06-07-2020 | | By Robin Mitchell
Altium have announced their partnership with IHS Markit Electronic Parts Solutions to help engineers deal with end-of-life callouts for components. Why do end-of-life announcements hit engineers hard, and how can forecasting allow engineers to make better decisions?
If its one thing that most, if not all, engineers have experienced at least once in their lives is the dreaded announcement that a part which they desperately need. I personally just recently experienced an end-of-life component, an ABS PP3 battery clip, that was taken off the market for reasons that I am still yet to understand. The battery clip, whose quality significantly outmatches any flexible PP3 connector, had a price that effectively made it a steal. This part had been sold at the same price for the past 10 years in the thousands with no sign that the product was ever going to be pulled. But the day came when an email from the supplier said that they would no longer distribute the parts, and because the distributor was the only seller for that manufacturer, the part could not be replaced at the same price. The only alternative was a PP3 connector twice the price which would have put a dent in the overall profit of the end products that utilised the connector. The end result was that a flexible alternative was found, but the products (electronic kits), have now lost the high-quality connector which was a feature massively favoured by customers.
This type of story doesn’t end at battery clips; all electronic components are vulnerable to end-of-life announcements, and when they come, they can cause havoc in even the most advanced engineering departments. The scale of damage caused by such an announcement, according to datarespons, can be categorised into one of three types; Unique, Complex, and Popcorn.
The Unique category is by far the worse as these are components whose function is not only specific, but the packaging is unique, and the part is manufactured by a single company. Such an example could be a processor, SoC, or unusual logic function.
The Complex category involves components who are complex in nature, but their packaging and function is standardised. For example, I2C memory is a complex device, but the standardisation of the I2C protocol followed by the common 8-pin layout means that there are many manufacturers for a part. Therefore, these devices can cause headaches when replacing but replacement is not impossible.
The Popcorn category is the easiest to deal with and involves components that are widely established. Such components would include resistors, capacitors, inductors, transistors, and other discrete semiconductors. For example, there are countless number of manufacturers who produce 1/4W through hole carbon film resistors, and the loss of a manufacturer would have virtually no impact on a products design. Another example would be the LM358; its is a generic part manufactured by many companies, and any device from any supplier would function nearly identically.
So, when a component meets its end-of-life how does this cause issues with engineers in general? While complex and popcorn components can be replaced unique parts cannot. When such announcements are made companies have the option to make a last order, usually withing 180 days of the announcement, so that they can stock up on parts. However, placing such an order not only has recurring cost penalties for storing the components, but components have a shelf life. As time passes, component legs and pads oxidise which makes it harder to solder, and the result of this is an increase in failed production runs. The second issue with stocking older parts is the need to continue support for a product that technically can no longer be manufactured. The second route that companies can take is to find obscure markets to purchase obsolete parts. However, such markets are riddled with a large number of counterfeits which may appear to be an original part, but may contain either rejected dies, or not be manufactured to the same standards.
While it may be easy to say in hindsight, the best option for dealing with end-of-life announcements is to consider the life cycle of the product, and perform risk analysis on components that a product uses. From there, components that are most vulnerable to such scenarios can have plans put in place should that component be made obsolete. The risk assessment for a product, however, is not done simply during the design phase; it needs to be performed proactively throughout the entire life of the product. This includes during the distribution of the product to the market as an end-of-life announcement can seriously harm an established product.
But to take this further, Altium, a PCB design software specialist, have partnered with HIS Markit Electronic Parts Solutions to tackle this issue. According to Altium, there are an average of 15 announcements per day which can be difficult to keep track of. Altium 365 is a platform developed by Altium that allows for easy management of PCB projects with the ability to track changes, add users, and provide cloud-based viewing of designs. But another feature that will be integrated into Altium 365 is BOM analysis which can provide the life cycle status for over 660 million parts.
“PCB designers urgently need to understand whether the components they specify are going to be available for the full lifecycle of their end products. IHS Markit and Altium are partnering to make reliable component lifecycle data and recommended substitutes seamlessly available to them as they design rather than after the fact.”
Ted Pawela, COO of Altium
Managing end-of-life announcements is a difficult task, and the general method that is used is reactionary. However, if engineers start to think ahead in time, their designs may remain relevant for a far greater period than they already are. Does this mean that you should avoid unique parts? No. But if you can avoid them in favour of a more generic part, or one that can be configured, then you only defend your project against the test of time, and ensure that it can continue to be manufactured for a long time.