Obsolete Out of the Box

By BJ Moore


In today's world, microcircuit technology is advancing at a pace unknown even a few years ago.Unfortunately, other aspects of system design still move much slower.The result - designers must use great care (and luck) to ensure their designs are not "obsolete right out of the box".This is especially true in applications where design to prototype cycles are long.In many complex systems, such as new aircraft, designs contain components no longer manufactured Ė before the first system is ever produced!


Current ICs are discontinued frequently to make room in production lines for newer, faster, and improved designs.†† Even the rate at which IC products are discontinued each year has seen tremendous growth.Texas Instruments (TI), a major chip manufacturer tripled their IC product line in a short five year span.Even so, TI discontinued more IC's in 1992 than they made in 1987.In the same period another industry leader, National Semiconductor, discontinued twice as many IC designs as it even made in 1987.


The 1970's era Transistor-Transistor Logic (TTL) devices have been in widespread use for over 20 years, while 1990's era advanced Bi-CMOS TTL devices are expected to have a life span of less than half that.Many IC's currently have a production life span of only 6 to 8 years.Hence, by the time an IC product comes into widespread use it is nearing its production discontinuance.


Unlike most software upgrades, new IC products are not necessarily backward compatible.Changes in pinouts, power requirements and outputs mean that even though a newer IC may be an improved version of a previous design, it is not interchangeable.†† These IC production changes create opportunities to design smaller, faster, more functional systems than ever before but also mean designers, production workers and repair staff are increasingly faced with the situation of unavailable parts.†† Costly late stage redesign efforts have been necessary in some cases to keep production on schedule.Production has been delayed in other cases.†† Post Ė production problems occur also.Parts for a popular item may be discontinued while the end item is still in production or parts may not be available for repair on post-production units.††††


One tactic, making systems more reliable, is a two edged sword in relation to parts obsolescence.†† The product initially works better and longer but more components have been discontinued by the time repairs are needed.†† IC manufacturers need a large, continuos demand to maintain production on an IC but long mean-time-between-failures results in a large gaps in part demand levels.††


So what can be done?††


Complex system design companies, such as Boeing, are using advanced technology to shorten the time significantly from design to prototype.The Boeing 777 jet is more advanced than many of its predecessor airplanes but was designed in a fraction of the time normally required.†† This was achieved through heavy application of CAD/CAM and other automated design tools.


Closer relationships between system manufacturers and IC makers are forewarning designers of impending discontinuances and helping them locate alternate parts.An early announcement that Intel would quit producing the Intel 80960 military version microprocessor which had been integral to the design of the RAH-66 Commanche Scout Attack helicopterís flight computer for nearly six years lead to rethinking and added benefits in the redesign.Boeing, responsible for the helicopterís avionics systems analyzed the potential for switching to the similar commercial version of Intelís processor.Boeing found that not only were they able to switch to the commercial IC, they gained considerable increases in performance.Added benefits are that the higher demand for the commercial IC mean a longer production life, a stable upgrade path, and solid expectations that they can benefit from they extensive research and design efforts Intel will continue to put into enhancing this product line.††† In another example, early discontinuance notices enabled Grumman to maintain production schedules on the Joint Stars project and avoid redesign costs estimated at over $460 thousand dollars.


Elimination of parts is one more strategy companies are using to head off discontinuance problems.†† Streamlined product designs eliminate parts through functional consolidation, structural rearrangement and emerging technologies.This reduction of parts results in fewer items being discontinued, fewer items needed to be warehoused for replacement/repair needs and potentially a delay in the onset of parts obsolescence problems.


IC companies are also concerned with parts obsolescence.In addition to providing smooth upgrade paths on the most popular IC designs and developing closer relationships with their customers, several strategic industrial teaming arrangements have been made.These arrangements enable smaller companies to take over production of ICs that are no longer profitable for the major manufacturers to make on a grand scale.†† This keeps IC designs in production longer without hurting profitability of the major chip producers.†† It also provides a built-in market for smaller chip production houses.The smaller houses can afford to handle smaller runs since they require little or no investment in research and design.One such partnership is National Semiconductor Corp, Cadence Design Systems and ASPEC Technology who have joined forces to provide ASIC chips to the military and aerospace markets.


Rapid discontinuance of ICs will continue to create parts unavailability problems.Designers and IC manufacturers need to continue to work on ways to identify these problems early and to come up with even more methods of dealing with this increasing problem.††


© Dec. 1997, BJ Moore, All Rights Reserved


Author Bio:


BJ Moore is the founder and President of Lida Ray Technologies, which provides independent strategic technology planning, analysis and recommendations to Fortune 500 companies.†† She is currently assisting Universal Technology Corporation in its support of the Air Forceís Program Office dealing with Parts Obsolescence Issues.BJ Moore holds degrees in Electronic Engineering, Computer Science, and Business Administration.††† She serves on the IEEE Dayton Section Executive Board and Computer Society and is the author of numerous technical, juried, and other publications.Ms. Moore is listed in Who's Who in Science & Engineering, and Who's Who in World.Her company, Lida Ray Technologies, specializes in strategic planning, global initiatives, and emerging technology insertion.