Planned obsolescence is not really a new concept. “God used it with people” as Robert Orben the American comedy writer once said. He also said “Time flies. It is up to you to be the navigator”. Orben would have made a good Obsolescence Manager!

Look around you and you will be surrounded by technology. We have become so accustomed to access to the internet, a mobile library of music, the ability to text, call and video our colleagues all around the world. Our homes are equally packed with “intelligent” household machinery and leisure devices. In the next few years our cars will be similarly “blessed” with increasing connectivity and indeed may be able to drive themselves. Products that need to be upgraded and serviced will require service contracts that manage upgrades and keep the customer informed whilst meeting the required availability.

Companies constantly push new functionality and capability onto us although most of us use only a fraction of the scope of capability. To maintain this pace of technology change, requires frequent updates that add fashionable features, enhance user experience and occasionally improve performance and reliability.

What we do not notice is the multitude of infrastructure and vehicle technology that has no need of these fashionable changes. The technologies required to fly a civil aircraft, to guide and power railways, control power stations are just a few examples of systems that need to be maintained. Many have to be maintained to an agreed specification and without breaking agreed safety and reliability requirements whilst operating in complex and highly regulated industries.

Good examples of modern technology, which in reality are not so new can be found all around us:

  • The A380 Super Jumbo went into service in 2005 but was designed much earlier
  • The Toyota Prius Hybrid vehicle was first released in 1997
  • The iPhone launched in 2007
  • The first Eurostar high speed trains were built in 1992
  • The platform that underpins the UBER taxi service was launched in 2010

The fact of the matter is that older technologies still can do a good job. The UK and US militaries are still using disk drives for some secure requirements and will continue to do so for the near future. The banking system still uses the Microsoft XP operating system for many core functions. The space shuttle used many 1970’s hardware systems as these were reliable and proven to be fit for purpose.

So how do the maintainers grapple with old and surely obsolete technology?

Well it is true to say that as modern digital electronics may only have short product lives, long term support systems frequently don’t use these types of components as they will not survive in the harsh environments or provide the required functionality.

Indeed many of these older systems are dependent on long life analog components, mechanical systems and have low use of embedded software. For those reasons these systems are more stable and supportable than some more modern systems. What we see are that good engineering choices in the first instance have led to sustainable products.

But just because a complex asset was designed with older robust technology, does not mean it has to stay that way. An oft cited and distorted example of extended service is the B52 Bomber where it is claimed grandchildren of the original pilots are flying the same aircraft. The B52 started its service life in 1946 and will be in service until the year 2040. However, the engines, avionics, and communication protocols are vastly different in the upgraded airframes from that which originally went into service.

Obsolescence Management is a relatively new business skill that seeks to proactively identify concerns for long term support and to manage their occurrence to reduce program impacts and thereby lowering project risk.

The military in the UK and the USA have been leaders in this field and their supply chains have supported them, because they have different challenges to their civilian brethren:

  • Remote operation and logistics support in areas of hostility
  • Peacekeeping and humanitarian aid on unknown events
  • Evolving technology threats
  • Globalization of military capability
  • Reducing manpower and financial support
  • Relatively small number of assets
  • Losses in combat

Other sectors will have similar challenges.

It is important to emphasize that obsolescence management is not just about electronic parts. It must include electrical, mechanical parts and consumables, as well as the design and business infrastructure tools. All of these things impact on the supportability of a product and many are regularly overlooked.

Being proactive in obsolescence management will give companies a big head start in managing sustainability of their installed base.

But how can companies start to engineer obsolescence into their products and service offerings?

Through years of experience, I have developed a list of 7 key best practices :

  1. Intelligent and structured component selection
  2. Documenting design decisions and design data used to select parts
  3. Use of obsolescence prediction tools to manage sourcing strength and obsolescence risk
  4. Regular product reviews at key stages of a project
  5. Generation of a living Obsolescence Management Plan:  a stand-alone document able to define the product at a high level, explain the expected contact commitment, the likely obsolescence strategies to be employed & what actions have been taken to reduce risk
  6. The establishment of a recognized risk budget to enable prompt last time buy action and redesign budgets if they are required.
  7. Management of the supply chain to build trusting relationships with important key players.

In conclusion we have always known that any given product will have a lifecycle but the pace of technology now demands that we recognize this and plan accordingly. Obsolescence Management is no more complex or awkward to manage than many other requirements that are integral to new product design. It is vitally important to plan and manage the service element of your support contract. In modern support contracts the risk is likely to be held by you and not your customer.

Modern supply chains are complex and involve many levels through which the importance of Obsolescence Management must be communicated.  Communication is vitally important and this can be subtle through contractual terms or specific by involving audits and regular engagement.


Ian Blackman is Managing Director of Elan Business Support Ltd, a UK consultancy, and an Obsolescence Management expert. He is a Knowledge Hub member and member of the Central Advisory Board of the EPSRC Through-Life Engineering Services Initiative at Cranfield University (UK) and Technical Manager at the International Institute of Obsolescence Management (IIOM). Ian worked for many years at BAE Systems, including as Obsolescence Strategy and Component Engineering Manager and is a member of the Executive Leadership Group at the Electronics Components Supply Network


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