Electronic Design

What’s Old Is New Again In Product Obsolescence Programs

Old or new, defense and aerospace devices as well as a growing number of commercial products are finding a home for obsolete parts. Historically, when semiconductor suppliers shifted to new technologies, they maintained their mature factories for cost-effective manufacturing of older technology. But that’s changing.

“Today, as competitors transition mature technology to newer manufacturing platforms, cost pressures are making older manufacturing facilities uncompetitive to operate,” says Len Jelinek, director and chief analyst for semiconductor manufacturing at iSuppli, a specialist in semiconductor market research.

Because of the unusually long life of major weapons platforms, such as the B-52 bomber, military and to a slightly lesser extent commercial aircraft represent the largest market for obsolete parts. It’s enough of an issue that plans are already underway for supplying parts in the distant future for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which made the inaugural test flight in its short take-off, vertical landing Lightning II variant in early April.

“The B-52 has been in service since 1955, and we’re still shipping parts for the aircraft on a weekly basis,” says Russ Johnson (Fig. 1), president of QP Semiconductor (Fig. 2), an e2v company based in Santa Clara, Calif., that focuses on extending the life of mostly existing military and aerospace electronics systems. Johnson says military and aerospace applications account for at least 90% of his company’s revenue.

Even while the Air Force works on new bombers it hopes to get into service by 2037, it intends to keep the B-52H flying until at least 2040, more than 80 years after production of the aircraft started. And by the time the F-35 gets into production, many of the parts that have been designed into it will already have generated end-of-life (EOL) notices.

“And this is supposed to be a 30- to 50-year program,” says Johnson.

TI TOPS QML LIST

Texas Instruments leads the field of all Qualified Manufacturing List (QML) part numbers (all components that are qualified by the U.S. Defense Department) listed on the Defense Supply Center, Columbus (DSCC) Web site with close to 4200 active part numbers. Johnson says QP Semiconductor is second with about 3700 part numbers.

Rochester Electronics, a distributor that stocks old parts, is another major player in the obsolescence arena. Maxim Integrated Products named it an authorized distributor for “mature” semiconductor products in April.

George Karalias, director of marketing and communications at Rochester, says his company now has a broad offering of Maxim devices, including delay devices, high-frequency waveform generators, analog-to-digital converters (ADCs), and voltage reference devices.

Lansdale Semiconductor, another major supplier of “aftermarket” ICs, offers more than 3000 different products, 850 of which are sole source. The company makes old chips under license for AMD, Fairchild, Harris, Intel, National Semiconductor, Raytheon, and Freescale Semiconductor.

Lansdale recently announced the availability of encoder/decoder pairs and digital-to-analog converters (DACs) originally designed and built by Freescale. These general-purpose building-block ICs include the MC145026, MC145027, and MC145028 encoder/decoder pairs along with the MC144110 and MC14111 DACs. The MC145026, MC145027, and MC145028 encoder/decoders are designed to be used as pairs in remote-control applications.

QP has been increasingly active in EOL programs. Its parent company, e2v, recently signed an agreement with Freescale Semiconductor to extend the useful life of 68K-series microprocessors for the military, aerospace, commercial, and industrial markets. e2v says it not only stocks the parts, it will continue to manufacture the Freescale devices for all markets following the discontinuance of the products by Freescale.

Once Freescale ceases production of the 68020, 68882, and 68C000 processors, e2v’s portfolio of high-reliability grade products will be extended with commercial-grade versions in both plastic and ceramic packages. The Freescale products will remain available from e2v for the next 10 years, or longer. In fact, Freescale has licensed e2v to deliver high-reliability versions of its products for more than 25 years.

The current arrangement allows e2v to build and sell its own products, from the 68K family to high-performance Power Architecture devices, by sourcing commercial wafers and devices from Freescale and then repackaging, screening, characterizing, and testing at extended temperatures.

In April, QP also released re-engineered versions of the QP741 and QP747 operational amplifiers, manufactured on a bipolar process to serve as drop-in replacements for the National/Fairchild LM741 used in key military/aerospace applications. (Market forecasts indicate that inventories of these military grade devices will be depleted in the near term.) Essentially, e2v is extending its product range for a wider set of applications, where system redesign is complex and expensive.

QP has also been working more closely with Lockheed Martin Corp., recently completing the re-engineering of three custom circuit designs. This will enable Lockheed to avoid cost increases and schedule delays threatened by obsolescence and diminished manufacturing sources conditions.

“The key to offsetting this \\[obsolescence\\] mitigation,” says Johnson, “is early identification. That’s where we can add value—by providing the ability to manufacture, not just the older parts, but new products.”

NEW OPPORTUNITIES

In fact, there are other new and emerging market opportunities for obsolete components, such as gas and oil exploration, medical and scientific, and commercial and industrial—all areas where systems go through an arduous qualification process and where the swapping out of a component is very difficult and can cause a costly redesign of an integrated system before it can be put back in service.

The consumer electronics market sector, where new products are introduced almost every other day, views obsolescence very differently than military and aerospace vendors. While the military and aerospace sectors struggle to get components that meet their needs for non-lead-free parts, the consumer electronics segment has been pushing hard for some time to create products with only “green” components.

“In a technology-driven industry like electronics manufacturing, obsolescence, whether it’s a product or technology, is a constant concern,” says Dave Torp, vice president of standards and technology for IPC – Association Connecting Electronics Industries, a global trade association with 2700 member companies.

Life-cycle management has become a major topic in the electronics industry, according to Torp. “Today, designers and manufacturers of electronics need to design from cradle to grave,” he says.

Testing has become another challenge in trying to maintain manufacturability on a part that is 30 to 40 years old. All too often, test equipment is no longer available for these parts, or the test equipment can’t be repaired.  In that case, skills and engineering talent is required to port test vectors over to newer test systems.

Meanwhile, component manufacturers are converting their manufacturing operations to align with requirements for high-volume components, leaving some other market segments struggling to get components modified or purchase out-of-production components from brokers. The demand for some of the out-of-product parts has led to an increase in the amount of counterfeit components on the market.

COUNTERFEITING A THREAT

“Counterfeit electronic components are becoming more of a global industry nightmare,” says R. Dale Lillard, president of Lansdale Semiconductor. It’s especially a threat to the military and aerospace sector, and QP Semiconductor’s Johnson is quick to agree.

“When a part goes obsolete and there’s a big requirement for meeting certain weapons or aerospace platform needs, that market is ripe for counterfeiting,” Johnson says.

A 2007 study of almost 400 companies by the Pentagon indicated major problems in the industry supply chain with both discrete parts and ICs being counterfeited with “fake non-working parts” or “working copies of the original designs.” According to the report, “The majority of counterfeit parts are being discovered because they are returned as defective.”

Little has changed since then. Parts are reported being delivered with markings for what customers ordered. These customers, who paid a big premium for those parts, then discover that what they have received is simply a ceramic package with no die inside the part. Or, it’s the wrong die. Or, it’s a completely different part with new markings indicating the part the customer ordered after the original markings were removed.

NASA is also being hit with counterfeiting problems. At this year’s NASA Project Management Challenge, presenters documented how counterfeit parts have impacted NASA’s and the U.S. military’s products and programs, resulting in higher project costs, reduced performance, product failure, and extensive delays.

In 2009, a NASA probe project was delayed nine months and exceeded its budget by more than 20%, partly because of a counterfeit part. According to BrandWatch Technologies, a global brand security and product authentication solutions specialist, the problem extends beyond NASA’s dollars and timelines, risking personal safety, diminishing confidence in U.S. aerospace programs, and impacting the business of legitimate component manufacturers.

In response to its counterfeit problems, NASA adopted SAE AS5553, an aerospace parts standard issued in 2009. The standard was developed to mitigate the space agency’s and the military’s risk of “receiving and installing counterfeit electronic parts.” The standard recommends subjecting parts to eight individual tests, including x-rays, thermal cycling, and electrical testing, all designed to ensure the compliance of the products that NASA and the U.S. military purchase.

RoHS & REACH

The European Union’s (EU) Restrictions on Hazardous Substances (RoHS) and Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals (REACH) programs are moving targets for the industry as EU-based regulatory agencies continue to study the impact of certain possible amendments to the RoHS directive and change the language and restrictions of their environmental rules.

The good news for companies that serve EOL markets is that the military is exempt from many chip and other component restrictions in the RoHS directive. However, much of the tooling and manufacturability of chips and other components has already shifted to meet RoHS requirements—globally.

Environmental regulations such as RoHS and REACH have necessitated full disclosure of materials used within products. Some of the regulations hold manufacturers and OEMs responsible for the afterlife of their products.

Torp says that IPC volunteers have been working on standards to help with materials declarations under the EU-originated environmental regulations that specifically target the electronics industry, including the recently updated IPC-1752A, Materials Declaration Management, and IPC-1756, Materials Process Data Management. IPC also holds several educational events throughout the year to help the industry understand compliance requirements.

NEW TECHNOLOGIES

Relatively new and emerging military-critical chip technologies also are in commercial development, such as gallium nitride (GaN) (see “GaN Platform Promises Tenfold Boost In Power”). The deployment in electronic warfare, next-generation radar, and covert communications is expected to represent 50% of the $376 million market for GaN components in 2014. For commercial applications, the emerging demand for low-voltage power conversion is expected to supplement a sluggish adoption of GaN components in wireless infrastructure that is projected to continue through 2012.  

“I don’t believe the industry has matured to the level where obsolete parts are available,” says Michael Hatcher, associate analyst with Strategy Analysts, a market research organization. “The U.S. defense industry is deploying the technology in electronic warfare, largely anti-IED (improvised explosive device) jammer applications, where the key requirements are a combination of high output power and wideband RF emission, rather than the more sophisticated needs of an AESA (active electronically scanned array, which is used, for example, in the U.S. Navy’s F/A-18 Super Hornet) radar system.”

CURRENT (NOT OBSOLETE) INFO

Need more information? Industry experts and volunteers have been working together to update standards to reflect current best practices used in design, fabrication, and user assembly of electronics. The JEDEC Solid State Technology Association (formerly the Joint Electron Devices Engineering Council) standard JESD-48B covers obsolescence issues. It was revised in May 2005 to include an annex that made note of reporting EOL information to the Government-Industry Data Exchange Program (GIDEP).

Most participants in GIDEP are major defense/aerospace contractors and subcontractors seeking to reduce or eliminate expenditures by sharing technical information essential during the research, design, development, production, and even operational phases of the life cycle of systems.

The JEDEC document is intended to help manage the EOL supply by establishing requirements for timely customer notification of planned product discontinuance or transitioning ongoing requirements to alternate products. It can be found at www.jedec.org/standards-documents/results/taxonomy:3548.

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