How engineering can build a plug and play for obsolescence

by Owen Tangney

Owen Tangney, Ichor
Owen Tangney, Ichor

It is a direct consequence of human progress that everything becomes obsolete in the end. All ideas and products have a natural span, after which the irrepressible innovative instinct replaces it with something better.

The challenges of obsolescence in manufacturing are immense, and taking a strategic approach to obsolescence management by forecasting and planning can make a significant difference to optimising product lifecycle.

We all know about obsolescence in consumer goods. Who hasn’t had a washing machine or fridge break down just weeks or months after the five-year guarantee expires and then find that vital parts are no longer available to repair it. That’s just part of the commercial world we live in.

In high-level manufacturing of products, however, capital investment runs into millions and it is critical to extend the capability of the process – and, thus, the return on investment (ROI) – for as long as possible. The end of life of a production process can mean a prohibitively costly redesign and reinvestment.

But there is an alternative. Instead of updating and spending millions more on a new production line, it is possible to engineer out the obsolescence with new, value-added engineering solutions.

Ichor Systems (Legacy Services) specialises in the refurbishment of semiconductor production equipment. A great deal of semiconductor production equipment, especially 150mm and 200mm systems, was developed in the eighties, and its life cycles are entering the legacy phase. Over the last five years, this equipment was expected to be replaced with 300mm or even 450mm production systems.

With the advancement of the Internet of Things (IoT) and microelectromechanical system (MEMS) devices pushing for ever higher performance and greater efficiency in an increasingly interconnected world, however, the market for 150mm and 200mm wafers is actually increasing.

As a result, equipment which should have been destined for the scrapheap is now being used and reconfigured for the IoT and MEMS market

This unanticipated phenomenon has led companies like ours to recognise the market opportunities which exist to extend the lifecycle of manufacturing equipment and as a result, to improve significantly the overall return in investment.

This leads, in turn, to a logical and potentially revolutionary conclusion, which we are currently implementing at Ichor. If obsolescence can be managed in the technical and complex world of semiconductor manufacturing the same thinking can apply to all other manufacturing and engineering.

OEMs do not want to support trailing tech for decades. Their future is new technology, but, we believe, a real gap exists in the market for engineering solutions to obsolescence, something which has been confirmed to us by Scottish Enterprise.

We have proved the obsolescence mitigation model for the semiconductor market over recent years and are now finding that approach is applicable to the UK manufacturing sector, thereby deferring, sometimes for years, the need for excessive spend or capital investment.

End users themselves have to play a part in the process as well. It is only natural that people will not want to think about, or spend money on, replacing parts while their equipment is still functioning. Obsolescence, of course, can emerge all too suddenly, precisely when you least expect it and when you are not prepared to deal with the loss of production.

Equally, it is instructive that while many tech-dependent manufacturers have robust recovery plans in place for contingencies such as natural disaster or power outages, there are few such precautions around obsolescence.

What is needed is a systematic audit of components and their life expectancy, as well as a range of possible solutions for their repair or replacement. Feedback from users is vital and the supply chain needs to be looked at in its entirety.

With this information, engineering intelligence has the capability to find the answer to what is now the number one issue for manufacturing. What we are talking about is no less than a plug and play for obsolescence. The answer is out there.