Greener Manufacturing

by Jenny Donelan

Whether a company manufactures toothpicks or twin-engine aircraft, that company is almost certainly "greening up" its operations these days – or at least thinking about it. These efforts run the gamut from simple changes such as using long-life light bulbs to major transformations such as overhauling production lines. For the display industry, green efforts that go beyond general operations include making products more energy efficient, utilizing better packaging, replacing environmentally hazardous materials with more benign ones, and using less wasteful manufacturing methods.

Top of list for these companies is probably making products more energy efficient. This initiative is driven as much by customer demand as by other factors, according to Kimberly Allen, principal of the San Jose based Pañña Consulting. Allen recently completed an environmental issues survey of display manufacturers for market-research company iSuppli Corp. Seventy-three percent of the 520 survey respondents reported that energy efficiency of products was a priority. "This tends to be aligned with a company's goals anyway," says Allen, "because consumers expect that every year, battery life will increase." In order to meet these goals, companies are continually optimizing the backlighting, glass, and other components of displays so that they will drain batteries less. Just one example across much of the industry has been the gradual replacement of CCFL backlighting with more energy-efficient LEDs.

Packaging is another major focus for environmental initiative. Although displays are fragile, thoughtful packaging design can protect equipment while also minimizing environment impact – and helping the bottom line: "If you can pack 500 TVs into a shipping crate instead of 300, you've saved quite a bit," notes Allen. Last year, Hewlett-Packard took this pretty far, shipping its HP Pavilion dv6929 Entertainment Notebook to Wal-Mart and Sam's Club stores in padded messenger bags instead of conventional boxes. According to Allen, this represented an approximate 97% reduction in the amount of packaging. HP also won Wal-Mart's Home Entertainment Design Challenge as a result.

Removing hazardous materials from displays is also an ongoing effort at many companies. Allen's survey revealed that 80% of respondents are working on replacing these materials with less harmful ones. Here again, the replacement of CCFLs, which contain mercury, with LEDs is a step in the environmentally friendly direction. In terms of display glass, Corning has been one of the companies at the forefront of removing heavy metals. Materials such as arsenic and antinomy are fining agents used to remove air bubbles from molten glass, explains Peter Bocko, Chief Technology Officer, East Asia Corning Display Technologies. Barium helps with melting. And halides are sometimes substituted by manufacturers as fining agents when the heavy metals are eliminated. These materials are not only less-than-ideal substances to have around during the glass-making process; they can end up in landfills when the displays get thrown out, and also make it difficult to recycle the glass. The goal, says Bocko, is to be green "before, during, and after use." Corning introduced the first LCD glass with no added heavy metals or halides (such as chlorine or fluorine) in 2006.

Other efforts at reducing the environmental impact of display-making include solution-based processing techniques that can be performed at lower temperatures than conventional deposition methods – "without all those heaters and pumps going," says Allen. This process can be wasteful as well, she says, noting that the trick is to collect and reuse the solutions. If that can be worked out, then companies reap the benefits of dramatically lower energy bills.

In fact, while companies tend to be motivated to go green for multiple reasons, among them the urge to do the right thing and gain the appreciative eye of the consumer, the chance to cut costs may be the most powerful. "Saving money is key," says David Hsieh, DisplaySearch's Vice President of Greater China. "If you can save some cost and also take away some hazardous substances from your products and manufacturing processes, why not?" However, Allen notes that green manufacturing only really saves money when it is carefully and proactively implemented. "The smarter companies have figured out to go upstream and use Design for Environment (DFE) practices," she says. "It does require a bit of strategic investment." Companies that implement "end of pipeline" changes may find those very expensive indeed, she adds.

There is yet another factor behind the greening of display manufacturing: legislation both current and pending. Companies must be careful to comply with increasingly stringent environmental regulations both in the U.S. and abroad. The next installation in this series of news articles will focus on legislation such as the EU's RoHS (Reduction of Hazardous Substances) and WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) that are affecting the way display companies do business now and in the future. •