Military Embedded Systems

Managing obsolescence


September 04, 2012

Charlotte Adams

Abaco Systems

Old-timers in the military?s logistics establishment wax nostalgic about the good ol? days of MIL-SPEC, when the U.S. Defense Department was a power in the semiconductor market and could depend on long-term supplies of its own made-to-order...

Old-timers in the military’s logistics establishment wax nostalgic about the good ol’ days of MIL-SPEC, when the U.S. Defense Department was a power in the semiconductor market and could depend on long-term supplies of its own made-to-order chips. But those days are gone.

The coming ascent of the consumer-driven semiconductor market was recognized in 1994 by that prescient Defense Secretary, William Perry, who helped drive the military’s acceptance of mass-produced, Commercial Off-the-Shelf (COTS) parts. Sixteen years later, the defense and civil aerospace sector’s share of this market reportedly had fallen to just over 1 percent.

But COTS is a double-edged sword. COTS life cycles are measured in months, while cycles for major military systems are measured in decades. The best known example of this clash of cycles is that Methuselah, the B-52. Activated in 1955 and out of production by 1962, the Stratofortress is expected to keep going through the 2040s. It has run the gamut from major upgrades to component-level obsolescence management. But it is still flying.


Smart managers know they cannot just keep their fingers crossed and hope they will come up with a Plan B when the inevitable occurs. Informing themselves of the risks, monitoring supply channels, and making contingency plans have to be part of their Plan A. This type of “insurance” will raise total ownership costs, but only compared with costs in a perfect world where nothing ever changes.

COTS is manageable if customers plan ahead. Chip generations can come and go, but costs can be controlled, risks contained, and investments protected. An example of this approach is GE Intelligent Platforms’ Product Life-cycle Management service, which includes options such as obsolescence early warning, end-of-life buys, storage, and technology insertions using products such as the PPC10A, the latest in a form/fit/function-compatible SBC family that stretches back to the mid 1990s (Figure 1).


Figure 1: PPC10A rugged 6U VME SBC from GE Intelligent Platforms

(Click graphic to zoom by 1.9x)




Data driven

Life-cycle management is a data-driven strategy emphasizing engagement with suppliers, communicating with customers about changing conditions, educating customers about options, and flexibly supporting customer choices. This allows program managers to make informed and intelligent decisions.

Sitting on one’s thumbs is not really an option. Among the outcomes could be unplanned redesigns, requalifications and recertifications of parts or assemblies, expensive reverse engineering projects, and cannibalization of other systems. These alternatives can easily produce cost spikes, fielding delays, downtime, or worse, depending on when they occur.

Life-cycle management can include monitoring all the items on a product’s bill of materials and sending out alerts when obsolescence issues are detected. The service supplier can make end-of-life buys, locate and purchase compatible replacement parts, or do partial board redesigns or board replacements. Or if the problem is widespread, the supplier can support movement to a larger technology refresh.

If the customer decides to make an end-of-life purchase of a specific part, the board or subsystem supplier sometimes provides secure, long-term, environmentally controlled storage service, so that the part does not deteriorate before it is needed. It is also important to maintain test equipment as systems age. That means not only managing components, but supporting operating systems and compilers when software designers have declared them obsolete.

“Flexibility” is the watchword. “Defensive,” “progressive,” or hybrid plans can be developed, based on the customer’s sensitivity to change. A defensive approach protects the customer against obsolescence by stockpiling parts after the design is frozen. The customer calculates how many parts the system will need during its projected life and buys accordingly.

A progressive approach, by contrast, reduces obsolescence risk by building in technology refreshes at regular intervals. It focuses on upgradeability by choosing components with reliable histories and solid road maps into the future. Hybrid approaches combine elements of both defensive and progressive strategies.

Silver lining

So “obsolescence” is not a dirty word. In this day of consumer dominance, it is a basic fact of life. The question is not how to fight it but how to accommodate it, even exploit it, to minimize potentially adverse effects on customer programs.

Contact Charlotte at [email protected]


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