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Off The Shelf commercial components are not catch-all solution to Industry's obsolescence problems

Component Obsolescence Group (COG) : 10 May, 2005  (Company News)
Organisations which need to maintain in service vital long-lifespan electronic equipment should use extreme care when looking for alternatives as replacements for obsolete components, especially where only 'commercial off-the-shelf COTS' devices are available, says the Component Obsolescence Group.
According to COG, the demand for electronic components is now increasingly driven by the fast-moving, short life 'disposable' consumer goods market. Industry's ability to replace high reliability, high performance parts easily is in rapid decline* as their manufacture becomes less economical and component makers switch manufacture to these more lucrative markets.

COG's CEO, Michael Trenchard explains, 'Where a piece of equipment is designed to last for 10, 20, even 40 years, whether it's a train, plane, medical device, or equipment in a power plant, it is crucial that it actually lasts for its full life expectancy. However, when 'spare parts' are required, it is not always possible to find identical parts to repair equipment that has been in service for many years, because, during that time, they might have become obsolete.'

'Organisations may look to the commercial market to find alternatives to obsolete components which were originally designed specifically for long life industrial applications, as they are far more readily available and often much cheaper. However, they may not provide a real solution.'

'Ironically, commercial components themselves, although very reliable in the short term, are likely to have quite a short production lifespan. For cost reasons and perceived short active life required they may well have been designed to 'wear out' and become obsolete within just a few years.'

Research by QinetiQ shows that on average 2000 components become obsolete each month.

According to COG, if suitable replacements for an obsolete component cannot be found quickly or at all, valuable and expensive capital equipment may be put completely out of service or parts of it may need to be re-designed to accommodate modern available devices. Considerable financial costs and damage to an organisation's reputation and customer relationships could be incurred as a result.

Product lifespan aside, Trenchard says that although some commercial components can serve a useful purpose in replacing obsolete parts in certain industrial applications, in many others they are not likely to be 'fit for purpose'.

Possible substitutes may not have comparable performance, electrically, in terms of reliability, thermal performance or safety control, to the original components designed specifically for the industrial market.

For instance, if a commercial memory product meets the necessary electrical requirements, and is to be used in a benign environment where the temperature will stay moderate (such as office equipment), it should be suitable for use in similar environments.

However, if it is going into a piece of equipment which has to withstand high vibration levels, very high or low temperatures (such as a high speed train), it is likely to be far harder to find an appropriate commercial alternative.

'In some cases, using a 'best fit' commercial component with many similar properties may be an appropriate option - it may even be the only option. However, the pros and cons need to be weighed up very carefully,' says Trenchard.

COG advises organisations to assess the full performance and technical data about a potential commercial replacement product carefully before use in an industrial environment to ensure its suitability.

Comments Trenchard, 'Organisations may need a quick-fix answer, but unless they take the time and trouble to ensure a component is truly 'fit for purpose', they may well only be storing up problems further down the line.'

He adds, 'With the component obsolescence problem likely to continue to grow as the pace of technological change speeds up, it is vital that organisations manage the issue proactively to avoid any nasty surprises and minimise the associated disruption and costs.'
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