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08 Apr, 2021 / BY Neil Sharp

Is component obsolescence in electronics manufacturing inevitable?

Component ObsolescenceComponent obsolescence is an occupational hazard for OEMs as they battle to match supply with demand.  But while every component has a natural lifecycle - planned and unplanned obsolescence can cause different kinds of disruption for OEMs.  

How much of this change and disruption is warranted in a world struggling to contain e-waste? And how much can it be mitigated or reduced?

What is unplanned obsolescence?

There are many reasons why a component might become suddenly and unexpectedly unavailable to an OEM;

  • Reduced or lack of availability due to failure in manufacturing or supply chains caused by accidents, natural disasters etc
  • When the manufacturer can no longer support production due to business collapse or acquisition by another company
  • When required assets or raw materials are no longer available to support production of the asset
  • Governments or regulatory bodies have imposed environmental restrictions or policies which force changes to the product (e.g. bans on the use of particular materials)

What is planned obsolescence?

There are also reasons why a component might become unavailable in more or less planned ways.  Some of these are the result of technological developments, new commercial pressures, slackening demand or simply a suppliers’ desire to generate new sales.

  • Technology is moving on - and an old component may be phased out due to inefficiency, lack of durability or functionality.  A new component may serve a product and the customer better - so the old one is removed from sale.
  • The demand for the component is drying up because the products it is designed into are becoming unpopular or obsolete themselves.
  • The original manufacturer chooses to deliberately end a product’s life for commercial reasons and releases a newer version

The technology lifecycle is speeding up

The cycle of technology replacement is continually speeding up. Moore’s law states that processing power doubles every two years, meaning that many existing components are quickly underperforming compared with the latest arrivals on the market. Smaller, faster and more flexible devices are making our lives easier and helping us perform required tasks more effectively. In one sense, it’s understandable that obsolescence is happening faster than ever before - it is often about utility and progress.

Baked in obsolescence

But, as we all know, obsolescence is also being ‘baked in’ to a lot of the electronics that are being manufactured 

“In 'The Story of Stuff', Annie Leonard discovered that of the materials flowing through the consumer economy, only 1% remain in use six months after sale. Even the goods we might have expected to hold onto are soon condemned to destruction through either planned obsolescence (breaking quickly) or perceived obsolescence (becoming unfashionable).”

George Monbiot - The Gift of Death

And this is creating a global crisis of e-waste and environmental destruction driven by the consequent demand for rare metals.   

Certain commercial players are notorious for this. Apple, for example, makes it famously difficult and expensive to fix broken devices - while the hype around their latest innovation fuels the rush for the new.

Inevitably, this planned obsolescence of devices fuels a cycle of obsolescence around electronic components, too.  Up and down the supply chain longevity and durability (beyond a strictly limited time window) are way down on the list of priorities.  As Monbiot points out, this has a whole load of consequences for the planet:

“the energy needed for manufacture and transport are extracted and refined and combined into compounds of utter pointlessness. When you take account of the fossil fuels whose use we commission in other countries, manufacturing and consumption are responsible for more than half of our carbon dioxide production”

Industrial OEMs 

But there is another way in which OEMs, the consumer and the planet are losing out in the commercial scrum of component manufacture.  As the demand for smart products increases, and the race to miniaturise tech for electric vehicles and the like hots up among ‘big tech’ - there may be a knock-on effect for the rest of the supply chain. Manufacturers may concentrate on serving these big players and take the decision to stop producing and supplying components for smaller players lower down the food chain.  Typically, ‘industrial OEMs’ are those that are impacted at this point - and forced to redesign their products as a result.

Mitigating impact

Component obsolescence is a big problem in a world of constant technological turnover.  And to a certain extent, it will always be inevitable.  But there are things that you can do to mitigate its most disruptive effects.

Ensuring that you are in receipt of the following notifications from your manufacturers will help you plan more effectively, and can ensure you don’t embark on designs that will rapidly require updating:

  • Product Change Notifications (PCN) are normally used to communicate changes such as factory location, raw material specifications, software updates, process or quality improvements and functionality differences.
  • End Of Life (EOL) or Product Discontinuation Notifications (PDN) - will confirm that a part is going to be made obsolete.
  • Last Time Buy (LTB) notifications confirm the last date purchase orders will be accepted. If the part is critical to your design you may want to consider ordering a significant amount of stock now to secure the longer term future of your product.
  • Last Time Ship (LTS) dates. These are the last dates that the factory will ship product out.

Businesses can deploy software to track and manage these variables, and a good EMS should have a policy to keep you informed and proactive in your obsolescence management.

More solutions

However, concerns around e-waste are growing and increasingly being realised in new, stringent environmental regulation.  At the same time, consumers are starting to vote with their feet over companies who are contributing to slow burn eco-disaster.  These pressures are all triggering suppliers and manufacturers to think more responsibly about their product lifecycles - and the speed with which they become obsolete and useless.

Some manufacturers are beginning to think more about the ease of component upgrade and replacement to keep otherwise functioning products in circulation for longer. There is also huge interest in research around extended durability and self healing materials that may offer long term solutions for extending product life span.  At the cutting edge of some component research is also the possibility of biodegradable PCBs - which may also mitigate the environmental impact of disposability in electronics.

Value engineering strategies can factor in considerations like component obsolescence from the earliest stages of a design.   It's creative, holistic thinking can flag potential issues and suggest new ways of thinking about the way a product functions, reducing the need for certain components or suggesting replacements that offer better long term value. 

Sourcing components that are designed for longevity or can even self-heal may, over time, even render obsolescence obsolete.

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