Michael Carter  SabtechChange in electronic technology is accelerating throughout all industries. Hardware technology goes out of manufacture because of lack of demand. Lifetime buys to address obsolescence are shortsighted. The solution is to design out technology going obsolete before it affects product availability.

Let’s face it, customers get nervous when a supplier changes a design, even if the new design is, “form, fit and function” compatible. In the military and defense world, configuration changes are under great scrutiny, even if it is COTS (Commercial off the Shelf) technology. The medical, networking, automotive, factory automation and industrial control industries all have varying degrees of tolerance for design changes. Planning for obsolescence to reduce impact to fit, performance, operability, and support requires planning that includes:

  • Forecasting and Assessment
  • Impact and Criticality
  • Selection Processes
  • Replacement Hardware
  • Design
  • Customer Notification

Forecasting for hardware obsolescence is difficult. However, most manufacturers provide a year or more notice.

Assessment of forecasted obsolescence includes: complexity, scheduling, performance requirements and cost. After assessment, assign priorities, develop budgets, and schedule design activities.

Impact and Criticality factors to consider: applications, usage volume, inventory levels, and lead time. High usage hardware going obsolete significantly impacts revenue; high priority should be given here.

To assess the impact and criticality of an obsolete component, a company must identify the applications, volume of usage, inventory, and lead time of availability. Components going obsolete that are used in a high percentage of company products will have a significant impact on revenue once not available; therefore, special attention and priority should be given to these components. However, the impact may be mitigated if the company has a high level of inventory in excess of order demand, the lead time is short, or there is a long time before the component is no longer available.

The Selection Process must take into account:

  • Technology
  • Application – Use and environmental
  • Performance
  • Availability – Sources and lead-time
  • Supplier reputation

Replacement Hardware includes: direct substitutes, alternate parts, and new components. Direct substitutes have the functional and physical characteristics of the original. Direct substitutes do not require design changes to other parts, circuit boards, or systems.

Alternate hardware has the same performance characteristics as original hardware in terms of operation, reliability, and maintainability, but not physical characteristics. Alternates require redesign of circuit boards and / or systems.

The Design of new components should address the goal to provide a new circuit board or system that is a direct replacement for the old one. Backward and forward compatibility is a critical issue to most customers. Designing for backward compatibility requires the new design to work in legacy applications without performance issues. In addition, to address compatibility, the new design must have the same form factor and input and output interface connections as the replaced design.

New design may require circuit boards in a different form factor. However, a direct replacement may be possible through the use of a daughter / carrier card design configuration. In fact, many new designs require the use of carrier cards as these configurations are becoming more prevalent with new technologies to reduce size, weight and power (SWaP).

Customer Notification must occur as soon as possible. Important information to supply includes:

  • Products affected
  • How long existing hardware will be available
  • When prototypes and production hardware will be available

Customers may need additional information specific to their applications, performance-related issues, and qualification. All of these should be considered and made readily available to them.

Technology obsolescence is a reality; how well a company addresses its impact to its products and customers will be a significant factor in the company’s success.