Turning the Tables On Obsolescence Management


This post is about obsolescence management. There, I said it. I considered pretending it was about something else in order to prevent readers leaving in droves, but I decided to just come right out with it. But here’s the thing. Obsolescence management is INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT and ACTUALLY REALLY INTERESTING. More importantly, it can mean the difference between success and failure when leveraging COTS technology.

If you want to understand the impact of obsolescence, talk to an iPhone geek who won’t be able to upgrade to the iPhone 6 when it comes out because he or she is locked into a two-year service contract. See the sheer panic in their eyes. Now imagine you’re a DoD program manager who is locked into a 20-year commitment to a new platform which, in all likelihood, will turn into a 40-year commitment once the follow-on program gets “delayed.” If you designed (and got your program certified) with current generation technology, you’re going to need a plan to upgrade along the way.

Because government development cycles keep getting longer and longer and commercial technology cycles keep getting shorter and shorter, this is a challenge that will only grow in complexity. It’s not the 1950s anymore; the government is rarely, if ever, a big enough or lucrative enough customer to move the commercial technology market. Imagine an Army PM calling Apple or Intel and asking them to continue producing or supporting an end-of-life product because they needed a few dozen or hundred more items over 10 years. Not going to happen—and certainly not when the commercial market is driving volumes in the millions for the same products.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of companies out there willing to sell you today’s newest technology and let you figure out the future on your own. We like to think that one of our advantages here at GE is that we spend a ton of time thinking about how to help our customers manage the challenge of obsolesence. We actually sit down with customers at the front end of a program’s development and strategize about what to do when part X or board Y goes obsolete—which is only ever a matter of time. We call this discipline Product Lifecycle Management (PLM).

It all starts with keeping your ear to the technology ground and figuring out what will be discontinued and when. That’s not a one-time exercise; it’s an ongoing process that we call product health check. (These names are catchy, eh?) Once we know that a given part is headed for obsolesence, we strategize. The answer may be to play defense and just stockpile a ton of whatever the part is. We can actually store parts in a controlled-environment nitrogen facility for years or decades so that, when a part breaks or needs to be swapped out, it will be replaced with an exact match.

Alternatively, we can help customers look out and identify ideal technology insertion points throughout the life of their program. Some may involve pinout replacements while others require more substantial modifications to the overall system. It’s unlikely that any program could stand to swap out boards every time Intel, for example, releases a new processor, but a strategy may call for insertion of technology every so many years or technology generations.

If the length between insertion points is particularly long, relative to the length of the technology cycles themselves, it may be necessary to use a hybrid strategy wherein product is acquired and stored for use between upgrades.

We’re all about being flexible to meet the needs of our customers while keeping the menu of options simple and straightforward. We’ve been around the block when it comes to obsolesence and we don’t want to field frantic phone calls years into a program any more than our customers want to be making those calls.

What’s important is that our customers don’t need to manage their way through obsolescence on their own. We can bring our considerable experience and expertise to bear and help our customers come to the conclusions that are right for them.

Todd Stiefler

Todd joined GE from the world of Washington politics, and in no time at all has moved on to his second assignment, which sees him managing business development for the services GE is increasingly looking to offer to customers, including the Proficy SmartSignal predictive analytics software.

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