The EU's REACH regulation, which is designed to improve the protection of human health and the environment, imposes stringent rules on the use of chemical substances. To protect jobs at its production sites at Champagné and Marolles-en-Brie, SOURIAU is bringing its electroplating process in line with REACH as well as with the requirements of its customers.
Thomas Pichot, Manager of SOURIAU's Aeronautics R&D Unit, gave an update on the implementation of the REACH directive at SOURIAU.
When does SOURIAU have to comply with the REACH regulation? Is full compliance required?
Thomas Pichot: Compliance is required starting in September 2017, but we will be allowed to use our inventories within reasonable limits.
How will the REACH regulation affect SOURIAU?
Thomas Pichot: We design and manufacture electrical and optical connectors for harsh environments, particularly those found in space, aeronautical, and industrial applications. In order to meet usage standards that impose corrosion resistance performance and stringent electrical conductivity requirements, we electroplate most of the metal components on our connectors. For example, we currently carry out cadmium plating with hexavalent chromium passivation. However, hexavalent chromium is listed as a carcinogen under REACH, so we have to find an alternative surface treatment method that offers the same technical performance.
Could SOURIAU avoid complying with REACH?
Thomas Pichot: We could outsource our surface treatment operations to a supplier located outside the EU, but that would mean rethinking our entire industrial strategy, decrease the level of control over the quality of our connectors, and possibly result in massive job losses at our two production sites in France. Even though surface coatings containing hexavalent chromium are stable, non-leaching, and therefore safe once dry, Airbus, Safran, and other aircraft manufacturers would, for ethical and environmental reasons, like us to eliminate hexavalent chromium from our manufacturing process altogether.
What solutions have you implemented to comply with REACH?
Thomas Pichot: Complying with REACH has significantly affected our production processes. We have had to invest heavily in R&D in order to be able to comply with the regulation and reduce the impact on our electroplating process as much as possible. The solution that has been developed as an alternative to cadmium plating consists of zinc-nickel plating with chromium (III) passivation, which imparts similar properties to end products while guaranteeing full compatibility with equipment already in place. Chromium (III) is not listed as a carcinogen and it is used as a surface treatment in the automotive industry.
Will you have to go through the approval procedures all over again?
Thomas Pichot: The design of our connectors that are affected by REACH remains unchanged. However, we had to obtain the necessary authorization to use this new surface treatment because our products have to comply with European and international standards. The procedures are well under way, and our key product ranges will be in compliance with REACH sometime in the last quarter of this year. We have filed for a deadline extension with the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) for the remaining portion, which corresponds to special-purpose connectors or connectors sold in smaller volumes. Our objective obviously is to be able to propose REACH-compliant viable alternatives for all our products within the next few years.