Plant & Works Engineering
The importance of implementing a thorough obsolescence policy
Published:  08 August, 2022

Implementing a thorough obsolescence management policy and having a robust methodology for the purchase and stocking of genuine automation components are vital to success, yet many businesses have not put comprehensive plans in place, says Leroy Spence, Director at Obso Global

According to a report from ERIKS, in conjunction with the IET, 19% of respondents admitted to having no obsolescence policy at all – and only 21% said they had undertaken an obsolescence audit in the last year.1

What is also evident is that many operators assume they must approach the original equipment manufacturer directly for the sourcing of parts. They do not realise that there are third-party suppliers that provide expertise in the sourcing of automation parts, from genuine OEM items, to substitute or replacement units.

Leroy highlights the vital importance of having a full obsolescence management plan in place, and how working in partnership with a third-party supplier can help mitigate risk when it comes to end-oflife and hard-to-find parts.

Defining obsolescence

Obsolete does not mean that the equipment has reached the end of its life. It simply defines that the part is no longer supported by the manufacturer, so alternative sources that can provide a part of the same quality and design will need to be considered instead.

A sensible approach is to go back to basics and consider the International Electrotechnical Commission’s (IEC) own obsolescence management standard, BS EN IEC 62402:2019, in which it states: “The objective of obsolescence management is to ensure that obsolescence is managed as an integral part of all design, development, production and inservice support, in order to minimise cost and detrimental impact throughout the product life cycle.”

Therefore, in its simplest form, the clue really is in the title - Management. Where the BSI cites that ‘obsolescence manifests itself as difficulty in obtaining supplies, spares and/or support’, in contrast, obsolescence management is ‘the transition of a required item still in use from available to unavailable from the manufacturer.’

Part of this product management lifecycle is to understand current and future risk and put steps in place to mitigate. Operators need certainty over the anticipated life of the production line – creating a long-term strategy that includes replacement parts and an adequate stock of critical spares. This should be assisted by a trusted support partner that can help incorporate obsolescence into the system design.

Creating an obsolescence plan

Key to managing obsolescence is to create a plan which considers every aspect of the plant and its impact on productivity.

The first step is to undertake an audit of the installed base of machinery and equipment. This should identify the risk by area, line and machine; detailing which parts are likely to have the biggest impact were they to become obsolete.

Having categorised parts into order of priority, the second stage is to understand the equipment lifecycle. Spare parts do not reach obsolescence at pre-determined intervals and their availability cannot necessarily be predicted. Operators should keep abreast of product change notifications and end-of-life announcements from the manufacturer, to help build an accurate profile of which parts are current and readily available, which are due to become obsolete and which are already obsolete. 

Building an accurate picture of the equipment lifecycle can help companies to maintain an accurate stock of critical spare parts. Rather than waiting for a part to fail, this method helps operators stay in control, minimising the potential for expensive downtime, reducing the time-consuming search for parts and freeing up resource for more productive tasks. 

A third stage, which can often be overlooked, is to consider an alternative to the obvious ‘like-for-like’ parts replacement. While no reputable supply partner would advocate the use of pirate parts or cheap imports, there are often numerous plug and play alternatives or a migration path available that will return the equipment to the same original performance. This could include the redesign or reverse engineering of the unit if items are no longer available. This phase also presents an ideal opportunity to reconsider the energy performance of the spare parts, or any legislative changes which may have impacted since the initial capital investment. It may be the case that an upgrade could be considered which will reduce energy consumption or prolong service life by bringing the equipment in line with current standards.

The final phase of the plan is to ensure that all spare parts and components are monitored regularly throughout their service life. Routine, proactive maintenance will always help prolong equipment longevity and help prioritise energy performance. In this way, operators can help lower ownership costs over the lifetime of the equipment.

Selecting a partner

Once a comprehensive obsolescence management plan is in place, operators should consider forming a partnership approach; outsourcing to a third-party supplier that has a network of contacts who can help with sourcing, replacements, upgrades, software, and training requirements. A reputable supplier is one that aims to minimise production downtime during any parts upgrade or replacement, with a particular focus on maintaining the existing equipment parameters. This may mean that the first option is not to source an immediate like-for-like replacement, but to consider reverse engineering a component part or finding an upgraded alternative which may require minimal programming.

Some key questions a reputable supplier should be asking include:

Is there a plug and play replacement? 

Can programs or parameters be extracted from existing parts and stored for future replacements? 

Is there a possible system change or migration path solution? 

Can a component part be reverse engineered?

Can stock be consolidated across departments or sites?

Is the stock purchasing regime effective – can I save this customer money?

How many critical spares does the business have or need and can these be stored off-site?

A third-party supplier can also assist with inventory management, particularly where holding large volumes of spare parts on-site is impractical or where the cost of upfront purchase is prohibitive.

Third-party suppliers can offer numerous solutions for the management of the physical spare parts stock that a business requires. For example, not every component that has reached the end of its life needs to be disposed of. Assets can often be repaired or upgraded, using original components to return a component to useful life.

For any plant manager tasked with ensuring production uptime, the importance of a thorough obsolescence management policy cannot be underestimated. By following a structured approach, alongside seeking advice from a third-party expert, equipment longevity and cost of ownership can be prioritised.