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InTechnology Podcast

The PC Lifecycle: Sustainability at Every Stage (152)

In this episode of InTechnology, Camille and Tom get into sustainability for PCs with Gokul Subramaniam, Vice President and General Manager of Intel Client Platforms and Systems. The conversation covers the PC lifecycle carbon footprint, how to get consumers and manufacturers on board with sustainability for PCs, and future predictions for giving PCs a second life.

To find the transcription of this podcast, scroll to the bottom of the page.

To find more episodes of InTechnology, visit our homepage. To read more about cybersecurity, sustainability, and technology topics, visit our blog.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the guests and author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Intel Corporation.

Follow our hosts Tom Garrison @tommgarrison and Camille @morhardt.

Learn more about Intel Cybersecurity and the Intel Compute Life Cycle (CLA).

The PC Lifecycle Carbon Footprint

There are carbon emissions at every point in a PC’s lifecycle—in manufacturing, in use, and at the end of a PC’s life. Focusing on some parts of the lifecycle while ignoring others can be detrimental to sustainability. Manufacturers must be taking a sustainable approach to every step of a PC’s or a laptop’s existence.

When it comes to manufacturing, using less carbon in motherboards is one solution. This includes reducing carbon in the PCB by using more eco-friendly materials (recyclable and recycled materials, as well as conflict-free minerals) or fewer materials overall. Another solution is low-temperature soldering, a new technology that helps reduce the amount of temperature and, therefore, the amount of energy needed to surface mount components on the PCB.

Getting Consumers and Manufacturers on Board with Sustainability

We know sustainability is important for the environment, but how can sustainability become a priority for consumers and manufacturers? Gokul suggests making sustainability part of the consumer experience and that it must be visually appealing first. He uses the rise of stainless steel water bottles as a comparable example. Manufacturers can gain consumer trust by to embrace eco-labels such as EPEAT, ERP Lot 3, CEC, and TCO for their PCs and other devices.

Sustainability through Second Life-ing PCs

Gokul foresees a future boom in the second-life market for PCs, laptops, and other devices. Rather than tossing devices to the recycle bin as soon as consumers are done with them, he predicts people will become more conscious about how they can upgrade, repair, and refurbish existing devices. This could take the form of a secondary market like Carfax for vehicles, where consumers can run reports on used devices they wish to sell and purchase. It could also look like more people refurbishing their unused devices and giving them to others in need.

Gokul Subramaniam, Vice President and General Manager of Intel Client Platforms and Systems

Gokul Subramaniam PC sustainability carbon footprint

Gokul Subramaniam is a global industry leader in technology, engineering, and product development. He has over two decades of experience and has been with Intel since 2012. Aside from his current role as VP and GM of Intel Client Platforms and Systems, Gokul is also the Client Sustainability Executive Sponsor. He has a Master’s degree in Computer Science and Engineering from The University of Texas at Arlington, and he has completed the Executive Program in General Management from the MIT Sloan School of Management.

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[00:00:11] Gokul Subramanian: Sustainability as the user experience is gonna be a big one. Everybody is really gonna want to see sustainability in the product that they’re buying which means it’s a visible factor.

[00:00:28] Tom Garrison: Hi, and welcome to the InTechnology podcast. I’m your host Tom Garrison, and with me is my co-host Camille Morhardt. And today we have Gokul Subramanian. He’s the Vice President and General Manager of Intel Client Platforms and Systems, and the Client Sustainability Executive Sponsor.  He has over 20 years of experience in technology, engineering and product development. He’s driving strategic engineering on sustainability, building modular and low-carbon footprint computing devices with technology innovations. So welcome to the podcast, Gokul.

[00:01:05] Gokul Subramanian: Hey Tom, thanks. Great to be here and I look forward to our discussion.

[00:01:10] Tom Garrison: Yeah, so in the introduction there, it talks about you working on sustainability. And I wonder, you know, for the listeners here, this isn’t just about what Intel per se is doing, but kind of the industry in general. So I think it’s important to understand where are the fruitful parts of going after engineering around sustainability when you think about a PC client   device, like a laptop or a desktop?

[00:01:37] Gokul Subramanian: It spans across the entire lifecycle, like you would for any product that you build across manufacturing–when you build the PC itself, how much carbon emission are you really impacting? And then it goes into the operational side. When the user starts using the PC, how much of power and energy efficiencies that they are really impacted by when they have their active usages from the PC?

And the last one is, as they use the PC and get near towards the end of life, what happens to the piece of equipment and what are the things that can be done to revive, reuse, repair it before it hits the recycle yard?

[00:02:18] Camille Morhardt: Well, which of those three areas within the lifecycle is the most sort of carbon intensive?  Where’s the biggest focus area for you.

[00:02:26] Gokul Subramanian: It actually spans across all three, Camille. And that’s an interesting one. And it’s always a tricky one because when you try to focus on one–PC being a product that everybody uses for a duration of time– ignoring certain aspects of the lifecycle can be a big negative when it comes to sustainability.

So we look at manufacturing when it comes to both silicon. One should also look at how a product gets built, the entire PC–the motherboard, the chassis, the kind of battery choices, and display and keyboard, everything that’s used to make that entire product. And once that gets shipped, it doesn’t end there. Even the packaging material, once you ship it.

And then as the user starts to open it up, power it, and use it, there is that whole energy efficiency and power needed to operate the machine, which is important. It’s the operational side. So we focus on that, as well.

And you know, these days, repairability and upgradability is becoming a big key factor in sustainability. Because you don’t want to just go dump your PC a year later and then realize that you know, you wanna buy a completely new machine. So a lot of importance on that aspect, which kinda extends the first life of a PC, so to speak. But the key thing is not to ignore the lifecycle.

[00:03:42] Tom Garrison: I read somewhere–this is a while ago–that for PCs, they’re very different than servers. So PCs, all of the carbon over the life of the entire device itself is embedded in the device itself. Whereas a server, most of the carbon that is associated with a server is in use. So the electricity that it uses and the cooling that it requires and so forth. So did I get that about right or how can you illustrate that better?

[00:04:11] Camille Morhardt: You’re saying that ‘s not, cuz there’s less carbon per se in the server, it’s just because it’s using so much more electricity once it’s running, right?

[00:04:18] Tom Garrison: Yes. But, in the server, actually the magnitude of the amount of carbon is vastly higher than, than even the total magnitude of the carbon for a PC client.

So server, it uses a lot more carbon than a client, but the percentage even within them–so forget the magnitude difference–the percentage of carbon for servers is vastly weighted towards “in use” whereas the vast majority of carbon for a PC–albeit on a lower overall scale–is in what it takes to build the device.

[00:04:53] Gokul Subramanian: Yeah, Tom, you’re spot on. And like you clearly said, the use carbon footprint or the carbon emission is in the thousands, if I may, on the server, whereas it’s in the hundreds just to show the unit difference, uh, as you use it. That’s why a lot of focuses on the manufacturing, and it’s also pretty interesting to know that more than 65% of the carbon footprint is on the motherboard, which is a key part of how we can go help reduce that carbon footprint as we have manufacturers building these computers, pay attention to every part of what’s going into their product.

[00:05:26] Tom Garrison: You mentioned the motherboard, and I think a lot of people probably don’t realize this, but for a typical laptop, give our listeners an idea of how big is a motherboard. And, and you think about the, the, the total size of a laptop is, you know, we all know we have a, a mental image of the, the size of the keyboard and the screen and whatnot, but inside, how big is the motherboard for a laptop?

[00:05:53] Gokul Subramanian: Typically, uh, most laptops have motherboard that’s almost, uh, 70% of the real estate below the keyboard. So it takes almost 30 to 40% of the pace of the laptop inside the chassis–that’s the size of the motherboard–and several hundred components that go in there, as well.

[00:06:11] Tom Garrison: Right? So that’s where I was going. ADD SPACE You may think that it’s exactly the size of your laptop, but it’s actually not. It’s, it’s only about maybe two-thirds to three-quarters of the size of the laptop itself. And then on the device, you already said it’s a couple hundred components, right?

[00:06:28] Gokul Subramanian: It’s a lot more, and again, it varies.  On an average, you could go 400-500 different components depending on what kind of PC you’re using–a 30-inch laptop or a gaming PC. So there is a range. But there are several components that go into that model board, and that’s where bulk of the opportunity exists. In terms of how we can make it more, uh, carbon footprint, lower and carbon footprint, cause that’s a big part of the manufacturing side of things.

[00:06:54] Tom Garrison: And so can you just walk through what those are? So you, you talked about reducing the count of components. What are the other sort of carbon aspects of the motherboard?

[00:07:05] Gokul Subramanian: So it starts out with a PCB itself.  The PCB has many layers; the pre-peg and the kind of copper you use for running the PCB, and then you have the components that are surface mounted on the PCB.

The key aspects are the size of the motherboard is important. The number of layers that are there in the PCB is another critical aspect in terms of how much copper and what kind of recycled copper you use. Component reduction itself– many discrete components versus integrating them into ASICs that you can use. So there are power deliveries, there are display connectors, there are USB connectors and charging circuits, memory storage, wifi, Bluetooth. All of these components go to the motherboard. Making the modular is gonna be super critical because then you have an opportunity to either upgrade your memory or your storage versus having to replace the entire motherboard. That’s a big part.

Last but not the least, is to kind of make the trade off. How much do I really go on sustainability that it becomes cost prohibitive versus how much can I do in a manner that it can scale, so that I can manufacture several hundreds of thousands or millions of these computers as they go out for users?

[00:08:21] Tom Garrison: One thing you didn’t mention, which I think would be good, interesting. And I, when I learned this, I was kind of like, “wow” is the manufacturing of it. So like the amount of energy it takes to literally solder and stuff; can you talk about that a little bit?

[00:08:34] Gokul Subramanian: Yeah, yeah. No, so thanks for bringing that up, Tom.  So there is a new technology called the low temperature solder which really helps in reducing the amount of temperature needed, which means lower energy for you to actually surface mount these components on the PCB–which is again, a big part. It’s not just the motherboard, it’s the energy we use to actually build these boards in the factory that also contributes to the carbon footprint.

[00:09:01] Camille Morhardt: What do you think is the main driver for people in purchasing a new laptop? And is that something that could be modular or swapped out or is that something that’s kind of integral to the motherboard itself?

[00:09:14] Gokul Subramanian: Actually, that’s a, a great question Camille because, if you look at the motherboard, there is always this configurability that the end user looks at, Hey, how much memory do I have? What kind of storage do I have? How many USB ports do I wanna pick?

So you could take the modularity entirely to one end of the spectrum and make it super modular into a Lego block, which may put a lot of onus on the user to almost behave like an engineer to assemble. So it may cater to certain enthusiasts who want to do, but it, but it may not cater to everybody who wants to build a laptop from scratch.

And then there is the other extreme where everything is built in. They’re all on the board, and if something goes wrong, you gotta repair or replace the entire motherboard. And that’s the other end, end of it. So one of the big challenges and opportunities for this industry is where is that middle ground? What is the right modularity that we can tap into? And typically speaking, storage memory, and the ports that you have, these are ports wear and tear as you plug in and plug out.–so if something goes wrong with your port, you don’t wanna change your model, but you just want to change only the IO module. So there are those aspects that are typically considered as big value add, if you can design it in a modular fashion, that will help the end user.

[00:10:33] Camille Morhardt: Is it counterintuitive or opposite incentive then though for computer manufacturers or even the component manufacturers, even the company you work for, to have people extend the life of the laptop or the PC? How are those two things having a win-win situation? As opposed to a conflict?

[00:10:53] Gokul Subramanian: It’s not an easy answer. Now there, there are gonna be those users who will have a laptop for a much extended period of time because their usage is very different from others who always want to be in the bleeding edge of the technology because they want the maximum performance, new features and capabilities. So I don’t think there is a one-size fit all, but it does bring a healthy tension in the system, which is trying to meet the needs of what the users want.

A lot of the users are starting to want sustainability as an experience. You know, a decade or two ago people were going to the airport, buying water bottles, putting it in their bag.  You see a lot of people carrying stainless steel water bottles and refilling the bottle with water and not using the plastic water bottle. And now that shows that they care. And, and I think the trend is more where users want to take a device out and they want to show that they’ve actually been a responsible citizen to the planet where they have a, a sustainable compute device.

So you’re seeing that trend shift, so that causes an interesting tension that you just brought up where we have to balance it out what’s the right thing for the business and what’s the right thing for, for the users are caring for.

[00:12:04] Camille Morhardt: Can you talk about what part the battery plays when you’re dealing with, I guess specifically laptops, although I’m, I know some desktops also have batteries.

[00:12:14] Gokul Subramanian: Couple of things, uh, Camille one is, uh, as you use the product, you wanna make sure you’re drawing lesser power. So that you are more power efficient, you’re energy efficient for the usages that you’re using, the, uh, PC for–you know, be it for a media conference or a podcast like this versus reading email versus browsing.

There are different kind of workloads that has a different level of stress on the CPUS as opposed to the rest of the parts, which is draining power. And so that’s one important thing so that you want to improve the battery life and be in low power.

The second thing itself is the choice of material that you pick for the batteries and what are the kind of those materials that you could use as you build these battery packs so that a) longevity is there, and second, the recyclability is also there.

[00:12:59] Tom Garrison: If somebody cares about sustainability, where do they get information to know what device is better from a sustainability perspective than the next device on the shelf at the retailer? How do they get information to make an informed decision.

[00:13:17] Gokul Subramanian: In the computing industry, we’re still in a fledgling stage where that messaging is not as well brought out. But key things that they can look for is what is the material used for building the PC? Are they using recycled chassis material rather than use some of the materials that cannot be recycled? Look for repairability, upgradeability in the product. And of course, what is the energy efficiency? How much is the power the laptop consumes for a typical usage that they run so that they know what that means for them?

We are seeing the industry starting to bring that messaging out. Similar to the Energy Star, there are different eco labels that are for sustainability that’s starting to show up in products. One such in North America is E-Beat. There are similar ones like the European Union, ERP Lot 3. There is a CEC, and a TCO. These are other similar eco labels that are there. So looking for products that does have those eco labels is another good indicator for a buyer.

[00:14:21] Camille Morhardt: Is there any kind of radical shift happening in terms of the materials being used or the process being used in the manufacturing?  You know, are we starting to see, I don’t know, bamboo used in computers as opposed to, you know what I’m saying? Is there anything like sort of radically different? or is it more about just using less of something or having to not replace the entire thing?

[00:14:43] Gokul Subramanian: There’s, uh, two categories of materials that are starting to surface.  One is using recyclable material or recycled material also to build your chassis; rather than mining and taking a completely new raw material, you’re actually building your chassis with something that was already hitting the dump yard and you were able to salvage and recycle it.

So recycled aluminum, people are starting to use earthy material. We saw some products that are starting to come out with different material composites where, uh, they’re brought together to give the reliability and still have the element of recycled capability. So that’s one category.

The second category of materials that are typically looked at as conflict-free minerals. So you wanna build your PC with those responsible minerals–either because of geopolitical or because they’re not renewable and they’re really affecting the earth. There are alternate sources of materials that can be used for certain components. So that’s the other category of material choice that our, the industry is looking at.

[00:15:45] Camille Morhardt: I was just wondering if you could tell us what the conflict minerals are for people who aren’t sure.

[00:15:50] Gokul Subramanian: Tantelum is one. There is a few others in the category like thin and gold and few others, which are used for connectors and certain components in the motherboard; wherein there are alternates for it or you could design without them.

[00:16:04] Tom Garrison: Yeah, and I think some of the conflict free stuff, as well, there are some pretty unethical behaviors that happen in those industries. And so understanding the source of the material, in some cases, is mostly where the value is. In other cases it’s exactly, I think what Gokul said, which is that the mineral itself is something we want to use less of.

So Gokul I, this is all interesting. I think, you know, understanding more about the, the PC that’s in front of each of us when we work or when we’re a home, I think is an important thing. And I think at a high level, most people understand that sustainability is important and it is happily getting more and more important.

But I, I’d like you to look ahead maybe the next, I don’t know, several years: where do you think the industry’s going with regards to sustainability? Can you give us any insights into what you think might or might not happen?

[00:17:02] Gokul Subramanian: Everybody is going to really wanna see sustainability in the product that they’re buying, which means it’s a visible factor, just like how stainless steel bottles replaced plastic. You can see it. You don’t have to go through a label or anything. So similarly, they’re gonna start looking for chassis when they see the product more than the mother board and other things, first thing that appeals to them.

The second aspect would be, um, upgradeability and repairability. I think “right to repair” has become kind of a theme in certain product trends. And I think, uh, that helps. My take is it may not be the most prevalent one because you’re gonna have different categories of users, some that may not want to, but that would. But even if they cannot repair, they would wanna make sure that only what’s broken is fixed, but not the entire thing. So there’s becoming more of that planet responsibility that everybody cares, even though each user may not be the nerd or the engineer who wants to go geek out on replacing things.

And then a third aspect is going to be more around end of first life rather than end of life–meaning people are gonna wanna look at how can my PC become a value for somebody else? I have upgraded, maybe someone else is gonna upgrade to what I had, which is going to create other market and business model opportunity.  People call it secondary market, but I think that carries a little bit of a quality tag to it, which may or may not be the case. I think the market should mature in the timeframe that you’re saying that these are markets that are really going to get the second life of it. Similar to a Carfax, people are gonna be able to run a report on their compute and get to know what parts are there, how long they existed, what’s the wear and tear, then they can make a really solid decision when they wanna buy that secondary device or in the secondary market.

Sustainability as the user experience is gonna be a big one. You know, we talk about user experience in so many uh, ways, but I think people are gonna want to feel that experience when they buy a sustainable product.

[00:19:07] Camille Morhardt: Do you have any sense of, if somebody is really focused on this with respect to their own computer or their own household of computers, what kind of a difference does that make over a human lifespan? And it might not be a fair question because I don’t know that too many people could answer that from drinking out of a water bottle, you know, reusable water bottle. And yet a lot of people do that. So maybe it’s more of a symbol than an actual, you know, attempt to count or measure over the course of your life.

But do you have any sense of that, how much of a difference you could make as an individual?

[00:19:45] Gokul Subramanian: There is a whole, uh, opportunity of users who lack equitable technology in education and a lot of the secondary market in most affordable households that have had computers have more than one, if not two or three sitting in the house and if they find a right way to refurbish them and hand it out to somebody who can actually gain that equitable technology, that’s becoming a pretty important place where old functional computers can actually become usable somewhere else in the market.

The other aspect why people keep using it is because they don’t know what happens to their data. So if the industry comes with a very secure way of being able to take care of the data in their old PCs, then there is more opportunity for responsible planet citizens to do something with the device. A lot of times they don’t know what to do with it because their data is there and they’re worried about how to take care of the data and making that simpler would make a lot more possibilities.

[00:20:55] Tom Garrison: Well Gokul, it’s been good talking to you. It’s interesting to hear how [00:21:00] the PC market is evolving and what’s gonna happen. I appreciate you spending the time with us.

[00:21:05] Gokul Subramanian: Thanks, Tom. It’s always fun to talk about sustainability and area that’s really, uh, at its infancy, but it’s got a lot of opportunities for the industry to make a difference.   Thank you.

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