How to avoid component obsolescence rendering your entire product defunct

Author : Dunstan Power | Director | ByteSnap Design

01 April 2020

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Component obsolescence can render an entire product difficult to sell, leaving your business with hefty research & development and design & marketing costs to recoup, but little avenue for a return on investment.

This article was originally featured in the April 2020 issue of EPDT magazine [read the digital issue]. Sign up to receive your own copy each month.

Here, Dunstan Power, Director at embedded systems consultancy, ByteSnap Design tells us how their recent survey revealed that 17% of electronics company executives consider obsolescent technology a leading challenge within the electronic design sector, sitting alongside Brexit fears, finding new business, project lead times, and recruiting the right talent and skillsets.

Frustratingly however, obsolescence issues are prolific in the electronics industry, often making products impossible to manufacture because of individual components going end-of-life (EoL), or a new design being stopped before production because of a chip being pulled by the manufacturer. The discontinuation of even the smallest of parts can have significant impact on whole product lines.

Before we go into the causes of obsolescence, it’s worth taking a look at the typical product cycle of a component:

Marketing

Dates for General Availability (GA) are written in sand at this stage, so beware: if they slip, that will likely adversely affect your own schedule.

Preproduction/Beta/Sampling

GA dates should be more solid now, and the part is considered ‘safe’ to use. Occasionally however, parts don’t progress from Beta to GA (for instance, when a technical snag is discovered), so be aware of that here.

General Availability (GA)/Active

The part is in full production now – but is it relatively new, or near to NRD? Check the dates on the datasheet...

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Not recommended for new designs (NRD)

Don’t use these components unless you have a very specific need or a small production run. Now is the time to look at last time buy options – and beware the grey market (parts of indeterminate providence).

End-of-Life (EoL)

These components could be rolled into the NRD stage, so now is your last time to buy them.

Obsolete

You missed the last time to buy, with specialist suppliers now seeking out pockets of these components at the back of dusty warehouses around the world.

Understanding why components go obsolete

There are a number of reasons why components go obsolete, including:

1. Declining sales resulting in continued production becoming uneconomical for the manufacturer.

2. A merger or acquisition of companies in the supply chain, resulting in the deliberation & justification of product lines.

3. Technology changes making the means of production no longer available.

4. Regulatory changes, such as RoHS.

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5. Sub-components going obsolete.

As the designer, you will more than likely have no influence over any of these factors, unless you are a large user. When selecting components though, it is worth considering the likelihood of any of these events taking place – and one good example of this is with LCD panels.

Those panels are often made with a specific market in mind, and perhaps even a single customer – but when that customer obsoletes their product and no longer buys the product, factor 1 above can apply, meaning all the other minority customers may see the LCD panel suddenly go EoL. 

With LCDs, there is an element of you get what you pay for. The lowest-cost LCDs are typically tied to other consumer products, and will have a short shelf life. This needn’t necessarily prove to be a problem, if your own product longevity is a couple of years. If, however, it is longer than that, some defensive design around the LCD interface may be required (such as the ability to add conversion boards to other panels).

For connectors and passives, you can’t beat designing in generic parts or multi-sourced options. Where this isn’t possible, again some companies are more ‘agile’ than others. It’s worth asking suppliers the question on key parts, as you may get an honest answer.

When selecting parts, it’s also wise to note  that not all suppliers are equal with regards to longevity. While some suppliers – like NXP and ST – publish longevity plans on their core processors, allowing you to clearly see how long their parts will be available for, you still need to be wary. Why? Well, just because the processor has a 15-year longevity, that doesn’t mean the memory chips in the system have the same period of longevity.

What to do if a component does become obsolete

Suppliers will usually offer a last time to buy  on components they are planning to make obsolete for a part. Sometimes, you can sign up for email updates on a part to alert you of any status changes. This is well worth doing as it is free and could save you time and effort and any headache. Likewise, some of the catalogue distributors – like Farnell – also send out product alerts when the status of parts change.

If you have run into trouble due to your part becoming obsolete, here are the only options that you now have to resolve the issue:

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1. Find a drop-in alternative

Is there an alternative component that is pin compatible? Be inventive in how you look for an alternative, as parts that are the same are sometimes categorised in different ways by various manufacturers. If there are enough other people in the same boat as you, that latent demand can help alternatives appear, which may not have existed when the design was originally done.

2. Scrap your product

If you have an alternative that can do most of what your product can do, it may be time to consider scrapping your product. This is, however, a business decision that’s outside the scope of this particular article.

3. Modify your circuit board

If the product is selling well, a re-design may be a no-brainer. There are a few different costs for this option to consider first though:

a) Redesign effort of the schematics, BoM & PCB

b) Prototype run to test non-trivial changes

c) Software changes (depending on what component is changing)

d) Compliance re-testing where appropriate (for instance, probably not for a connector change, but for a new microcontroller).

Now is the time to do a complete sweep of the whole bill of materials to see if there are any NRD labels indicating that other parts may be nearing their own obsolescence. Identifying these is like the road being dug up by gas workers, just after the same stretch has been newly laid by the water works. In other words, you don’t want to launch your revised product just to discover another problem afterwards.

There can be in-between solutions, such as making daughter boards that replace a single component on a circuit board, or sit between a PCB and an LCD, and convert the signals for a new panel. Those could ensure development costs are lower than for a full re-design. But, if you do a full-redesign, that will give you an opportunity to add new features, which could also get some cost out of the product. Seize the moment and it will make the procedure less depressing! Perhaps it could turn a good product into a truly great product.


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