Increasingly in our lives both at home and in our workplace we are utilising the capabilities available of new Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) technology that manifests itself in electronic assets we own and use. Think about all the electronic assets that you own; a smartphone, iPad, laptop, flat screen TV etc. Take any one of these, say your smartphone, and ask yourself ‘what maintenance can I do to prevent the phone from failing and maximising its useful life’. The answer is not much really. When it fails, we accept that it fails.

In general there is little (if any) preventive maintenance that we can do to prevent the failure of an electronic asset or extend its life. This is because it is generally acknowledged that electronic assets exhibit a random pattern of failure that can neither be effectively predicted or prevented through any sort of maintenance. Mathematically the failure behaviour of electronics is described by the exponential distribution. 

However, having said that, for electronic assets we can do a few mechanical based tasks such as cleaning the cooling fan of built up material, cleaning a filter, cleaning the screen, changing a battery or making sure that your favourite electronics have not become the favourite nesting/eating venue for insects and rodents. These tasks are all designed to prevent mechanical modes of failure that will cause an electronic device to functionally fail. 

Mitigating the consequences of failure

To compensate for the random pattern of failure of our electronic assets which can potentially have significant business consequences, there are number of strategies you can employ to help prevent or mitigate the consequences of failure such as:

  • Have your system designed with some form of redundancy. For example, having two units operating in a parallel duty/on-line standby arrangement so that if one fails, the other unit automatically takes over.  
  • Holding a quantity of spare assets as insurance to minimise the downtime when the unit fails.
  • Performing periodic updates on software or firmware to ensure continued functionality and remove any software ‘bugs’ or vulnerabilities that may have been discovered through use.

These are all effective strategies to help ensure the availability of the functionality provided by your electronic assets. This is all great until one day when you’ve used the last spare to replace a failed unit, you suddenly discover that you can neither obtain a new replacement unit nor repair the failed item.  

The reason this situation may occur is that often electronic parts on an asset have a life cycle that is shorter than the life cycle of the product they are a component of, or the manufacturer, for reasons of market advantage and product enhancement, discontinues production to develop and sell a newer and improved model of the same type of equipment. In this situation it’s not the reliability of the electronic asset that is driving replacement but rather supportability driven by product obsolescence. Obsolescence represents a risk to the business which should be considered and appropriately addressed.

Planning for obsolescence

For any electronic assets, obsolescence should be a factor that is considered in the supportability aspects of your system’s Asset Management Plans for the equipment. The following are some suggestions and tips on the way obsolescence can be considered as part of your Asset Management planning process: 

  • Examine your asset hierarchy and determine what assets are electronic in nature (e.g. PLC cards, Radio Terminal Units etc.) or assets that may have a primary mechanical or electrical function (e.g. Variable Speed Drive) but have operation and control circuitry which is modular in nature, i.e. individual boards that can be replaced.
  • Understand what functionality the electronic asset provides and what the impact would be to the business if the functionality was no longer available due to obsolescence.
  • Contact the various manufacturers of the equipment to:
    • Ask the manufacturer if they have a commercial lifecycle associated with the asset. Some companies, like Cisco have a well-defined lifecycle for their products (Cisco End of Life Policy). Note that there may be separate hardware and software lifecycles associated with your system.
    • Determine the age of your asset in its product lifecycle, eg. newly released model or three years into its production cycle. This can assist with determining when upgrade/replacement decisions need to be made and consequently in which financial years funding will be required.
    • Ask if you can sign up to be advised of any end of life product notifications. If not available, develop an action plan where your asset management organisation will proactively contact designated manufacturers for advice at periodic intervals.
  • In developing an end of life strategy, consider some of the following options (more than one can apply):
    • Do nothing. This may be completely appropriate if you know that the life of the system is less than the remaining life you expect from the electronic assets. This would be mostly likely an appropriate approach if a system was known to be ceasing operation at some given time.
    • Undertaking an end of life product buy, i.e. buying sufficient spare assets to ensure the continued operation of the system for a designated number of years. Note that this option only delays the eventual need for replacement once the spares run out and may require an injection of urgent out of budget funding depending on the period of notification.
    • While the original manufacturer may no longer be interested in repairing the asset, there may be some third party vendors that may be able to continue to support repairs of the product for a number of years. Note that this option will also only delay the eventual need for replacement and may also result in higher sustainment costs over time.
    • Re-design the system through an engineered modification so that only the obsolete components are replaced. Note that this option will involve time and money to implement but may be more cost effective than replacing a larger system with many components that are not subject to obsolescence. An example of this would be re‑designing a single circuit card. This strategy would help in maximising the life of the primary asset for minimal cost and delay the need for major capital replacement funding.
  • Undertake partial replacement of the assets over a number of years, utilising removed assets as spares for the remaining systems. This solution avoids a big spike in capital funding in one financial year into manageable chunks spread out over a number of financial years. While cannibalisation is a perfectly valid strategy to maximise the life and value of your remaining systems, cannibalised assets need to be properly managed and controlled if the approach is to be successful. This means:
    • Care must be exercised during the removal of the assets to ensure they are not damaged and remain in a serviceable condition,
    • The assets are tagged, packaged, labelled and stored appropriately, and
    • Your spares inventory system is adjusted to account for the increased number of assets being held and in some cases, new item entries are created for items which may not have been previously catalogued.
  • During the acquisition/design/procurement phase of a project involving any new electronic equipment, the risk of obsolescence and its management in operation should be considered and appropriately addressed as part of the project transition planning. This is important as sometimes, assets forming part of the design may have been procured and, more likely in the case of extended project delays, are obsolete before the systems have been commissioned and in operation.

Replacement of electronic assets due to obsolescence is an important factor that should be considered in your relevant Asset Management Plans and the achievement of your Asset Management Objectives. If you haven’t already thought about it as part of your overall lifecycle approach to Asset Management, we hope this article assists you making it happen.

If you would like to discuss these matters further, or request assistance in dealing with these issues in your organisation, please contact us here

Good luck and happy planning!

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