Designing with obsolescence in mind

Louise Davis

Tech life cycles are becoming shorter. This means it is important for product designers to plan in advance for component obsolescence to maximise the life span of their products. Jonathan Wilkins discusses his considerations for designing for obsolescence

It’s fair to say that the smartphone is to blame for many everyday technologies including the calculator, the torch and the camera slowly entering the realms of obsolescence. However, not even this disruptive technology can go on ruling our lives forever; a study by Ericsson found that one in two people believe the smartphone will be obsolete in five years time. With tech life cycles becoming shorter, it is important for product designers to plan in advance for component obsolescence to maximise the life span of their products.

There are many requirements that need to be assessed when designing a product. The initial considerations in the development path are simple; what is the product and what is the function? Once the designer has established the basics, they can move on to material choice, manufacturing method, production numbers and cost forecast. A more difficult thing to assess is product lifecycle. If a designer cannot control all aspects of their component supply chain, obsolescence will affect the working life of the product.

Lifecycle is becoming an increasingly important factor in product design because of the increased speed of obsolescence by newer technologies, market trends and as a result of planned obsolescence. The life span of technology is shrinking and this is forcing designers to change products beyond their control.

Designing for obsolescence

The challenges of obsolescence are best addressed at the design stage. Part of this involves analysing procurement information and avoiding the selection of parts close to obsolescence. Taking a strategic approach to obsolescence management by forecasting and planning can make a big difference to optimising product life cycle.

Manufacturers typically send out notifications such as product change, end of life or discontinuation, last time buy and last time ship notices. These can be used to by designers to mitigate the risk of obsolescence, but because the notifications are not always accurate or complete, this approach alone is not enough.

A designer can break down the bill of materials for analysis at component level to filter out low risk components and assess the risk for the remaining ones. This way, the designer can weigh up the likeliness of component obsolescence against the impact it will have on the product’s end performance.

Some predictions say the flexibility of 3D printing and additive manufacturing as production methods could to some extent counteract the acceleration of obsolescence by providing companies with a more personalised and flexible manufacturing. NASA has tested 3D printing in the International Space Station to allow on-demand manufacturing and reduce the need for costly spare parts. Similarly, Daimlar Trucks has also announced it will use 3D printing to produce spare parts.

3D printing could take off as a popular way to replace, repair or restore obsolete or hard to source parts in some industries. However, for the time being, the technology remains cost-prohibitive and has significant production limitations. For obsolete equipment in industrial automation systems, obsolescence is less of a concern. A reliable third party supplier, such as EU Automation, can quickly ship replacements to keep your system running.

It is not possible to access spare parts in the same way in every industry, so when designing a new product it is important to be proactive, flexible and strategic with obsolescence management.

Design engineers should select parts and components with obsolescence in mind. Sharing information and making predictions on obsolescence will prove vital, as will detailed planning and understanding the lifecycle of products and systems. Using logistics, business forecasting and strategic planning helps manufacturers manage product life cycle better. When it comes to designing for obsolescence, prediction is key – what will replace the smartphone however, is anyone’s guess.

Jonathan Wilkins is with EU Automation

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