THE WORLD OF CUSTOMER ELECTRONICS

Consumer electronics answer man

First came the development and marketing of some familiar home electronics, including the videocassette recorder. Then the first consumer video camera. So, it’s no surprise that Bruce Allan is a staunch proponent of the latest high-end consumer technology, digital TV (DTV).

As vice president and general manager of Harris Corp.’s Broadcast Systems Division, Allan is encouraging broadcasters’ development of DTV and its various applications, including high-definition TV (HDTV), and generating acceptance of the new technology in the home. He also helped set HDTV standards as a member of the executive committee of the Grand Alliance.

“I really didn’t get involved with business or electronics until I was at the University of Maryland trying to figure out a career path,” Allan says. “I had parents who were very supportive [and] provided me with a lot of opportunities to learn and travel. So my career in consumer electronics … was a thing that happened as a set of circumstances.”

He began his career at RCA Corp. in 1970, working his way up to a vice presidency by 1985. “RCA and color television, at the time I was coming out of school, seemed like it would be a pretty exciting life,” Allan says.

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But it wasn’t just circumstances that brought Allan where he is today. “Bruce is blessed with great intellect. Balance that with great experience and that’s a hard combination to beat,” says longtime business associate and friend Joe Clayton, chief executive officer of telephone and telecommunications company Frontier Corp. Plus, he says, Allan is a “very competent golfer.”

Allan uses that winning combination today to position Harris as a leader in HDTV by addressing customers as partners in developing solutions.

“We’ll have a much better understanding of their needs so we can do a much better job of providing next-level solutions,” Allan says. “Our customers are the ones we are serving. We can make them successful and if they are successful, we will be successful.”

He realizes that as HDTV evolves, the relationship between broadcasters and the consumer market is a “chicken-and-egg” scenario.

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“For the consumer to adopt digital television and to adopt high definition television, it’s essential for us all to cooperate,” he says. “We need programming, we need sets and we need them in quantity in the marketplace at the same time. That’s going to happen. It’s going to take some time, but that bridge is happening.”

Harris helped build that bridge at the 1998 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas when Harris and CEMA presented an exhibit called “DTV in the Desert.” There, “broadcasters were in a position to talk first-hand with consumer electronics manufacturers. They tried to create an environment…where they could exchange information. We’ve continued working at that.”

Allan believes digital can be a huge benefit to consumers. “The advent of digital television is opening up a whole new multitude of things among broadcasters and consumer electronics companies in providing the types of services we provide today, but doing a better job of providing them,” he says. Also being developed are new services such as delivering Internet portals, data and multicasting. “It’s just a huge change and the change keeps coming faster and faster’ Allan says.

He also sees a “bright future” for digital radio. As players in that new field duel over setting a standard, Allan says, “The only question is how rapidly the parties can come together.”

As he looks optimistically to the future of TV and radio and the possibilities of new digital media in the home, he also reflects with some sentiment to his childhood, with his father as his role model. (He also has an older brother who is vice president of sales for Lucent Technologies in Korea.).

His father “came to this country from Scotland when he was 19 years old, worked as a carpenter and ended up basically as the head of the union internationally. He spent his whole life supporting his industry, his career and the people he represented. It definitely teaches you a value system.”

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He brings that value system to his own family today. He attributes much of his successes to his high-school sweetheart and wife of 30 years, Kathryn. “I have a good family and hopefully we are supportive to our children,” he says.

“I’m pretty easy if I have a good job, a nice home and a golf course. I’m very content,” he says.

Bruce Mckay Allan

Abstract: 

Bruce Allan, the vice president and general manager of consumer electronics company Harris Corp.’s Broadcast Systems Division, is a staunch supporter of High Definition Television (HDTV) and serves on the executive committee of the Grand Alliance, which sets standards for HDTV.

Careful with Your Old TV Set

FOR AMERICANS WHO ARE upgrading their televisions in time for the digital conversion on February 17, getting rid of the old analog clunker in the basement may be an afterthought. Not so for Barbara Kyle, who cringes at the thought of millions of old discarded television sets making their way to the landfill or bumping down a conveyor belt to be recycled–their parts most likely sent overseas to be sold or incinerated.

Government officials are “ushering in the biggest e-waste tsunami in history,” says Kyle, national coordinator for the Electronics TakeBack Coalition. This is the biggest planned obsolescence effort in the history of the U.S. government, she says, but officials have engaged in no national dialogue about where all the old TV sets ought to go.

“That’s just an incredible oversight, especially considering they’re pushing a huge amount of toxins into the trash,” says Kyle.

The main toxin she’s referring to is decabromodiphenyl ether, or Deca-BDE, a brominated fire retardant used in most American televisions that has been banned across the European Union because of widespread health concerns. It’s added to plastic television casings during the manufacturing process and can’t be removed or recycled.

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The chemical, which first entered the waste stream in the 1960s and ’70s, has a been detected in high concentrations in children, human breast milk, house dust, and sewage sludge, as well as in fish and wildlife around the world. It’s been found to cause behavioral problems when introduced to rats and mice, along with tumors in the liver and thyroid. The Environmental Protection Agency points to “suggestive evidence of carcinogenic potential” for Deca-BDE but does not consider it dangerous enough to warrant any restrictions under the Toxic Substances Control Act. The agency has given the American Chemical Association until 2010 to do its own tests on the compound’s environmental fate.

Those who know it best describe Deca-BDE as the terminator chemical–no matter where it’s dumped, it manages to morph into another, more dangerous form. Left to degrade in a landfill, it breaks down into Penta- and Octa-BDE, more hazardous flame retardant chemicals that were phased out by chemical makers in 2004 after they were banned in Europe and several U.S. states. When incinerated, Deca-BDE releases dioxins and furans.

“These are really toxic chemicals and in their brominated form, they go into the atmosphere and last hundreds of years,” says Arlene Blum, an expert on flame retardants and a visiting lecturer at U.C.-Berkeley.

Numbers vary on how many television sets are being dumped to make way for the digital conversion, but digital televisions were among the highest-selling holiday gifts last year. By the end of 2008, the Consumer Electronics Association estimates that more than 100 million DTV sets were shipped to U.S. households, while 112 million analog televisions were removed in 2007 and 2008 alone. And while recycling rates have increased for computers and cell phones, only 20 percent of Americans say they are recycling their television sets. But what happens to the Deca-BDE post-recycling is anybody’s guess.

I t’s been forty-one years since a well-meaning sales executive pulled Dustin Hoffman’s character aside to utter that immortal line about plastics in The Graduate . Benjamin may not have taken his advice, but he was right–plastics were the future, especially when it came to televisions. While computers have started eliminating plastics from their design–two MacBook models last year featured a metal skin–televisions have been slower to evolve. A typical digital television uses nearly twenty pounds of plastic when all the components are accounted for.

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That’s a lot of plastic–and these days, nobody seems to want it. When a television is recycled, the plastic casing is baled and sent to a processor to be taken apart and resold to the highest bidder. In the present marketplace, however, plastics are a cheap commodity. Because the export of plastics is not governed by any international law, some recyclers simply send it to other countries, where it gets burned. Even certified responsible recyclers aren’t required to verify what happens to plastics they send to a processor. Other television components, by contrast, like lead glass and mercury, are carefully tracked because they are considered hazardous components.

“There’s battery people, there’s glass people, there’s smelters. I don’t think there’s as much focus on the plastics,” says Gina Chiarella, chief operating officer with We Recycle!, a leading responsible electronics recycler serving New York and Connecticut. “Once it becomes a commodity, we’re not tracking where the processor is selling them,” she added. “We want to know that they’re not dumping it in a river somewhere.”

Selling the plastic back to an electronics manufacturer would seem like a logical step, but the irony is that companies such as Sony and Samsung will no longer accept recycled plastic laced with Deca-BDE in light of the recent ban in Europe.

“What’s the high road? There is none,” says Kyle. “That’s the sad thing. Once you have plastic laced with brominated flame retardants your options are you either down-cycle it into something else, or you trash it.”

The flame retardant issue has made recycling plastics so difficult that only a few companies have emerged with the skills to do it. The world’s largest plastics reprocessor, MBA Polymers, based in Richmond, California, has found a way to separate out plastics containing Deca-BDE through testing, shredding, and re-testing. The company has manufacturing plants in Austria and China that take cell phones, computers, televisions, and even car parts and convert them into post-consumer plastic beads smaller than the size of a BB gun pellet.

Responsible recycling is expensive, which is why MBA Polymers is almost alone in its field. “We’re the biggest and we’re pretty tiny. We’ve only been doing it on a worldwide commercial scale for a few years,” said company founder and CEO Mike Biddle.

While Biddle’s company meets EU standards for maximum bromine content in new products, he cannot say the same for some of his shadier competitors. “There’s probably a few small players who will use anything they can find, cheaply,” he acknowledges. He suggests there’s nothing to stop them from turning it into other products, like plastic plates or children’s toys bound for the United States.

T he European ban has turned Deca-BDE into bad business. All leading TV manufacturers say they’ve already stopped using it, with the exception of Panasonic. These same companies, including Sony, Samsung, Sharp, and Philips, also have a stated goal of eliminating all brominated flame retardants from their products by 2012 or sooner.

The problem is, no one knows what they’re replacing it with, says Alexandra MacPherson, project director of Clean Production Action, a group that works with electronics and car companies on adopting “green” chemicals and products that are better for the environment. Some known alternatives to Deca-BDE contain ingredients environmentalists have already waged battles against, such as Bisphenol-A (which Canada plans to ban in plastic baby bottles) and Tris (2, 3,-dibromopropyl) phosphate, or chlorinated Tris, which was banned in children’s sleepwear in 1977.

“TV manufacturers have been much slower to embrace environmental designs at the front end,” says MacPherson.

If Deca-BDE were truly no longer in use, that would be news to Biddle. His technicians still find the chemical in more televisions than any other type of flame retardant. And then there’s the cheaper, off-brand televisions sold at discount department stores. They’re not pursuing a global sales strategy and have little incentive to change, points out MacPherson. “There’s a big percentage of TV manufacturers we don’t even have names for, and a lot of times they’re sold to a Wal-Mart. Who are those other guys? That’s a big challenge for us.”

Plastics aside, Kyle says responsibly recycling an old television is still the best way to keep the greatest number of toxins out of the landfill. Otherwise, it may be best to store the old relic in a dark basement corner until somebody figures out what to do with the chemicals that threaten to outlive us all.

“It seems strange for an environmental group that promotes recycling to suggest holding on to it,” she says with a laugh, “but at this point it may be the best thing.”

Consumer electronics update

“It looks like an ordinary computergame, doesn’t it?’ Gary Yost of Antic Software asked me as I walked by the Atari booth at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show. He held out a pair of glasses. “Try playing with these on,’ he said. A computer . . . a game . . . a curious pair of glasses. I was hooked. I put on the glasses, and the screen on the Atari 520 ST computer took on another dimension– literally. I was trying three-dimensional glasses from Antic (524 Second St., San Francisco, Calif. 94107). The liquid-crystal lenses act like shutters to create a 3-D image when used with the company’s software. Although a 3-D game could challenge my mind, another add-on–for Commodore’s 64 computer–challenged my body.

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“Stretch this apart as hard as youcan,’ said Rhonda Goldman of Bodylog, Inc. (34 Maple Ave., Armonk, N.Y. 10504), as she handed me a bar with handles on each end. She smiled, I stretched, and the computer took note of my performance, calculating my maximum strength. Then, using the data, the computer had me pulling the handles apart once again–using a safe amount of exertion for my body– to raise a graphic helicopter over a building. Result: computer-controlled isometrics.

Add-ons are not the only thing newin computers. Commodore and Atari have PC-compatible models ["What's New in Electronics,' this issue], and Amstrad is now distributing its British PC ["ENF,' Jan.] in the United States. All the computers are in the $700 price range.

Computers are far from being the only devices that use digital electronics. Digital control and digital memories are creating entirely new kinds of features for video gear. For example, you use a light pen to program a new VCR from Toshiba. A menu of selections appears on the screen, and you use the pen to touch and pick the time and channels you’d like. For channel changers, there’s a Panasonic VCR that lets you see up to four different scenes at once: The screen divides into four sections. The electronics in Magnavox’s VHS-C camcorder can simulate a 1/1,000-second shutter. Result: Fast movements that ordinarily would be blurred during playback –such as a golf swing–are perfectly clear. Once you’ve made your home “movie’ tape, new videotape editors from Sony, Showtime, and Vidicraft let you turn it into a nearly professional-looking recording. For a professional-sounding recording, Zenith has a full-size VHS camcorder that uses the VHS hi-fi system for recording high-quality stereo sound.

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Digital audio tape (DAT) recordersappeared on the show floor, but were not yet for sale. A Sony demonstrator made that perfectly clear. When I covered my press badge and asked when the DATs would be available, his eyes glazed over and he began to speak as though he were a recording. “This is a prototype,’ he said in robotese. “We have absolutely no idea when the Sony digital audio tape recorder will be offered for sale.’ Rumors are that somebody will start selling a DAT by this August. (I suspect it could be as early as June.) Once one company does it, others are sure to follow.

Finally, despite all the high-techhype, packaging seems to be one of the strongest selling points for this year’s consumer electronics. For example, red, blue, and green TVs–to blend with any home setting–are typical. Yech, I thought. How can a good piece of electronic gear come in a red box? Then I saw a pink VCR from Panasonic . . . and began to think how well it would go with the curtains in my daughter’s room.