Components Obsolescence is Not So Spooky

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It finally happens – you go to manufacture some more of your electronic devices and find out that you can’t because some of the components you used are obsolete and completely out of stock. You panic and wonder what you’re going to do next. This was not supposed to happen. It was supposed to last forever, or at least for a few more years. Your customers want more product, and they want it now. You resign yourself to the fact that you’re going to have to scrap it, pay your engineers or an engineering firm to design a new product and tell your customers that it will be a while before you can deliver.

Not so fast…it may not be as bad as it seems.

Evaluate the big picture of how bad it is

Check the entire Bill of Materials (BOM). How many parts do you have that are obsolete? Are there others that are going to be obsolete soon? Are there parts that you can’t get because of lead-time issues? Make a list of the problems and start attacking them one by one.

Is there an equivalent or better part available?

This is the easiest kind of obsolescence to deal with —it is a no-risk change. Maybe you only have a brand name problem. The company you were buying your part from may have been bought out. Maybe several different companies make the exact same part? This is especially true with resistors, capacitors, simple integrated circuits (ICs) and a few other parts. Some of the electronics parts distributors have excellent parametric search tools to help with this. You may be able to go with a resistor with higher current handling capability or a capacitor with higher voltage protection. Maybe that IC was not RoHS compliant, and there is a RoHS equivalent part. Many times, a manufacturer will suggest an exact replacement when one is available.

What if no drop-in replacements are available?

The solution to this one will likely need a PCB layout change and/or a schematic change, but don’t panic yet. Maybe an exact replacement is available that is a different size or in a different package. The pin-out may even be different, but this new alternate part is effectively the same part. If you can find one of these, it is still a low-risk change. A simple schematic change and layout change is all that will be needed.

But what if an equivalent part is not available?

Most obsolescence issues can be handled with one of the above solutions, but older designs and more specialized designs may need more. If a part that doesn’t meet all the specifications or better is just not available, it starts getting a little harder. In this case, you’ll need to isolate the obsolete part and its supporting circuitry, possibly other circuits that feed into it or downstream circuits. A new part that will meet the product requirements will be needed and will likely also need different components around it. Depending on the extent of the change, it will also be important to test the new circuit. Many times, these changes are not as extensive as they seem. If the obsolete component was a very specialized part, as is the case with many RF components, it may be a more complex change.

While you’re redesigning

Are there minor changes that you want to wrap into this refreshed product? Perhaps add a status LED? Get rid of circuitry that was never used anyway to save cost? Now would be a good time to add minor low-risk changes to streamline layout expenses (major changes should be part of a major redesign).

You’ve finally designed out the obsolete part, but you’re not done yet

As a final step, check the entire new BOM again. How long will your product be needed? How long are the components expected to be available? You may be able to prevent getting into this point in the future with an obsolescence management plan and monitoring. Stay tuned for our next blog for more detailed information on this step.

By working with an experienced electronics contract manufacturer that knows the electronics supply chain like ACDi, you may be able to avoid scary obsolescence issues. We may be able to assist in raising your obsolete product from the grave and proactively monitor the BOM to keep it alive for years to come.

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