Mitigate risk of obsolete electronics components

By Lee Whiteman

Will today’s electronics components be available to support hardware through the entire life cycle? As time progresses, the cost of current components will increase as redesign costs decrease. Things become dicey when components in the decline phase support hardware in the maturity phase – where obsolescence directly impacts hardware sales. Action item list included.

I acquired a notebook computer a few years ago. For free.

It ran Windows XP and it supported Microsoft Office, but it was very slow. One remedy to improve performance was to increase its memory.

I took the notebook to several computer hardware stores, and learned the memory card was no longer being manufactured. In fact, several service managers told me it would be cost prohibitive to find a suitable memory card and recommended I buy a new notebook.

Electronics components becoming obsolete is a new danger found in the electronics market. As time has progressed, new technologies are being developed and implemented on the market.

On one hand, this is a positive thing – these new technologies have increased the functionality of electronics at a breathtaking pace. However, today’s technologies will be history tomorrow.

Component obsolescence represents a major concern when considering hardware life cycles. Short consumer product life cycles, the electronics industry’s conversion to lead-free components, and general weakness in the global market have increased the speed at which components are becoming obsolete.1

For markets with long life cycles – i.e. military / aerospace electronics, medical, and telecommunications – electronics components becoming obsolte becomes a critical issue, especially when OEM’s are required to maintain hardware in the field.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) must economically manage system lifecycles in order to address obsolescence and modernization issues without degrading readiness, cost, and performance objectives.2

The same can be said for non-aerospace markets.

Regardless of the market, the question remains: Will the current electronics components of today be available to support the hardware through its entire life cycle?

No greater example of this is Moore’s Law.

Gordon E. Moore, co-founder and chairman emeritus of Intel Corporation, in 1965 wrote the paper, Cramming More Components Onto Integrated Circuits, which indicated the numbers of components in integrated circuits will double every year from the invention of the integrated circuit in 1958 until 1965 and predicted the trend would continue “for at least ten years”.3 As Figure 1 indicates, his 1965 prediction has held constant through 2008.

 

Fig. 1

Moore’s Law (1971 through 2008)

 

CPU Transistor counts and Moore's Law

 

 

Another demonstration of component obsolescence is illustrated with the life cycle model. Through their life cycles, electronic components go through several distinct phases, as Figure 2 shows:

  • Introduction: Where electronic components is introduced into the market.
  • Growth: Where the sales revenue derived from the electronic components increases.
  • Maturity: During which sales revenue from the electronic components stabilizes.
  • Decline: When sales revenue starts to fall and eventually vanishes or becomes too little to be viable.

 

 

Fig. 2

Electronics product life cycle model

Electronics product life cycle model and phases

 

Table 1 documents the relationship each phase has with respect to sales; price, usage, part modification, competition, and manufacturer’s profit. As electronics components makes their transition through life cycles, the question becomes when does a specific component leave the maturity phase and enter the decline phase?

 

Table 1

Electronics product life cycle phases

Introduction Growth
Maturity
Decline
Sales
Slow increase
Rapid increase
Stable
Decreasing
Price
Highest
Declining
Stable
Rising
Usage
Low
Increasing
Stable
Decreasing
Part Modification
Frequent
Major
Few
None
Competition
Few
High
Stable
Decreasing
Manufacturer’s Profit
Low
Increasing
Stable
Decreasing

 

Components in the decline phase of their life cycle are in danger of becoming obsolete. The most sensitive situation is when a specific component in its decline phase supports hardware that is in its growth phase or maturity phase – where obsolescence can directly impact hardware sales.

As current electronics components become less available due to obsolescence, the next question pertains to redesigning circuitry to accommodate the new technologies within current electronic packaging.

As Figure 3 illustrates, there is a trade-off between the cost of components versus the cost of redesigning the hardware.4

 

Fig. 3

Electronics obsolete parts methodology: Re-design vs. lifetime buy

 

Electronics obsolete parts methodology: Re-design vs. lifetime buy

 

 

 

When will it be less expensive to redesign a device and to integrate the new device into an existing product as opposed to finding obsolete components to support an existing device during its life cycle?

As time progresses, the cost of current components will increase as the redesign cost decreases. Where those lines intersect will be dependent on the industry the components serve in.

 

Obsolete components and environmental legislation
Another factor that increases the life cycle risk due to component obsolescence is the impact of environmental legislation. Due to legislation such as the EU’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE) and Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) Directive5, the materials used in electronics are being closely regulated. Table 2 documents the materials impacted by the RoHS.

 

Table 2

Material impacted by RoHS and allowable concentrations

Material
Maximum allowable concentration
Lead (Pb) 0.1% or 1,000 ppm
Mercury (Hg) 0.1% or 1,000 ppm
Cadmium (Cd) 0.01% or 100 ppm
Hexavalent chromium (Cr6+) 0.1% or 1,000 ppm
Polybrominated biphenyls (PBB) 0.1% or 1,000 ppm
Polyprominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) 0.1% or 1,000 ppm

 

In the United States, while there is no federal regulation banning specific materials from use in electronics, individual states such as California and New York have begun to restrict materials – specifically lead (Pb) – from use in commercial electronics.

As a result, component manufacturers as early as 2007 have begun to change component finishes from tin lead (SnPb) to non-lead (Pb) component finishes.

For electronics industries still committed to using tin lead (SnPb) finished components – i.e. aerospace, medical, telecommunications – the specter of component obsolescence due to the lack of available tin lead (SnPb) finished components is a current major problem. (Read: RoHS Defenses / aero risks in lead-free assemblies)

Finally, for lack of qualified parts, counterfeit components become another component obsolescence risk factor.

As the need for more vintage electronics parts increases due to a lack of component availability, the higher the probability of counterfeit electronics components entering the supply chain.

 

Action items to mitigate risk of obsolete components
To reduce the risk associated with component obsolescence, there are several risk mitigation actions which should be implemented:

  • Electronics OEMs should consider producing hardware in an open architecture. By allowing the use of alternative components and assemblies, it will also reduce the probability of component obsolescence.
  • For all components within an electronics assembly, alternative component sources must be available to provide parts when the primary component source is unable to provide components on time and on schedule.
  • Industry sources such as the Government-Industry Data Exchange Program (GIDEP – www.gidep.org) or Entreprise Rhone-Alps International (ERAI – www.erai.com), a privately held organization that monitors, investigates and reports issues affecting the global supply chain of electronics, have compiled records and databases that can detect supplier components at-risk of becoming obsolete. These sources should be accessed periodically to identify components at risk.
  • Proactively, OEMs must communicate with component manufacturers to determine if component manufacturers will stop manufacturing specific components.
  • For high reliability aerospace applications, Defense Microelectronics Activity (DMEA – www.dmea.osd.mil) has the capability to reverse engineer obsolete components, and to develop electronic packaging for specific applications.
  • Become familiar with all electronic environmental legislation. Identify the materials within the deliverable hardware. If environmental legislation restricts or bans the use of specific materials, alternative components may not be available to support your products.
  • Never acquire components from unauthorized distributors. Let me repeat this. Never acquire components from unauthorized distributors. It is not worth the risk to acquire less expensive vintage components from a disreputable distributor, only to determine that the components are counterfeit and cannot support your products during the product’s life cycle.

 

Write to Lee Whiteman at lwhitemn@optonline.net

References

1. Legacy Products Are Prone To Fake Parts. How To Mitigate by Dennis Gradler; Circuits Assembly, March 1, 2010

2. A Lean Sustainment Enterprise Model For Military Systems by M. Agripino, T. Cathcart, and D. Mathaisel, Ph.D.; Acquisition Review Quarterly; Fall 2002

3. Cramming More Components Onto Integrated Circuits by Gordon E. Moore; Electronics; Volume 38, Number 8, April 19, 1965

4. An Economic Method for Evaluating Electronic Component Obsolescence Solutions by G. Zell Porter, Customer Support Manager; Boeing Information Space & Defense Systems; May, 1998

5. Directive 2002/95/Ec Of The European Parliament And Of The Council of 27 January 2003 on the Restriction of the use of certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment.

 

VentureOutsource.com, September 2010


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