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Lenovo solders a greener future for the electronics industry

When most people drop their phones, the first concern is whether or not they’ve shattered the screen. They don’t think about what’s inside the phone — like wondering if the fall bent the motherboard enough to pop the components off the circuit board. No, these thoughts are reserved for a special group — the manufacturing engineers of the world — the people who consider the things most of us don’t, testing the products we use every day to ensure that they can and will survive in the real world.

It’s this group that’s been faced with finding an answer to a question that’s been plaguing the tech industry for over a decade: How can we improve PC manufacturing while conserving energy and increasing reliability? After years of relentless dedication, a team of Lenovo engineers announced this year that they’d found the solution with the Low Temperature Solder (LTS) process — a new method of manufacturing that uses less heat and cuts back on carbon emissions.

For more than 20 years now, billions of devices — including phones — have been made in the same way. In the first step, engineers design the motherboard that contains a multitude of components before placing it in a machine that puts down tiny metal dots called solder. A very accurate computer arm, of sorts, lays down a set of all the components so everything is sitting on the small pieces of metal. During the last step, the motherboards are put in an oven for around five to six minutes, where all the pieces of solder melt and connect the thousands of components to the circuit board and to each other.

 Tadashi Kosuga and Nobutuki Kamei, memory and component, ECAT and Components, Platform Subsystem Development, showing a motherboard using the low temperature solder process.
Tadashi Kosuga and Nobutuki Kamei, memory and component, ECAT and Components, Platform Subsystem Development, showing a motherboard using the low temperature solder process.

Up until the 2000s, the industry used lead-based solder. But while it could melt at lower temperatures, it was also toxic. After a worldwide initiative to remove lead from manufacturing lines, companies started using other metals instead. Because of this, the temperatures in the ovens rose to 250 degrees Celsius. Essentially better for the environment, the new metal solder still means greater energy consumption and more chance of devices warping under the high heat.

While everyone knew it made sense to come up with a new method of manufacturing that used lower temperatures, the question that remained was how. This was not a process that could be simply modeled. Stepping up to the task, a team of Lenovo’s brightest minds tirelessly tested 3,000 sets of motherboards in runs of 30s for two or three weeks at a time.

After two years of using this old-school style of experimentation and empirical observation, our engineers finally discovered how to lower the temperature by 70 degrees Celsius. And to make sure the new process stood up to Lenovo’s standard of quality, they spent another year validating their findings.

 Using surface mount technology (SMT), the solder and flux mixture is printed on the face of the circuit board. Then components are added and heat applied to melt the solder mixture, securing and connecting the components to the board used in the ThinkPad X1 Carbon 5th generation
Using surface mount technology (SMT), the solder and flux mixture is printed on the face of the circuit board. Then components are added and heat applied to melt the solder mixture, securing and connecting the components to the board used in the ThinkPad X1 Carbon 5th generation

Despite the arduous weeks, months and years, the new low-temp soldering method will have a massive impact on how companies manufacture their devices. Already in production, the ThinkPads will be the first made with this new technology with the ThinkPad E series and the 5th generation ThinkPad X1 Carbon. As a result, Lenovo, just by our own calculations, will save up to 35 percent in carbon emissions. We’ve also experienced an increase in both reliability and durability in the early stages of development with a 50 percent decrease in warped circuit boards, as well as a reduction in defective parts per million during the manufacturing process.

With plans to share the LTS process with the entire global manufacturing industry by the end of 2018, we, at Lenovo, are confirming our commitment to sharing knowledge that has the power to reshape the future. This means that even when people can’t exactly see it, they’ll still be affected by our engineering and innovation that’s on the inside.

Lenovo plans to reduce annual CO2 emissions by 5956 metric tons

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