Obsolescence Expert Ian Blackman provides useful tips on how designers of complex equipment can reduce their Total Cost of Obsolescence

Most people know that the product cost is determined as soon as the parts list has been agreed.

Choices made at this early stage impact the whole lifecycle from design to disposal. Consequently, it is vitally important to make the right decisions when the design team is fully resourced and engaged with the customer during the concept and initial design phases.

It can be attractive for designers to leap head first into the challenge of meeting the requirement and capability but that often leads to making poor assumptions and designs that could have been better. In this blog we give guidance to projects leaders on how to design with support in mind: including test, repair, and sustainability.

If the customer’s contract is for availability or capability, the scope for the designer may be wider than in traditional design and support contracts since customer acceptance criteria may not be relevant. In these types of contracts, the designer does not meet a specification they meet a requirement in whatever way they consider best to meet the performance requirements of the user.

Historically many long-term platforms and equipment have been designed to meet demanding high level military level specifications to ensure performance. One advantage of this is that equipment often lasts longer than originally designed. Examples of this would be civil aircraft, oil and gas platforms and their subsea systems, nuclear reactor control systems, as well as railway rolling stock and signaling.

Defining the real requirement and checking who owns the support costs is vital as that determines who makes the design decisions. Any poor choices made cost your employer and ultimately you as the designer. To be blunt pay increases come from the profit made by the business upon successful delivery and meeting contractual requirements. It is in the designer’s interest in more ways than the obvious to meet the design criteria.

Beware the attraction of COTS. (Commercial Off The Shelf)

One way of lowering design costs and timescales is to consider generic parts that may meet the design requirement, but were not custom designed for a single requirement. Long lead times can be avoided, and the advantages of volume manufacturing are obvious, but the likelihood of multiple design variations and shorter availability periods also need to be considered. This is because the generic part will be driven by the needs of multiple users and conflicting markets.

Often the apparent cost savings do not give lifecycle long savings and the operating environment the user stated is harsher than originally foreseen so the commercial part does not last as long.

It is very important to seriously consider the application in detail.

A good analogy here is a family saloon car (the COTS part) and a pick-up truck. (The custom designed rugged environment part)

What vehicle would you use to transport paving slabs – an open bed pick-up truck or a four-door family saloon?

They both have similar raw power, but one is ideal for the purpose and the other will work with restrictions – doors and windows and paving slabs are not a good mix!

However, if you have just a few paving slabs to move the boot of the saloon will be fine.

Systems Engineering Discipline

Within the project team someone needs to assess each System’s requirements in turn. The role of the System Engineer or Systems Architect is crucial and ideally that person should not be co-located with the design team to ensure objectivity. The Systems Engineer’s role is to give a broader and business balanced view compared with a project specific one.

The use of high level Peer reviews is strongly encouraged. This is where the design team walk through the design with senior engineers from their business unit or a different part of the business that will analyze and act as a concerned customer would.

Engineering Specialisms

Another factor that can improve designs is the use of specialist engineers. This can produce excellent results using well informed experience over a variety of applications. A modern approach to engineering design is to encourage mature engineers to develop a specialism and leave the generic digital electronics to recently qualified graduates who will hopefully bring in new thinking and awareness of new products and tools. Specialisms in a modern piece of electronics might include areas such as EMC, power supplies, displays, software, programmable logic etc.

At the design stage the past performance of vendors should be considered amongst other criteria.

The vendors that have previously understood your business probably still do and new entrants need to be rigerously assessed to ensure they are able to offer the design support and product longevity they may claim.

Technology roadmaps are often used for future development of your company’s products using the roadmaps of tier two and three vendors. Sometimes a past supporter may not be heading in the same direction as you are or maybe exiting your product sector. Roadmaps are a vision and should not be relied upon, as products in concept form do not always become production items. Ideally the roadmap shows the timescales for product introduction and top-level descriptors that could positively or negatively impact on your own product.

Preferred Parts

One way of helping designers to focus on the important product differentiators is to simplify the choice of low value simple parts e.g. resistors, capacitors and fasteners by establishing preferred components that will be managed as common stock, so they are always available and will be configured in the electronic design tools and can be picked and integrated with a CAD tool without any special effort. The datasheets and part definition are managed by the business, not the project, for the benefit of the whole business not a single project.

Valuable lessons

The use of high level Peer Reviews of design, both internal and external to your business and with customer involvement ensure better understanding and a team awareness of the risks, decisions and opportunities for the current design and future enhancements.

Documenting your assumptions and decisions as part of a through life planning process will serve you well in future times. Engineers and companies move on, but the support requirement continues. A small amount of time recording will pay back with dividends when you need to reopen a design to support it later or to consider a technology refresh. Another benefit of this is to be able to pass on this IP to a third party who may acquire the product in service or the support responsibility.

Availability of this data is extremely professional and has commercial value within the changed business opportunity.

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

Ian is available to answer any questions you might have on Obsolescence Management, Complex design process or Procurement strategy for long term support.  He can be contacted at ian@elanbusinesssupport.com