Obsolescence – The Reverse of Moore's Law

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Continued from Part One

The only problem with these long-lasting tube-bending machines, wearily explained to us by the purchasing team one day, was that the engineers chose components from the book of the obscure, and as a result, when that component required replacement at some stage in the future, it almost certainly would no longer exist. A company-wide drive to standardize parts – driven by a desire to save on costs – had the additional benefit that replacement parts were much more likely to be available in the future.

As Peter Sandborn wrote back in 2008, the systems hit hardest by obsolescence are the ones that must perform nearly flawlessly. Technologies for mass transit, medicine, the military, air-traffic control, and power-grid management, to name a few, require long design and testing cycles, so they cannot go into operation soon after they are conceived.

Because they are so costly, they can return the investment only if they are allowed to operate for a long time, often 20 years or more. Just four years on and we see all kinds of products used in less demanding applications becoming un-maintainable or irreparable at the first failure for want of a few simple components that are no longer produced.

For some manufacturers of consumer goods, it has become a positive dynamic of their business model by driving new sales, but for many industrial operators of plants and equipment, it is a growing problem that often falls on the purchasing department to resolve.

Like a reverse of Moore’s Law, which says processing speed doubles every 18 months, obsolescence is the price we pay for that pace of change. It needs system and equipment specified to recognize the problem and alter their buying approach to demand a design approach that accommodates obsolescence.

Only then will designers incorporate such flexibility into new product design.

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