For some time now, products with lifecycles over one year that comprise electronic components have been fraught with component obsolescence problems as these components unexpectedly cease to be available. Design reuse, as well as out-of-date OEM internal component libraries and databases, compound this risk when obsolete parts are unknowingly designed into these new products.
The consequences of electronic component obsolescence can be considerable. Redesigning a product often delays its introduction into the market. In addition, aftermarket sourcing can introduce margin-eroding costs and unreliable supply situations. Projects may even get cancelled because no solution provides a cost effective alternative. Therefore, consequences may range from direct costs resulting from inefficient operations to potentially serious indirect costs caused by lost market opportunities.
Tracking the status of electronic components is a daunting task. Although it is a common practice for component suppliers to issue product change notifications (PCNs) when they plan to discontinue a product, there is no legal requirement for them to do so. The reliability of obsolescent PCNs therefore varies greatly from one supplier to the next. Indeed, some suppliers and product lines routinely announce the obsolescence of hundreds of components without ever issuing a single PCN. Furthermore, the odds of timely receiving a PCN are diminished greatly when purchasing electronic components from a distributor or through a contract manufacturer. In either case, it is the distributor or contract manufacturer who will receive notice and they may or may not forward the necessary information to the OEM.
Component obsolescence situations often are not immediately apparent. As the availability of a component gets progressively worse, purchasing and supply chain management departments must invest increasingly more effort to find it. The problem keeps recurring and getting more difficult to solve until it is finally discovered that the sought-after component is obsolete and no longer available.
When a component becomes difficult to procure or an obsolescence notification is received, a search begins for a drop-in replacement. Identifying the realm of possible drop-in replacements can be quite difficult since online databases only provide partial cross-referencing capabilities: most cross-referencing is based on part numbers and does not include overseas parts or military equivalents, which are numbered differently. Equivalent parts must be qualified and printed circuit boards must undergo testing anew before a replacement can be used, causing additional disruption and increasing costs further.
Component obsolescence is an escalating problem as component life cycles get shorter due to accelerating technological innovation and the relentless pressure on chip companies to remain very profitable at all times. Thousands of new electronic components are introduced into the market every month with almost as many being discontinued. Companies have neither the time nor the resources to research and evaluate every device that will be used in a final product as they face-off with competitors striving to beat them to market.
According to Henry Livingston, Vice-Chair of the Government Electronics & Information Technology Association (GEIA) G-12 Solid State Devices Committee, successfully managing component obsolescence requires a proactive approach like the one outlined in EIA (Electronic Industries Alliance) Engineering Bulletin GEB1, "Diminishing Manufacturing Sources and Material Shortages (DMSMS) Management Practices," which was adopted in December 2000 for use by the Department of Defense (DoD).
Livingston states: "The building blocks of effective proactive management of DMSMS are established during the design and development of systems. If systems are designed with the inevitability of DMSMS in mind, early solution paths with large-scale solutions can be started at an appropriately early time to enable intelligent choices without the imminent threat of system inoperability."
Companies can mitigate their exposure to component obsolescence risks and the need for product redesign by following the eight steps listed below:
1) Before introducing a new product, verify the obsolescence status of all designed-in components as early as possible in the design process.
2) Avoid designing-in sole source components and be sure to look beyond a single vendor's line card when evaluating options.
3) Select packaging adopted by multiple manufacturers, drop-in equivalents are the easiest alternative to redesigns when faced with an obsolete component.
4) When testing a board, include potential drop-in replacement components from different manufacturers and sources in the testing process to prequalify potential alternates.
5) New technology is always subject to revisions; consider this risk and weigh it carefully against the relative value of the new capabilities offered by such technology.
6) Assess the risk of a given component going obsolete in the future by studying how many manufacturers are picking up and dropping that technology or packaging.
7) Establish a method for tracking products and their components and regularly verify the obsolescence status of all components for all projects throughout the product lifecycle.
8) When using 5-volt devices, consider using a voltage regulator (or providing alternate power sources near high risk components) that can adapt to the different current requirements of manufacturers' components.
Hence, component obsolescence management requires the collaboration of multiple parties. Design engineers should avoid designing-in obsolete and high-risk components at the outset. Component engineers should ensure that libraries show the correct status of each component. Testing and quality assurance engineers should prequalify alternates ahead of time so that drop-in alternate scenarios are smooth, rapid and inexpensive. And purchasers must discover whether an availability problem is a temporary supply issue or a permanent obsolescence situation. Furthermore, more than one alternate component should be suggested for qualification.
For OEMs, these steps boil down to two processes: getting clean and staying clean. "Getting clean" implies flagging obsolete components in internal databases and engineering libraries, removing such obsolete components and adding new ones. "Staying clean" implies keeping these internal databases and engineering libraries from losing track of which components are safe to design-in and which are not.
Another method of avoiding obsolescence is technology road mapping. Used for pinpointing product needs, it invokes the development decisions and technology used in making a component to identify acceptable alternatives. Technology roadmaps reduce the risk of obsolescence by developing a strategy for inserting technology during the entire life cycle. The benefits of technology road mapping are that it identifies gaps in technology that must be addressed to reach product performance expectations. It also identifies ways to weigh research and development investments by synchronizing research activities.
As the electronics industry encounters an increasing number of obsolescence situations, the issue will gain more exposure and have more resources allocated to resolving it. Therefore, we can look forward to the formation of a number of organizations of industry representatives working together to combat common obsolescence problems.
Mark Husey is product marketing manager of Precience Inc. A 22-year veteran of the EDA industry, Husey is a former corporate application engineer at Valor Computerized Systems and co-founder of Pegasus Software Solutions, a value added reseller and service bureau.
© 2001 CMP Media LLC.
9/1/01, Issue # 1809, page 28.
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