Once upon a time in a far-off land where two mighty nations sat on either side of a frozen wilderness, each waiting for the other to attack first and obliterate them … all the money and resources that were needed to supply the military with anything it required to alleviate that threat were provided. Today, however, the support for these bastions of peace and security are further down the pecking order when it comes to finances.
This, drop in fiscal priority associated with other world and economic changes, has meant that the supply of parts necessary to maintain some of the quality kits that may be a few years old has dried up. Sadly the drive away from “MIL Spec” and toward the suicidal COTS (components off the shelf) has exacerbated a major problem. The electronic parts for today’s military equipment are purchased from the manufacturers who design and manufacture the parts for a fast-moving and high-volume consumer-led industry. These parts are being used by all designers, including the military, apparently unaware that the electronics the device was designed for will only be on sale for a year, before it is replaced with the smaller, faster noncompatible technology. At this point there will only be residual stocks left and no more will be manufactured.
The slow-moving, lower volume, and long life purchases have left the military and similar markets high and dry on many occasions. There was a belief that by using COTS any changes in specification could have been “got around” by changing the software to fix the differences in result. As anyone who has been monitoring health care reform would see, the idea of fast software changes making things work better is an expensive fallacy; and sadly that follows down the line into all systems big and small. So many systems now are software driven and very sensitive to changes in the electronics and how it performs.
Proactive and reactive camps
The fixes for these issues fall into two very distinct and opposing places. Firstly, there is the camp that believes in proactivity, i.e. monitoring every key component in the system by use of software geared especially for keeping track of the manufacturing cycle of the parts, and then getting early warnings for any forecast obsolescence. This is great in theory, and fails when the reason for lack of supply was not forecast.
An example of this is when the supply chain stops as a result of a factory in the Far East suffering from a tsunami or other major catastrophe. Two other reasons for failure would be people — and their inability to see how critical to survival of the equipment, an item is going to become. The other failing is when not many parts were purchased and so the supplier doesn’t notify either the OEM or the keeper of the software that the plans have now changed.
The second camp are the reactive people who know that proactivity has its failings and jump into action at the first sign of obsolescence and buy up all the remaining world stock to get the time for a redesign. The issue with this is that not all component suppliers are 100 percent honest, and there are many counterfeit components waiting for the gullible or desperate to purchase them. Some of these are excellent copies to look at, but lack the quality to make them suitable for flight and other high reliability systems. Additionally, finding out late in the cycle can cause you to miss the boat and not find any in the marketplace. If the original parts are not available there are quality companies who will take bare and unused die (the core of the IC) and will “complete the parts” by packaging them as per the original design.
There is an international standard that can help (IEC62309) if the conservative views of many companies could be reformed into seeing the huge asset there is in taking known redundant equipment and reusing certain key elements in the next generation of products or as spares for older equipment. The quality departments within OEMs have a real issue with this concept. However, the military on the ground use this technique (cannibalism) in an uncontrolled way to maintain aircraft, radar, ships, and all kinds of equipment. The IEC standard actually predicts the useful remaining life of devices, and when used properly, it can be shown that the parts are more reliable than new parts, due to them having passed the new stage of their use where failures are higher.
For those of you who know that it’s not true in your case as you burn in the parts deliberately to avoid these failures … these parts have already passed that stage and so save the cost in money and time of that operation. This standard, although originally intended for domestic appliances and cars (where this practice has been used for many years) is used where there are statistical figures to show the use of any item after a certain time frame. In the military and civil aircraft areas, where logs are kept of the flying time and all maintenance, they are actually the ideal people to adopt this standard. Any other military equipment that has similar logs of use can also expect to benefit from this type of new component supply, called QAGAN, to avoid confusion with traditional new components.
QAGAN can apply to single parts or to assemblies (like PSUs, or other subassemblies). The simple principle behind this revolutionary idea is that all parts have a life cycle curve (electronic parts follow a shape known as the bath tub). When you look at this shape — high at one end, low along the longest length, and the rising up at the far end, you will see how components are recorded as failing. For any cynics out there, you only need to look at BMW cars, Xerox copiers, and many more quality products to see that the “top of the range” suppliers have been doing this for years (it’s even law in Germany and it’s becoming law in all of the European Union to recycle used parts). This has not reduced the quality or reliability of the products.
QAGAN is also used to cover the reuse of materials, so where a material is very expensive, difficult to get, or prohibited from sale, then it’s possible to recycle that back and use it again — in a controlled and quality way.
On my last visit to PAX River, people were amazed at the concept, and definitely could see where this would be of great use to them when dealing with and trying to avoid, end-of-life obsolescence on vital systems.
Financially speaking, this has to be the answer to a military prayer. The U.S. government owns billions of dollars worth of high-tech equipment, which for the most part is fully documented. There are BOMs, drawings, and life histories. Therefore, all the parts no longer needed in their original application are a relatively low-cost resource and could easily keep a trusted piece of valuable equipment from joining the other piles of military hardware thought to be beyond economic repair.
Having been in this business for almost 30 years, I have watched the obsolescence problem grow, and have seen so many solutions offered for it, some very high quality, some not so high. But I have not, until now, seen a solution that is both cost-effective and high quality, and that is achievable in all areas of electronics. And the best news is it is an outstanding solution for the support of military equipment.
David Purdie Associates provides mechanical obsolescence solutions. For further information contact David Purdie at (352) 368-2115 or visit www.davidpurdieassociates.com.