In the electronics industry, the current supply chain shortage continues on and is becoming ever more vivid. For us, we’ve seen it particularly in the slowing the slowing of new product announcements of board-level products. When a company can’t guarantee that a processor or memory chip will be available, it’s reluctant to get a production line going for a new product. This situation has made me think lately about the whole component obsolescence problem that continuously impacts the military electronics market—and has ever since commercial semiconductor markets surpassed the size of the defense market. Today, of course, the defense electronics market is ultra-tiny—minuscule compared to the commercial realm.
I know that today’s commercial electronics supply shortages and the military’s component obsolescence issues are apples and oranges. But it’s possible that some insights can be gleaned from a look at component obsolescence in defense. The perennial problem in the defense market is this: All large-scale computing and semiconductor technology development these days is aimed at the needs of driving markets such as consumer devices like phones, tablets and PCs— consumer electronics in general. And those devices have system lifecycles that have gone from about 18 months to now sometimes less than a year. Just to keep up, the components used in those broader markets are facing ever shorter life spans, creating an ever-worsening problem for the military where platform lifecycles are still at least a decade long and often longer.
Although this problem by its inherent nature is inevitably always getting worse, thankfully there is a sophisticated group of companies and organizations who are in the business of dealing with such problems. At my previous job on a defense electronics publication, I maintained and annually updated a directory of those organizations and the services they provide.
There are a variety of ways to attack the problem of an IC or subsystem that’s no long available. There are packaging firms who do custom assembly of obsolete ICs using existing wafer and die. Beyond that, there are even some firms that will remanufacture the obsolete die—often at a more current process size. And on the more straightforward side, there are many aftermarket chip suppliers who stock inventories of devices that have gone obsolete. These range from small firms specializing in aftermarket business to large distributors who include aftermarket products in their portfolio.
Some years back I visited and was given a tour of a very interesting company called Rochester Electronics up in Newburyport, MA. They sort do “all of the above” when it comes to attacking the obsolescence problem. Among their services is in-house chip production—either as original device replication or drop-in replacements. Rochester can replicate the original device, avoiding expensive system requalification, recertification or redesign. According to the company, the end product is a form, fit, and functional replacement guaranteed to the original datasheet performance.
They took me into one of their warehouses where they stock end-of-life (EOL) ICs. Remember the huge warehouse at the end of the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark? That’s what it looks like, and they’ve only expanded since then. Today, Rochester has over 15 billion devices in stock comprising more than 200,000-part numbers, claiming to have the world’s most extensive range of EOL semiconductors and broadest range of active semiconductors.
In terms of embedded computing, the emergence of standards-based computing form factors has been one defense against the obsolescence problem. Instead of replacing a whole computing platform when its processors and memories are obsolete, a new single board computer can be swapped in to refresh the system’s technology as long as there’s a standard architecture in place such as COM Express or Mini-ITX. If one vendor goes away, gets acquired or stops making the board you need, simply drop in a board based on the same standard form factor.
For the past three decades or more, the defense electronics industry has ridden the coattails of the consumer/commercial semiconductor market. In terms of how the defense industry deals with supply roadblocks, maybe this is one rare case where there’s something to learn from the defense space.
PUBLISHED IN CIRCUIT CELLAR MAGAZINE• OCTOBER 2021 #375 – Get a PDF of the issue
Jeff served as Editor-in-Chief for both LinuxGizmos.com and its sister publication, Circuit Cellar magazine 6/2017—3/2022. In nearly three decades of covering the embedded electronics and computing industry, Jeff has also held senior editorial positions at EE Times, Computer Design, Electronic Design, Embedded Systems Development, and COTS Journal. His knowledge spans a broad range of electronics and computing topics, including CPUs, MCUs, memory, storage, graphics, power supplies, software development, and real-time OSes.