 2015 restricts the use of hazardous substances, such as lead, in the manufacture of electronic parts. 

The RoHS 3 was implemented predominantly to prevent environmental contamination of toxic substances. For example, when lead is mined, the dust contaminates the air, soil and water and remains in the environment indefinitely. Plants exposed to lead dust absorb the metal, and any animals that ingest these plants are likely to face serious health issues. Lead is considered to be a high-risk metal and its use has been curbed drastically over the last two decades. Therefore, leaded parts aren’t compliant with the RoHS directive. Some businesses are offering to make leaded components lead-free, but this is a time-consuming and expensive process that’s unlikely to become commercially available.   

Yet despite efforts to avoid using lead in manufacturing, we’ve seen a spike in requests to use older leaded parts as an alternative, as the new lead-free components simply aren’t available. All products supplied by EMS comply and will continue to comply with the RoHS 3, despite the challenges of navigating a global supply shortage. 

Yet, the mere existence of requests to use non-compliant parts has been eye-opening. The current economic climate has meant that many companies have no choice but to disregard their environmental commitments to stay afloat. What impact will this have on environmental legislation in the future? 

Author details: Johnathan Plummer, Managing Director, EMS