A search for that vital missing link

Component obsolescence may not sound very dramatic but it could cost your business thousands
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"All of a sudden, here we were with machines standing idle, and the company running into penalty clauses with customer contracts because of late delivery," recalls an engineer.

"All of a sudden, here we were with machines standing idle, and the company running into penalty clauses with customer contracts because of late delivery," recalls an engineer.

His company, a defence electronics manufacturer, was itself being penalised for not taking into account the possibility of component obsolescence. Electronic and mechanical components don't last as long as they used to, and they also become "obsolete" more quickly in the sense that the original manufacturer has withdrawn it, or the manufacturer has changed hands and with it the catalogue number of the part the customer's purchasing department needs.

"Our company had not realised this, and to make things worse," the engineer continues, "the firm had been bought and sold repeatedly." One result was the same component might be in the stores, but under the different order numbers of successive owners, so there was no way of locating it. Other components not in store weren't easily acquired.

"Over 10 years, the number of engineering change requests (ECRs) at any one time rose from about 20 to around 1,500." An ECR is sent to a project engineer whenever there's a component difficulty that's holding up production.

A project engineer on his or her own may not have enough time or staff to find an answer quickly, if at all. It took two years to get through the backlog, and requests are now back down to between 15 and 20. What made the difference is that the engineer, previously a project engineer, became half of a full-time two-man component obsolescence management team. This rationalised stock, and now helps the purchasing department to source renumbered components, validates substitutes and tells project teams if parts are available and for how long. "We've paid for ourselves over and over again," he recalls. "We saved the company £6m in the first 18 months in redesign alone."

This electronics company is a founder member of the Component Obsolescence Group (COG), a forum of more than 160 original equipment manufacturers, component suppliers, solution providers and government departments, all in the name of stopping themselves and others from making expensive mistakes because components play out.

COG's quarterly meeting opens in Llandrindod Wells on 28 September. "Until the Seventies, 90 per cent of electronic components were designed for the long-lifespan industrial market, that is, to last for anything up to 60 years," says Teri-Ann Winslow, vice-chairman of COG and MD of Winslow Adaptics, a Brecon-based maker of connectors and integrated circuit adapters.

"Today, that has become 15 per cent as demand has shifted to PCs, phones and other consumer goods that are designed to wear out."

The trouble, Winslow adds, is that industry relies on some of these short-life components in expensive equipment that users expect to last for years.

Many firms, Teri-Ann Winslow observes, just don't realise how much things have changed, and so let themselves in for unlooked-for and perhaps unnecessary trouble.

Michael Trenchard, chief executive of COG, says: "Some medical equipment may be designed to last 20 to 25 years, trains or aircraft 30 years or more, and nuclear power stations should last 60 years."

If a component gives out, say in an electrical control panel, the concern can be in real trouble if the part is obsolete. "Replacements may be many times the original cost, if available, and there can be expensive downtime and time spent re-sourcing or re-engineering," says COG's Trenchard.

According to COG, the best way to stay out of component trouble is get yourself a strategy which will forecast potential problems, monitor the availability of high-risk components and so plan whether and when to increase stocks and/or update equipment.

If you don't have such a strategy, you're more likely to leave yourself open to unplanned and therefore more expensive purchases, or to buy counterfeit or substandard product.

If you can't or won't plan ahead, says COG's Michael Trenchard, there are three steps to smooth your way.

1. Use suppliers you know and trust: this will give you greater confidence in the quality and origin of a component.

2. Establish what warranties the supply chain offers: if you're worried about a component's suitability, check whether a warranty could be negotiated.

3. Check traceability: when a component has been obsolete for some time, it can be harder to trace their origin.

For example, you could request datasheets or a sample batch of components for testing before you commit to a bulk order.

"Lack of traceability may not mean that a component is inferior," says COG's Trenchard. "But it does mean there's no guarantee of quality or origin, so it's up to you to do what you can to check that what you're buying is fit for your purpose."

COG also runs conferences, and publishes guidance booklets. Contact: 01582 762934 or go to www.cog.org.uk