Galil Motion Control, a maker of microprocessor-based motion controllers, received an odd call from one of its suppliers recently. The caller wanted to know whether or not Galil had any spares of a particular electronic component on hand. Until then, Lisa Wade, VP of sales and marketing, had no inkling that the supplier was no longer planning to offer the component, which is used in a four-axis amplifier board that Galil makes.
"As soon as we got the call, we started to search for a substitute, but one didn't exist," says Wade. Instead, Galil engineers had to modify the board and change the spec. "This was a worst-case scenario," notes Wade. "Sometimes you get a year's notice, sometimes you get no warning."
The threat of component obsolescence is a growing problem for design engineers, particularly for companies like Galil, whose products may have life cycles of a decade or more. For many companies, the component they specify for their product today may be discontinued in 18 or 24 months. No big deal if you're designing cell phones, which have their own quick product life. But it's a whole other story for end products that have staying power.
One significant change today is that electronic components have become ubiquitous. They're now in cars, medical devices, durable appliances, and military tools—products that typically have a much longer life cycle, five to ten years, as opposed to cell phones or DVDs that share the lifespan of 18 to 24 months of the electronic parts inside. The problem is made even more difficult when OEMs hurry their design process by using existing designs for new products, thus creating products with components that are already aging.
"OEM design engineers have to be more careful when they're designing products," says Cathy Whittaker, VP of Arrow Alliance, a unit of Arrow Electronics Inc. that focuses on global customers and contract manufacturers. "They have to be knowledgeable about the life cycles of the components." She notes that the medical and military industries try to get around this challenge by choosing parts with multiple sources, the hope being that if a component goes obsolete from one supplier, another supplier will still produce it. So apprehensive is the military about supplies drying up that when forced to use a single source, it purchases a 10-year supply of the component.
In may ways, electronic distributors who have become accustomed to managing tens of thousands of part changes and end-of-life notices, are stepping up to the plate to help engineers manage the problem. Distributors generally get information on component changes directly from the suppliers themselves. "When we receive notice, we upload the information into our database within 24 hours," says Arrow's Whittaker. Once the distributor logs the information, a notice goes out to all its customers. "We identify what customers have purchased the component over the past year, and send a notice out to them all," says Whittaker.
In some cases, distributors know that a part will change or become obsolete while the product is still being produced. And again, distributors will try and send this information along to their customers as quickly as possible. Newark InOne, for example, provides customers with advance substitution notices. "We let people know in advance of changes so they can make a last-time buy or switch to an alternative and ensure an uninterrupted source of supply," says Steve Hopkins, VP of product management at Newark InOne.
Avnet Inc. also keeps customers alerted to part changes ahead of time. "We predict the end-of-life of parts," says Glenn Bassett, VP of Avnet's Premier Services Group, a unit that monitors supply chain issues. "You can tell when a part might go out of life by part class." Avnet offers a service that alerts its customers to end-of-life information even on parts that the company doesn't distribute. Arrow provides a similar service to its customers. Both companies maintain significant databases on components and offer access to the information as fee-based service.
Even the best distributors don't catch all end-of-life notices. "We receive good information from most of our suppliers, but there are some that are notoriously bad about providing information," says Bassett. He declined to specify exactly which suppliers are the offenders.
So what to do when the parts you need do go obsolete? If you absolutely,
positively can't spec in a replacement, there are several sources for still
locating parts that are no longer made. When components go obsolete, remaining
inventory is flushed out to the secondary distributors that trade in overstock
and out-of-use parts. Companies such as PartMiner Inc. and US-Bid Inc. scour the
globe for out-of-use parts. "When obsolete parts are unavailable through
traditional channels, many engineers come to PartMiner," says President Steve
Codispodo. "We source parts through our network of 6,000 suppliers." PartMiner
also offers subscriptions to its CAPS component database that cross-references
components, helping engineers find replacements. And as a last resort, engineers
could always try calling their customers—as was the case with Galil!
A Gazillion Notices: Part changes and
discontinued components hit a high mark during the late days of the
electronic industry recession in 2003. Though large numbers of componenets
were either changed or discontinued, the number is actually a small
percentage of all overall parts, less than 2/10ths of a percent.