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Component Obsolescence Group (COG) : 15 June, 2004  (Company News)
Recently, a seminar on parts obsolescence was organised by the Railway Industry Association and the Association of Train Operating Companies. The event was an acknowledgement of the fact that the railway industry, like many other industrial sectors, is suffering from a growing problem caused by the inability economically to obtain replacement parts.
In real terms, this problem initially affected the electronic components sector and primarily encompassed high reliability, long lifetime devices that were being withdrawn from production by their manufacturers. If there were no other reliable sources of supply, then the parts were truly obsolete.

The lifetimes associated with components used in areas such as rail and automotive transport, aerospace, and military / defence can stretch out over several decades. For example, a railway locomotive could easily be in service for 30 years or longer. In all industry sectors which rely on long-lifespan equipment, the level of performance and the expected lifetime can only be achieved if the products / equipment involved are supported by structured maintenance programmes that rely on the availability of replacement parts.

Through the 60s, 70s, and into the 80s, component manufacturers were geared to meeting the requirements of these so called 'hi rel' sectors and ensured that the required parts were always available.

Today, however, the Obsolescence Monitoring arm of the former UK government agency, QinetiQ, suggests that around 2000 semiconductor devices are withdrawn from the market each month. Why?

Industry has changed. Electronics are now being driven by the volatile, fashion-conscious high-volume consumer sector, where product lifetimes can be as short as 5 years and obsolescence is rarely a problem. Whereas once individual countries had all their own manufacturing and support facilities, now components and equipment are sourced from the cheapest suppliers around the world. As soon as requirements for a part fall to an uneconomic level, it is made obsolete. Even the high performance devices made for the automotive industry are not always suitable and, even if they are, there is no guarantee of long-term availability. Inevitably, the problem has spread beyond electronics and also affects mechanical and electromechanical parts and software.

The seminar was supported by the Component Obsolescence Group which has become one of the world's leading activists in the battle against disappearing products. It was set up in 1997 as a result of demands from companies within the electronics industry to create a discussion forum to address ways of tackling electronic component obsolescence. Now it has almost 200 members from around the world representing a wide range of industry sectors. The widening of its activity base was highlighted by the election of a representative from Bombardier Transportation as its last chairman.

The organisation has progressed far beyond its initial remit to provide a discussion forum. Through its members, it has created an impressive knowledge base, it is creating new standards, guidance documents and booklets that address obsolescence problems and suggest how they can be tackled. As well as electronics, it has now widened its scope to cover some of the other threatened products including specialised lubricants, software, coatings, fasteners, and other mechanical and electromechanical parts.

In the railway industry, the need to replace wearing mechanical parts is obvious but the whole of the sector is a technological minefield in which passenger safety is paramount. To add to the difficulties, it is virtually impossible to provide simple, straightforward answers to specific obsolescence problems. For example, the sector is using a variety of rolling stock ranging from the comparatively ancient to the ultra modern, encompassing goods trains, commuter trains, underground trains, and high-speed inter-city rolling stock. They cannot all be treated in the same way.

So, how can such problems be addressed? The answer lies in a proactive, rather than a reactive, approach. In other words, companies must plan for obsolescence and attempt to avoid unwelcome surprises. When unexpected problems occur, non-availability of parts can cause expensive equipment downtime, safety issues and, in some cases, complete re-design of the equipment involved. Even if replacements are found, their costs might be astronomical compared to their original prices.

Management must be made aware of the dangers posed by obsolescence and make funds available to limit its effects. There have to be engineers in an organisation who are willing and able to identify potential problem areas in vital equipment. Their skills will apply equally to legacy equipment and well as new designs.

However, obsolescence needs to be addressed by the whole supply chain. Manufacturers, suppliers and end-users need to work together to identify the best strategy to manage systems for their whole life-span, looking at equipment performance, current and future availability of parts and maintainability as well as cost. The proactive approach, even if it does lead to unavoidable design changes, should radically reduce the risk of unexpected failures.

To mitigate problems, all the 'at risk' parts should be identified, the various means of replacing them fully evaluated, and they should be monitored on a regular basis. When a part is to be made obsolete, its manufacturer and / or stockist will normally warn customers that the action will take place. The warning should give customers plenty of time to take action if, indeed, they have not already prepared themselves for the eventuality. The proactive customer can then decide whether the obsolescence management plan will have to be upgraded. Any decisions will be based on the costs involved, the expected life of the equipment and its importance to the user. However, even with a proactive approach, it may be decided that, at a particular stage of the equipment's lifetime, it may be cheaper and safer to opt for a complete redesign.

New equipment should be designed with future obsolescence in mind, particularly if the parts employed are a compromise rather than the ideal. Managing obsolescence costs money, but it may prove to be a small price to pay.

Today, in addition to the use of products such as electronic automotive devices and other higher performance parts, equipment makers are beginning to look at standard, very low cost, commercial components (Components Off The Shelf.) Unfortunately, these devices are not designed for a long life and they are not designed to work in hazardous or extreme environmental applications. A further problem is that their design and manufacturing processes leave little room to up-rate devices to perform in applications for which they were not intended. With no other options, however, their use is growing although lead-free legislation and other EU directives are further limiting their suitability.

Here are some of the options that can be considered in terms of electronics:

There are many after-market manufacturers who continue to manufacture products using, for example, the original semiconductor die and packaging techniques employed by the original maker. Such products meet all the original specifications. Semiconductor wafers are comparatively easy to store for many years in a controlled environment (either by the after-market supplier or the customer.) Products can be manufactured quickly with the correct packaging and the cost premium is not outrageous. The customer can buy-in a suitable stock of products before the withdrawal date providing they can be safely stored.

Other products can be evaluated to see whether they will offer the same performance as the withdrawn product.

Equipment can be upgraded, perhaps by technology insertion, or parts replaced (if possible) at fixed intervals to maintain its integrity.

The 'grey' area of the market may offer to supply the correct products, but these may have dubious specifications or they may even be counterfeit devices. If there is no accompanying paperwork to guarantee the origins and specifications of the products, they are probably unsafe to use. There have been several instances where fake mechanical parts have actually been supplied for use in aircraft.

Customers can also use the services offered by commercial 'obsolescence tools'. Here, costs will vary according to the level of support required. In general terms, however, a customer is kept up-to-date (sometimes on a daily basis) about the status of selected 'at risk' products. Early warning of possible product withdrawals, possible alternative sources of supply, and other information ensures that customers are aware of the best and worst scenarios.
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