BlogSeptember 6, 2021

Obsolescence - How Do We Manage It?

September 6, 2021
CommercialDefenseObsolescenceProgram ManagementSupply Chain

It happens to us all, our electronics eventually reach the point where they must be replaced. But while it’s relatively straightforward to replace our personal devices and computers, it’s a complex challenge for our military and industrial customers, where the same qualified design for aircraft, ground vehicles, oil rigs, or other equipment may be used for decades. So how do we help our customers manage obsolescence?

Computing technology continues to advance at an extremely rapid pace and it’s now common for components to have a shelf life of just a couple of years. As a manufacturer begins to sell a product, it’s likely that a replacement is already on the horizon that promises to deliver even more in terms of performance, capability, and SWaP-optimization.

We specialize in integrating commercial off the shelf (COTS) and open-standards technologies into our systems. While COTS is highly beneficial for the warfighter and taxpayer, it presents immense challenges to the supplier. It is imperative for COTS suppliers to have experience and expertise in predicating, mitigating, planning, and managing inevitable end of life (EOL) / obsolescence issues.

For the military, an installed computer or server will enable vital missions to be performed all over the world that are critical for the nation’s security. For commercial sectors, rugged computers and servers ensure that operations run smoothly and are as efficient as possible, which has a direct impact on business performance.

So it is absolutely essential that organizations understand and plan for obsolescence and understand the risks involved when parts such as computer components become unavailable. Downtime of systems because parts are not available is not an option in the high-stakes environments our systems operate in.

What is obsolescence management?

Obsolescence management addresses the future unavailability of parts or services and mitigates the impact. It can concern materials, components, processes, skills and/or software. In some cases it impacts production runs. In almost every case it impacts maintenance and repairs capabilities.

The challenge of obsolescence has grown in recent years as the use of COTS components has become more common for our military and industrial customers. The principle reasons and advantages for using COTS components are:

  • Cost savings from not developing bespoke systems from scratch
  • More advanced technologies developed in a highly competitive marketplace
  • Leveraging existing commerical product capacity for faster field deployment
  • MOSA – modular open systems approaches – compliant products, meeting DoD mandates and providing significant benefits to the warfighter and the taxpayer

Commercial gaming graphic cards are a great example of this. They are now incredibly powerful and offer fantastic capabilities for ruggedized embedded computers and servers that are used in industrial and military applications. But the downside is that many of these graphic cards are only available for around 12-18 months, and they are then replaced by a new graphics card.

With such speedy innovation cycles, how then can you supply into a military acquisition program that lasts years if not decades?

Plan, plan, and plan some more

At Systel we know that the best time to plan for obsolescence is before material becomes obsolete. Ideally, obsolescence is something that is planned for from the very beginning of a program, especially especially where electronics are concerned.  Where possible, designs and configurations should prioritize the use of components that are widely available, expected to be manufactured for longer, and/or are from companies with a track record of making new designs backward compatible with older versions.

Even when considering obsolescence during the design process, in many cases parts will still go obsolete during the life of a program.

In some instances, Systel will need to make sure that we can supply the same components for the entire program – which means we have to buy all the inventory up front and stock it at our facilities for when the time comes to use the part, which could be in several years for a new build or repair. That means that we don’t have to worry about parts availability later down the line.

In other instances, we can plan ahead and factor in when a new component will be installed and ensure that enough time is given to qualify the part for a seamless transition.

Of course, these are just some examples of obsolescence management and Systel can come up with various other strategies and solutions that meet customer requirements – we make sure that we are always proactive rather than reactive.

Each time we will make sure that our key partners have a description of the obsolescence issues, thorough documentation and solution sets for the customer to choose from.

Ultimately, it’s our aim to take the burden off our customers when it comes to this complex task, and because of our efforts, more time can be committed to other activities, especially for the military and its work on Diminishing Manufacturing Sources and Material Shortages, known as DMSMS.

An unrivalled relationship with suppliers

Many of the top computer component manufacturers are also now recognizing that there is a need for supply chain assurance over an extended period. Some suppliers have even compiled lists of components that will be available for the next 7-10 years, which significantly helps with obsolescence management.

Unfortunately, these long life components are still the minority, which is why Systel has found it is so important to have close relationships with our suppliers. We stay in constant communication with our partners to ensure we understand their product roadmaps and so we can be made aware of EOL – End Of Life – situations as early as possible. When that happens, Systel’s supply chain professionals go into high gear, leading critical conversations with engineering and sales to put plans in place to ensure continued support for our customers.

Systel maintains close relationships with numerous suppliers and enjoys key technology partnerships with industry leaders such as Intel and NVIDIA, which is important for us when it comes to identifying components that will not only meet customer requirements in terms of performance, but also have a longer life to address obsolescence. Our team are in constant communication with our partners to ensure that we understand their roadmaps for product development and lifecycles.

This is critical for us and we regularly communicate this with our customers on how it will impact their programs going forward. This approach to obsolescence is just one of the ways we are committed to excellent customer service and ensuring that we go the extra mile when it comes to meeting – and exceeding – our customers’ requirements.

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