Missing parts

The growing trend of disposable technology has left the power generation industry needing to be on guard for failures prior to normal life expectancy, or else face the massive costs.

Michael Trenchard, Component Obsolescence Group, UK

Many people see technological change as a sign of progress, but as the pace of development increases, major problems could arise in the power generation industry, as well as other industry sectors which rely on an ability to maintain in service vital long lifespan equipment.

Power stations and the devices within them, such as control equipment, are required to last for several decades and as they are so capital intensive to develop, it is crucial that they actually last for their full life expectancy. However, when electronic or mechanical spare parts are required, it is not always possible to find identical components to repair equipment that has been in service for many years, because during that time, they may have become obsolete. Failure to get replacement parts quickly or at all could incur considerable costs if it means that the whole piece of equipment is put out of service or parts of it need to be redesigned to accommodate modern devices.

Once a component is obsolete, the cost of the replacement parts can be many times the original amount depending on whether a replacement is available or not. Research conducted last year indicates for the first time the likely costs that could be avoided through effective obsolescence management. This ranges from more than à‚£300 000 ($550 000) for a major component redesign to à‚£13 500 for finding a substitute component and à‚£100 for a solution involving using existing stockpiled parts.

These are non-recurring engineering costs and do not include any other associated costs, such as: down-time of equipment, any additional engineering necessary to integrate the part, new training procedures and manuals which may be required, or storage costs.

In extreme cases, the damage to an organization’s reputation and customer relationships could also be enormous, for example if a lack of serviceable equipment causes shortages or failure of power. With public scrutiny of how infrastructure is maintained becoming increasingly intense, it is vital for all round prosperity that the power generation industry avoids this.

A growing problem

In recent years, components have had a high reliability and long life expectancy: for electronic components the average annual failure rate has been just two per cent. This has misled many who will ignore the issue until there is a failure and then they may find that there are no components available to manufacture replacement parts.

Another dimension is likely to exacerbate the problem. Industry was the main market for electronic components, and until the 1970s, the vast majority of components were designed for long lifespan equipment for the industrial market. Today this only accounts for about 15 per cent of electronic component demand, as consumer demand is now the driving force. As consumer goods such as PCs and mobile phones become more and more cutting edge they also become more disposable, so increasingly components are actually being designed to wear out and become obsolete very quickly. According to QinetiQ, Europe’s largest science and technology organization, on average 2000 components become obsolete each month.

Figure 1. Many applications far outlive component life spans (0-25 years)
Click here to enlarge image

Since industry may rely on many of the same components, this could make its ability to maintain and repair existing equipment all the more difficult. For the energy and power generation sector, in which equipment costs are high and the focus is on maximizing product life expectancy, as well as maintaining safety standards, this is likely to be a critical issue.

EU proposals to ban the use of lead in electronic equipment are also likely to aggravate the problem. Lead, which is used in soldering on the vast majority of electronic circuit boards, is due to be banned in July 2006 under the Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment (RoHS) Directive. In addition, the simultaneous implementation of the Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive could also raise obsolescence issues. This is because, if rules on the separation and collection of waste products are too onerous or costly, WEEE may act as a disincentive to use certain materials.

Pro-active strategy

Component obsolescence is moving up the management agenda, but there is still a long way to go.

Organizations may be unwilling to admit that obsolescence affects them at all, but taking a proactive approach should reflect well, rather than badly. Too often companies are taking a reactive approach, when in the majority of cases prevention is far more effective than cure.

By identifying a problem early, the more expensive solutions can be avoided. Steps should be taken to forecast where potential problems might occur and to monitor the availability of components that have a high risk of becoming obsolete, so that organizations can plan whether and when to increase their stocks and/or update equipment.

Figure 2. Mobile phones are becoming more disposable and include parts designed to wear out.
Click here to enlarge image

Extreme care should be used when looking at substituting commercial off-the-shelf electronic devices as alternative replacements for obsolete industrial components. Commercial components are far more readily available, are often much cheaper and they can serve a useful purpose in replacing obsolete parts in certain industrial applications. However, in many others they may not be fit for the purpose, as well as often having quite a short lifespan.

For example, possible substitutes may not have comparable performance electrically, in terms of reliability, thermal performance or safety control, to the original components designed specifically for the industrial market.

If a commercial memory product meets the necessary electrical requirements, and is to be used in a benign environment where the temperature will stay moderate (such as office equipment), it should be suitable for use. However, if it is going into a piece of equipment which has to withstand high vibration levels, very high or low temperatures, it is likely to be far harder to find an appropriate commercial alternative.

Adding to the problems, the number of counterfeit or substandard products coming onto the market is likely to increase in line with the scale of the obsolescence problem. If demand outstrips supply, there could well be a temptation among some operators in the supply chain to fill the gap in the market by selling on second hand, reclaimed or reject products as something they are not.

For organizations that are desperate to source hard to find parts to keep vital equipment up and running, this is likely to compound their problems rather than solve them. In many cases, accompanying paperwork can also be falsified and those purchasing such products are often unaware that they are not what they should be until they fail or find that they do not offer the required performance. In extreme cases the product may not even work, or it may work in a very similar way to the specified component, but with a vastly reduced reliability or life span. In other cases, parts may not meet all the necessary criteria for a particular application.

Organizations should ensure that they have the full performance and technical data about a potential replacement product and assess it carefully.

Buyer consciousness

Buyers of components should always be conscious of the potentially varying aspects of the product. It is recommended that only known and trusted suppliers are used, as this will give more security over the quality and origin of products.

The acceptability of the parts should always be assessed, particularly for components that have been obsolete for some time, as it may be harder to trace their origin. For example, organizations could request datasheets or a sample batch of components for testing prior to a bulk order. However, even these measures may not necessarily give absolute assurance of a component’s long term, in-service performance as the design of components even with the same part number may be changed to achieve cost savings.

Although lack of traceability does not mean that the product is in some way inferior, it does mean that there is no guarantee from the supply chain as to its quality and origin, so the onus is on the end user to check, as far as possible, that it is fit for its purpose.

In order to quell any fears over a component’s sustainability, those purchasing should always establish what warranties the supply chain provides and whether they are negotiable.

Although a quick fix may seem like the answer, unless the time and trouble is taken to ensure a component is truly fit for the required purpose, organizations may well only be storing up problems further down the line.

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