Obsolescence management in safety-critical sectors

Obsolescence management involves continually evaluating the life span of a component’s life cycle, while replacing obsolete parts as they age. Here Neil Ballinger, head of EMEA at industrial parts supplier EU Automation, explains why it is important and how to plan and manage component obsolescence in safety-critical industries such as nuclear power plants, off-shore oil platforms, chemical plants, commercial aviation, rail transport and pharmaceutics manufacturing.

According to the International Institute of Obsolescence Management (IIOM), obsolescence is the unavailability of parts, or services that were previously available. It can occur at different stages of the equipment’s life cycle and affects particularly those components that need to be maintained for several decade. Obsolescence causes downtime and loss of productivity as well as increasing the cost for through-life support.

In safety-critical industries, obsolescence has to be carefully managed to avoid its negative impact on productivity. Safety-critical industries are highly regulated, meaning that a lot of paperwork and red tape are required for any possible component upgrade. As a result, if an obsolete component fails and a spare cannot be found on the market, redesigning and requalifying processes can cost companies a huge amount of time and money.

Let’s take the commercial aviation industry as an example. Many airlines are now using their aging aircrafts and equipment for longer to control costs and capital investments, which may cause early component obsolescence. Even if obsolete components can be more expensive than the original parts, they will still be much cheaper than replacing an entire aircraft.

Another safety-critical industry, the pharmaceutical industry, is growing fast and is deploying cutting-edge technologies, from nanotechnology to 3D printing pills. However, in many pharmaceutical manufacturing processes, legacy equipment is still being used, which causes slow, inflexible and high-risk processes being relied on for mass manufacturing.

Despite this, replacing equipment with newer models is very complex because the sector is highly regulated. If the manufacturers keep using legacy equipment, they can avoid replacing an entire production system. Manufacturers may find it difficult to afford both financial and regulatory approval timescale cost to replace equipment. Instead, replacing only the failed components by sourcing an obsolete spares might be a simpler and cheaper alternative.

A solution at hand

Component obsolescence is inevitable in almost all industries, but that does not mean it can’t be contained. Since many manufacturers in safety-critical industries can’t afford to keep a stockpile of obsolete replacement parts on site for unexpected component failure, it is suggested that organisations rely on a trustworthy supplier.  Consider, for example, if a critical component breaks in a food processing plant. Due to the external temperature, the manufacturer has between 12 and 24 hours to find a replacement before the whole production batch has to be thrown away. If manufacturers have a reliable parts supplier which can provide those hard-to-find obsolete parts and deliver them as fast as possible, the problem can be quickly solved.

For more information on proactive obsolescence management, please visit https://www.euautomation.com/en/knowledge-hub/obsolescence.