The antiques road show

The antiques road showObsolescent components can be a major headache to designers and a major cost to companies. Ian Blackman looks at how the electronics industry is trying to solve the problem
Just over two years ago, a small number of influential UK companies and organisations came together to discuss one of the most controversial and important issues in today’s high technology environment – component obsolescence.
The original intention was simply to create a small forum that would enable manufacturers, distributors, other suppliers and customers to look at the problems created by obsolescence and to attempt to identify ways of overcoming these.
Those involved in the discussions agreed to call themselves the Component Obsolescence Group (COG) and, in the early stages, few recognised the enormity of the task they had undertaken.
Component obsolescence will always be a controversial subject because the difficulties arise when a manufacturer ceases making a product that many established and often vital systems need for their continuing existence. While few would dispute the right of a manufacturer to discard a product line when its market has virtually disappeared, this does not alter the fact that systems are lasting longer and longer as component technology becomes increasingly more reliable and sophisticated.
It is easy to forget that Concorde, for example, was launched in 1976 as the world’s first supersonic passenger-carrying aircraft and, today, the average age of the Concordes now in service is around 22 years.
Just four years ago, BT closed its last electromechanical telephone exchange in the United Kingdom having introduced its first electronic exchange in 1966 and its first digital exchange (System X) in 1981.
These are representative of the many areas that are part of our everyday lives but which, in terms of electronics technology, are distant history. Nevertheless, the idea of permanently grounding Concorde or upgrading every UK telephone exchange for the growing lack of simple components or circuits are, quite simply, not valid options.
Whenever component obsolescence is discussed, the Ministry of Defence always seems to appear at the top of the list primarily because it is essential for many military systems to be kept going at any cost and,
just as importantly, that the components meet Defence requirements in terms of reliability and traceability. Here, the MoD is treating the matter very seriously and has set up an Obsolescence Working Group (OWG) within the Defence Electronic Parts Committee (DEPCO) and under the auspices of DSTAN (MoD Directorate of Standardization). Here, the importance of the subject has been brought to the fore with the Kosovo situation now in everyone’s thoughts. The end of the Cold War brought about a change in Defence philosophies and it is now interesting to see phrases in DSTAN literature such as: “the perceived zero threat dividend.” How quickly things can change!
There are two prime problems that have to be addressed. Firstly, how to meet the needs of equipment that is now one or more decades old and, secondly, how to cope with the speed of a technology that moves faster in some areas than the ability of the oems to get a truly state-of-the-art product to market.
Indeed, one leading manufacturer of processors stopped production of a highly popular product on the day it announced it was obsolescent with the new version instantly available . Without any notice, therefore, distributors, design engineers and others involved with the device had little choice other than to quickly rethink their future strategy – a costly exercise.
COG has now contacted the component distributors association AFDEC and is organising other high level meetings to plan the management of obsolescence. Its web site now covers sources of obsolescent components; software tools and services for obsolescence; direct links to other web sites dealing with obsolescence and so on. COG has also introduced a list server to allow any member to contact the complete membership by email with a proposal, query or statement.
Ian Blackman is component engineering manager at Marconi Avionics. He is also chairman of the Component Obsolescence steering group. Who are the component obsolescense groups?
The prime responsibility of the Obsolescence Working Group (OWG), which is part of the Defence Electronic Parts Committee (DEPCOP), was to generate a discussion paper on the MoD’s policy towards component obsolescence and this was largely agreed.
One of the most positive actions by the group was to produce an interim defence standard document, called a Guide to Managing Obsolescence , which is intended to provide industry with an early sight of MoD component obsolescence strategies. There will also be guidance on how companies can manage obsolescence issues.
The Component Obsolescence Group (COG) membership includes over 40 electronics suppliers and engineering operations ranging from AMP of Great Britain to Marconi Avionics and includ ing Racal Avionics, Rolls-Royce, Lockheed Martin, British Aerospace and Arrow/Zeus.

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