It’s not easy being green

May 1, 2009
Environmental consciousness may create new business opportunities for the machine-vision industry, but some side effects may be less healthy
Environmental consciousness may create new business opportunities for the machine-vision industry, but some side effects may be less healthy

by Andy Wilson, editor

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One of the benefits of being a journalist is that one occasionally is treated to very expensive meals by companies looking to gain some exposure. Such food tastes especially good since, as my father used to say, it doesn’t taste of copper. Sometimes, however, meeting a number of companies in a single day means that the potential of a meal must be forfeited for the sake of a story.

This was the case last month when I visited Xcitex, a company that makes image-analysis software, in the pursuit of a feature on high-speed imaging. Luckily, the folks at Xcitex had placed a rather large bowl of chocolate mints in the foyer of their building and, while waiting for the interview, I decided to scoff a few to ward off hunger.

Being a rather nervous type, I unfolded the chocolates from their green wrapper and rolled the wrapper of each backwards and forwards between my hands. After our host emerged, I decided to question him on the demonstration of image analysis that was being projected from a rather expensive flat-panel display, also located in the foyer.

As the demonstration continued I nervously rubbed by neck in an attempt to concentrate more fully on the explanation. To capture the essence of the story I then proceeded to extract a pen from my suit pocket. In doing so, I noticed that both my hands had turned dark green.

As a fan of the Fox TV show “House,” I immediately recalled an episode where Gregory House made an incorrect diagnosis and cut off a man’s foot due to what he perceived was gangrene. I panicked.

Luckily, my host escorted me to the nearest washroom rather than operating theater. There, to my horror, I saw that my hands, my neck, and part of my face had turned dark green. After splashing copious amounts of water on myself I returned to the conference room where I was greeted with looks of bemusement.

The color of money

When the interview was over, I contemplated the effects of “being green” during the drive home. Although advances in solar and wind power will certainly benefit developers of machine-vision systems, all is not well on the green front. For example, the current worldwide initiative to reduce the use of potentially hazardous materials such as lead is driving the electronics industry to consider alternatives to the widely used tin-lead alloys found in plating.

The European Union already has enacted legislation known as the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) and Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directives to eliminate most uses of lead from their products. Promoted as easing manufacturing and compatible with existing assembly methods, pure tin plating is seen as an effective alternative.

So much so that many manufacturers have offered pure tin-plated components as standard commercial products. But most have never heard of “tin whiskers”—a metallurgical phenomenon involving the spontaneous growth of tiny hairs from a metallic surface such as ICs bonded to circuit boards. This growth can cause catastrophic effects in mission-critical systems such as aircraft, satellites, and defense-related equipment.

Indeed, the effect of tin whiskers has already been blamed for satellite failures such as the Galaxy IV. Anyone who wishes to visit NASA’s Tin Whisker web site at can see the detrimental effects of this phenomenon.

So, while you hear much written in the press about “going green” and the benefits of RoHS, remember there is always another side of the story. After your tightly bonded FPGA fails on your frame grabber within the next ten years, it may not be the fault of the board manufacturer but the processes that were mandated to make the world safer. While you might be enjoying the benefits of such green thoughts now, it may only rub off on you in the end.

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