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Planning for and replacing obsolete technology with minimal impact to customers


The rapid change in electronic technology is accelerating throughout all industries. This article addresses the changing landscape as it relates to products and technologies that require stability in design, whether real or perceived.

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.

Although design changes are usually immaterial to most customers, parts obsolescence is an important factor to consider. No matter the reason for obsolescence, it creates concern and uncertainty in the minds of users.

Why do components become outdated or out of manufacture? The reason stems from economics based on demand. The factors that diminish demand typically occur from advancements in technology, although there are other causes. The bottom line is this: manufacturers will not continue production of a component technology if there is insufficient demand. After all, doing so reduces profit.

For small and medium- sized companies, it’s short sighted to pursue lifetime buys of components to continue availability of circuit boards or systems to address obsolescence. Instead, the solution is to design out the component that is ending its life cycle while planning for its discontinuance.

If the redesign is done properly, there will be little, if any, impact to a customer in terms of form, fit and function. Suppliers of circuit boards and systems are constantly facing the dilemma of component obsolescence with both suppliers and customers; finding the right balance is virtually impossible. Effective inventory management requires proactive resolution of obsolescence problems before they adversely affect product availability.

For many vendors, components and technology obsolescence that typically force redesign are microprocessors, field-programmable gate arrays (FPGA’s), connectors, and operating system software. For the purposes of this article, the discussion will focus on hardware, not software. Planning for and replacing obsolete technology with minimal impact to fit, performance, operability, and support require an obsolescence plan that includes:

Forecasting and Identification

Impact and Criticality

Selection Processes

Replacement Components

Design

Customer Notification

Forecasting hardware that may become obsolete is difficult. However, most manufacturers provide ample notice when parts are no longer going to be available, usually a year or more in advance. To this end, a company can forecast and plan for the unavailability of components.

When a component is forecast to be unavailable, an assessment must be made relative to the impact it will have on current production circuit boards and systems. As part of this assessment, complexity of design must be considered. Managers must ask these questions: How much time will it take to design a new component? What is the associated cost? Will the same or better performance be achieved? Based on these answers, a company is then able to assign priorities, develop budgets, and schedule design activities.

The Impact and Criticality caused by the dearth of all components are not the same; some are much more critical than others. For example, the obsolescence of an FPGA is much more critical than a resistor or capacitor.

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 to replace obsolete components must take into account the following:

* Availability – obsolescence concerns, aging technology, number of sources

* Application – derating, operation, use of the part, and application environments

* Cost-benefit analysis

* Part screening

* Qualification test data or past performance data

* Supplier selection

* Part technology/obsolescence

* Compliance with contract performance requirements

* Technical suitability

If the component selection process is performed properly, a company can predict the life expectancy of components and plan redesign efforts accordingly.

Identifying Replacement Components can include direct substitutes, alternate parts, and new components. A direct substitute component possesses the functional and physical characteristics of the original component. This substitute is capable of being exchanged with the original designed-in component without a design change to other parts, the circuit board, or the system.

Alternate components are those with the same performance characteristics as the original design component. They are also equivalent in operation, reliability, and maintainability, but do not necessarily possess the same physical characteristics. Most often, alternate parts will require the redesign of circuit boards and / or systems.

Replacement components which are entirely new must have the same or enhanced performance characteristics as the obsolete component. New components have different physical configurations that require the 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.

The design challenges may require a new circuit board concept of 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 should occur as soon as the company implementing new components to replace obsolete ones can provide specific information to address their concerns. The most important information to supply to customers is:

* Products affected

* Cause of redesign

* Alternatives considered

* Time period the existing design will be available

* When prototypes of the new design will be available

* Date the new design will be available in production and cost impact, if any

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.

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

www.sabtech.com