Obsolescence Management for Electronic Products

by Sanjay Mishra

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Here we provide obsolescence information and our techniques for obsolescence management. Typically there are two reasons to keep the product alive for a long time

  • In the mature stage all the development costs have been recouped and any sales result in additional profits (as long as the cost of obsolescence management is less than the profit).
  • The product is part of a long life cycle system costing lots of money and iy is essential to keep the high cost, long life cycle system operating. Examples of such high cost systems are military products and aircraft.

For cheap electronic products planned obsolescence approaches provide much better return on investment. It is much cheaper to replace the product than to do obsolescence management. Many consumer products that we commonly use have such built in obsolescence. For example, cell phones have proprietary lithium batteries that can be charged and discharged for a limited number of times. After the battery stops retaining charge it has to be replaced. The cost of replacing the proprietary battery is often about the same as replacing the cell phone.

Key Issues In Obsolescence Management

Very often obsolescence management is confined to availability of parts, but in our opinion, the issue of obsolescence management goes beyond that. Here are the key issues

  • Design for the longest possible product life cycle
  • Availability of Electronic Parts
  • Skills to modify the product
  • Knowledge of the product, system and domain
  • Tools to modify the product
  • Continuing Electronic Security and Support Issues

At Fast Product Development when we do obsolescence management for a product we take a look at all these issues. We usually charge a small, fixed monthly fee for each product we manage. We can take over your obsolete products and make them manufacturable once again or we can make an Obsolescence Management Plan for you. If you are a Government Contractor we will ensure that the plan follows Diminishing Manufacturing Sources and Material Shortages (DMSMS) Guidelines.

Design with Obsolescence Management

While the product is being designed it is important to identify the parts that pose the greatest obsolescence risk. Obsolescence risk has to be balanced against product features.

For example, opto-electronic displays (LCDs, OLEDs) commonly tend to become obsolete quickly despite big promises made by their vendors. Very often the latest opto electronic display offers features that are essential to the product and must be designed in. At Fast Product Development, having encountered this issue multiple times, we are always prepared to switch out display of an electronic product. We do this by ensuring that the power supply, the inter connects, the mechanical mounting and the software driver for the display can be modified to support an alternate display easily.

As another example, 8051/8052 family micro-controllers have been with us for a long time and will be with us for a long time. However the power consumption of these processors is higher than some of the newer processors available. If power consumption is a key issue for your product, then you have no choice but to go with the newer processor. However you should design the product in such a way that an alternate processor can be substituted if need be. You make sure that the processor supports common compiler tool chain and languages so that the code can be ported over to an available processor in the unfortunate event that the chosen micro-controller becomes obsolete.

All the usual recommendations, of leaving extra CPU cycle capacity and memory available to handle new requirements also apply and must be balanced against extra cost involved.

Parts Availability during Life Cycle of the Product

The design phase will result in a list of parts that are at risk for obsolescence. A proactive approach must be taken to manage these at risk parts. There are a few ways to approach this:

Product Life Cycle Buy

This is possible only if the product is part of an expensive long life cycle product. An estimate is prepared for the requirement of at risk parts for the entire life cycle and these parts are procured. This is is a costly process and it is important to correctly identify the at risk parts and limit the procurement to them. It is also important to store the parts acquired properly. For example, many parts have humidity control requirements that must be followed.

Component Obsolescence Tracking

A less costly approach for handling at risk components is to do obsolescence tracking for them. Most manufacturers give end of life cycle notices. Many distributors automatically forward you these notices if you have an account with them and have bought the End of Lifecycle components from the. Such End of Lifecycle Notices usually give a last to place orders. Orders for the at risk parts can then be placed.

For critical components, it is essential that the availability be proactively checked every month. At Fast Product Development we can perform such proactive checks for your product and provide monthly reports. We use our inhouse Obsolescence Management Information System (OMIS) to manage component obsolescence for our clients.

Placing life cycle buys for a product can be a problem if the product has a limited profit margin and a long lifecycle. There may not be enough available cash to buy a life cycle supply of a component about to go obsolete. This is where engineering design and judgment comes in. You will want to buy enough components to make sure your product stays in production while your engineering team redesigns the product to not use the part about to go obsolete. At Fast Product Development, we can help you with this process.

Specialized Electronic Parts Vendors, Surplus Parts

There are vendors that specialize in disposing of over stock parts. In some cases it is possible to get obsolete parts from such vendors. At Fast Product Development, we have a list of such vendors and procure difficult to obtain parts from them. While acquiring parts from these vendors it is important to ensure that the acquired parts work properly since one can never be sure about the conditions under which these parts have been stored or how they have been acquired. For example, some vendors obtain expensive parts by pulling them off of electronic scrap.

Skills to Modify the Product

Once the product has been developed and deployed the engineers who developed and refined the product often move on to other projects within the company or externally. Over a long time many people are no longer available, or interested in maintaining the product. Engineers are often interested in the latest technology and cool thing rather than working on an existing product. It is essential that you have the people available and motivated to work on your product.

It is important that people working on the product are regularly designing products in the area and have an intimate knowledge of the industry. This way they will know of alternate parts and approaches and will be able to quickly handle any problems that may arise. At Fast Product Development we do many many designs a years and are intimate with the latest parts and trends.

Knowledge of the Product and System

It is important to capture the knowledge of of the product and the system in which it works. Much of the knowledge is not captured in formal documents. In our experience, informal emails and conversations often capture a big chunk of the product and system knowledge and must be preserved.

For example, recently we were working on making a PCMCIA Instrumentation Card manufacturable and we could not figure out the PCB routing choices made by the original engineers. It seemed that they had taken a long and convoluted routing path which added an extra two layers to the board layout. We knew they were smart engineers and would not have made this dumb error. The original engineers were no longer available to talk to use. We pored over old emails and, lo and behold, it turned out that the simple and straight routing had noise issues.

Tools to Modify the Product

CAD and Compiler tool vendors continually release new versions of their tools. These new versions often lead to inconsistent behavior with existing files. There are two ways of handling this issue

  • Maintain the orignial development environment. Virtualization is a great help in this. We use virtual machines and store the entire virtual machine used for a product. This way we can be sure of using exactly the same environment when we are fixing issues with a product.
  • Upgrade to the newer version when you have no other option However have en extensive suite of tests that ensure that the product made with an upgraded tool chain works the same as before.

Continuing Electronic Security and Support Issues

In order to keep a product line live, you must ensure that the products are secure and you are ready to deal with any support issues.

The security of an electronic product is especially important for networked products. New electronic threats arise every day and may impact your deployed products or the sale of new products. It may lead to liability issues if you do not supply a fix.

Customers will use your product in new configurations leading to support questions. To keep the product alive you must be prepared to resolve these support issues. Very often the key to keeping a product alive is updating the the software and drivers that go with the prodcut. For example, a PCMCIA card originally designed for use in Windows 95 may still be usable if device drivers for Windows Vista and Linux can be provided or an instrumentation card may get more sales if it is integrated with the latest Matlab or LabView package.

At Fast Product Development, we usually handle the security and support issues as part of our Obsolescence Management Service.

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